Seems there’s always a party going on in Mike and Judy Cunningham’s yard, and that’s just how they like it. Whether it’s a few guys tipping back cold ones in Mike’s garage-turned-Irish pub, or a white-tablecloth wedding for 300 guests, their 1-acre wonderland is the center of their lives.
“It’s our treasure to share,” said Mike of the gardens and 1938 farmhouse in Shoreview, Minn., that he and Judy have been working on since 1980.
“It was primitive when we started,” he said. The property, once part of a 15-acre farm, included a flat-roofed home and a then-unremarkable yard that had lots of potential. With four active children, the family used the front lawn as a soccer field and turned the back into a hockey rink.
After a tornado took out 13 mature oak trees in 1998, the void spurred the Cunninghams to begin creating a bolder vision for their property.
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The result is an outdoor haven that now includes three ponds, multiple shade gardens, a roomy fire pit area and meandering flagstone paths.
In the front yard, Judy’s collection of more than 50 birdhouses mingles with doors, ladders and other flea-market finds. Family heirlooms, including Mike’s grandfather’s sharpening wheel, are nestled among the mature trees and freely growing shrubs, native grasses and more than 50 varieties of hosta.
The showpiece is a 5,000-gallon backyard pond, brimming with koi fish, aquatic plants and the gentle purr of a four-tiered waterfall. As if in a fairy tale, a two-story white clapboard playhouse sits alongside the pond, and now welcomes a second generation of tiny footsteps as the Cunninghams’ six grandchildren romp around what they consider their “personal park.”
Mike, 60, retired three years ago from Sysco MN, a food distribution company, where he was a senior vice president of operations. The oldest of nine children whose family has lived in Shoreview since the early 1900s, he credits his Uncle Ray, a self-taught biologist and naturalist, with fostering his love of landscaping, hunting and wildlife management.
In his youth, Mike and his siblings raised crows, red foxes, red-tail hawks, golden pheasants and chickens. With his uncle, Cunningham raised giant Cecropia moths, and banded and released hundreds of wood ducks.
Judy, 61, who retired from Marshall Fields’ furniture division, is the second oldest of six children. She grew up on a small farm in northern White Bear Lake, and her love of the land came from her father and grandfather, who were dairy farmers. The couple joke that with 100 family members, every familial gathering is an instant party.
But the Cunninghams welcome any opportunity to bring people to their varied outdoor spaces, which they describe as “unique rooms” they have created.
For the past 15 years, the couple have hosted a chili potluck that now includes a charity food drive to honor Mike’s brother, Jim, who was struck and killed by a train in 2011. (Jim’s memorial garden in their side yard is Judy’s favorite spot to read or meditate.)
Judy serves up 30 gallons of chili, while Mike slings hamburgers. Guests bring a side dish to share and something to donate. This year, the Cunninghams delivered 600 pounds of food and a cash donation to the White Bear Area Emergency Food Shelf.
Their gardens have served as a backdrop for graduation photos, birthdays and three weddings. For one daughter’s nuptials, the Cunninghams erected Roman pillars, brought in theater seats and hired violinists to serenade the couple.
After hosting a party for the Minnesota Water Garden Society several years ago, one woman on the tour asked the Cunninghams if she might bring her husband back to take a look. The couple returned that evening with a bottle of wine _ and spent a few hours hanging out around the fire pit and listening to the waterfall in the background.
“We loved it,” Mike said, thinking nothing of having perfect strangers hang out in their backyard. “We like to share. We didn’t do all this to hide it.”
When the Cunninghams set out on their landscaping adventures 35 years ago, there was plenty of trial and error.
“We did a lot of re-dos,” Judy said. “Every spring I’d point something out: ‘I want that moved and that moved. ...’?”
Said Mike: “We didn’t ever have a plan. If we see something we like, we get it.”
In 1999, the couple took on their first pond project, a small oasis for the front yard. They dreamed bigger for their second project four years later, and decided to tackle it themselves after an estimate came in at $31,000.
“We read a lot of books and watched a lot of HGTV,” Mike said of the project, a 26- by 15-foot tour de force with a rolling waterfall. They ended up spending $6,000, plus a lot of sweat equity.
The Cunninghams see their evolving yardscaping as a way to pass on their love of the outdoors to their children and grandchildren. They’ve built wood-duck nesting boxes together and delight in the sight of ducklings jumping out in the spring to visit the pond.
“There are nicer gardens out there by far,” said Mike. “But we see it as our hidden paradise. We want it to be a place for our friends and family to hang out and experience.”