It's just a humble red cottage near Manito Park, so small that it's barely noticeable amid all the lovely homes in the neighborhood. But come spring, the yard bursts forth in a profusion of color, with blossom-heavy roses draping the arched front entry while jasmine and honeysuckle and mock orange twine their way skyward. The enchanting overgrown brick pathway beside the house winds to a cottage garden fantasy beyond, where benches beckon and birdsong fills the air. A sunken water trough reflects the overhanging greenery, while a laughing Buddha nearby raises his arms in joy. In the far corner, hidden by foliage and blooms, hangs a full-size rope hammock, just waiting to caress away those few remaining stresses.
Heaven on earth? Well, it wasn't always this way. Five years ago, when Andee Carlsson moved in, the yard was barren, except for three or four trees in back -- and 17 truckloads of debris.
"This was a dog-run yard," she remembers. "It was sort of half grass, half dirt, with no landscaping at all."
After hauling away the piles of bark and brush, Carlsson started hauling in compost, some two-and-a-half tons worth. She was working full-time then, so her gardening came along in fits and starts, beginning with an eight-foot square vegetable patch. She moved lots of plants over from her previous home and gained more when some friends decided to thin their collection of antique roses. Each year, she acquired more plants -- from seeds, cuttings, and from other gardeners -- along with pots and accessories on sale that caught her fancy. And like any organic living thing, the garden grew, often as much by accident as by design.
"I brought a sod cutter in and it ran away with me," she recalls with a laugh. "I was going to make a square thing, but by the time I stopped it, I had made this curve."
Now the yard is full of curves and sweeps and layers of growth. Due to the muddiness of the yard when she began, Carlsson built a curving boardwalk leading from the center of the yard to her planting bench by the side door. Today, the path meanders under vine-covered arches and through a dense thicket of perennials, without a glimpse of mud in sight.
Around the perimeter, Carlsson planted lilacs and other ornamental shrubs to shield the view from neighboring yards; burlap and bamboo sheathing helps, too. The yard holds a full range of sun exposure, from all-day sun to total shade, so she's been able to try a wide variety of plants. And although it seems like there's always something in bloom, Carlsson insists that she doesn't put lots of effort into planning.
"If I have something that looks nice, it's just kind of a fluke, it's not because I've planned it," she laughs. "And I'm glad. Mostly, I was focusing on what would need sun and shade."
Carlsson lived at Tolstoy Farms near Davenport from the mid-'60s to the late-'80s, where she and the rest of the community raised vegetables and fruits, so she's no stranger to gardening. Later, she entered social work and has held a variety of positions in the field. Now she says flowers and trees are her horticultural love; she has one tomato plant but buys the rest of her produce at the farmers' market. Her garden is now an aesthetic retreat.
"I wanted to make it a private place for me, because I miss being in the country," she says. The lush growth turns the yard into a sanctuary, while birdhouses and birdbaths invite the avian neighbors to drop in. "I wanted the birds, so I've got water around, and they're here all the time. They like the sound of the water."
Indeed, the garden's sounds are nearly as enviable as the visuals. Once the human visitors settle down, the birds move in. City noises fade to the background.
"Yesterday, I laid out here in the hammock and read for hours," Carlsson says. "I'm so happy back here. It feels like I'm far away."
Surprisingly, Carlsson does not own the little red cottage; she has been renting for the past five years. She says some people question her wisdom in making such an investment where she holds no ownership stake.
"I know, it's kind of stupid, but it makes me happy," she explains. "I'm not going to worry about it. I wanted to have a nice place to be, and I really do have that here. Now the things I like to do are to go on trips and to be in the yard and read. It's a pretty good life, huh?"