Creating a Whimsical Garden

No plan required
Kay Minor uses cut bamboo stalks to add visual interest to the garden, as well as to provide support for other plants.

The fence surrounding Minor’s garden, made of rebar and metal, sets the whimsical tone for her garden. It also helps keep her two papillons in the yard behind the Elizabeth home.

KAY MINOR did not have a plan. 

She had no idea how to tackle the ho-hum landscape of the bungalow in the Elizabeth neighborhood she purchased with her husband, Peter, in 1991. Rather than waiting to craft a plan, she put her spade in the dirt and set to work.

The garden has undergone several transformations over the past 24 years, but Minor has never started digging with a specific outcome (or landscape plan or plant list) in mind. Instead, she experiments with color and function on a whim.

“The garden is where I express my creativity,” she says. “I don’t sit down and think about how things should be; ideas just come to me.”

She purchased a metal sculpture from an artist in Asheville and thought the artwork looked like a choreographed dance when it bobbed and turned in the wind. So she built a slate “dance floor” around the installation.

The sculpture is one of several pieces of outdoor art in the garden. Colorful mosaic statues and birdbaths pieced together from found objects are scattered throughout the space. On the porch, an old door serves as the platform for an outdoor bed, and a clawfoot bathtub tucked into a corner of the backyard serves as a nursery for sick plants.

Even the fence around the front garden is whimsical. Fashioned from a combination of rebar and metal art pieces, it serves a dual purpose: keeping her two papillons from escaping and setting the tone for the garden, which is both beautiful and low maintenance. Minor insists it doesn’t take a lot of work to tend to the curving gravel paths, clustered plantings, and secluded seating areas.

“I don’t want to be a slave to the garden,” she explains.


Minor used Spetchley Ivy to cover the archway in the garden. The vine is also called “Gnome Ivy,” and is among the smallest ivies.

MINOR GREW UP ON A FARM in Charlotte and worked at several nurseries and hardware stores, where her interest in gardening grew. She turned her passion into a landscaping business. For Minor, designing gardens is more than a vocation; the work provides inspiration—and often pieces—for her own garden. 

While driving to a job, Minor spotted a discarded metal glider on the curb. She hoisted it into her truck, found a matching glider during a flea market at Metrolina Expo, and created a seating area. The focal point: a concrete fountain that Minor received from a neighbor in exchange for help in the garden.

“There is no shortage of junk and big ideas in my garden,” she says.

To add interest to the small strip between the sidewalk and the street, Minor tore out the grass—there isn’t a blade of grass in her landscape, eliminating the need to mow or maintain a lawn—and placed gargantuan black pots in its place. Some might find the scale of the pots, which were once used at Northlake Mall, intimidating, but Minor believes the oversized planters, like other offbeat pieces in the garden, offer great form and function. They now hold a rotating selection of colorful plants.

Minor enjoys her garden with Maddy, one of her two papillons. She insists her outdoor oasis doesn’t require much upkeep, and believes it helped her heal after a recent illness. “I’ve been tending to the garden for years; now I feel like it’s tending to me,” she says.

“Every bit of space is used for something,” she says.

In the backyard, a mirror hanging on the fence between two wooden benches—gifts from Peter—reflects light into the shaded space and makes the secluded seating area feel like an outdoor room. 

As the tree canopies grew and shaded the yard, Minor struggled to keep sun-loving plants thriving. Instead of giving up, she improvised. Herbs are planted in a wheelbarrow perched atop the wheels of a vintage baby carriage that can be moved around the garden as the sun shifts.

“The thing I like about gardening is that it changes all the time,” she says.

In the garden, Minor is as aware of the shifting seasons as she is the shifting sun. Colorful bulbs burst into bloom in the spring along with peonies and roses; in the summer, salvia, Joe-Pye weed, and ironweed provide pops of color, while attracting butterflies, birds, and bees. In the fall, Japanese maples turn from green to golden orange and red. When winter arrives, the boxwoods show off their structure and the daphne come to life.

“I wanted the garden to be interesting in every season,” she explains. “I’d rather be outside, in the garden, than anywhere else, and every time I walk outside, I want there to be something beautiful to see.”

Minor ensures her garden looks lively in all seasons, with different colors and textures, by selecting plantings with different bloom times. These photos show the garden in summer.

The couple even installed a wood stove in one corner of the original cinder block shed. That shed was updated with new windows, a raised roof, and colorful paintings of botanicals on the exterior, creating a cozy spot for Minor to enjoy the garden when the weather turns cool.

“Unless there are things in the garden that say, ‘Come sit here,’ or, ‘Come smell me,’ you won’t want to be outside,” says Minor.

There is so much that beckons in Minor’s garden. She spends a lot of time there, calling it a place that speaks to her soul.

After a recent illness, Minor couldn’t wait to leave the hospital and get back to the garden. She recuperated on the door-turnedporch swing and regained her strength while listening to the gurgle of the fountains.

“Everybody needs a place to recharge; it’s my little piece of heaven,” she says. “I’ve been tending to the garden for years; now I feel like it’s tending to me.”



Categories: Feature, Outdoor Living