Kevin Hughes gave his wife a fountain for her May 2014 birthday.
Little did he know the fountain would be the start of an expansive zen garden with stone paths, structures, shade-loving plants and carefully placed treasures.
Laureen’s first thought? “I figured I’d stick the fountain between trees,” said the former teacher and personal trainer who has a can-do spirit. “Then, I couldn’t mow around the fountain. Within two weeks, I moved it out 10 to 15 feet. I decided to contact the guy who did our granite countertop and see if he would make stepping stones out of scraps. He even blow-torched them so they wouldn’t be too slick to walk on.”
The serene, Asian-style garden fans out from the Hugheses’ covered side porch.
“It’s kind of a fun evolution,” said Laureen, walking through the garden. “It started because we couldn’t grow grass in the shade. We seeded and aerated. It would look great till the end of May, and we had a $300 water bill every August. Grass would come up and die. A guy combing three hairs over his bald head — that’s what it looked like.”
The latest additions are a firepit and a $3,000 cedar moon gate near the garden’s far end. The moon gate or moon arch is a traditional architectural element in Chinese gardens. The plan was to get an arc-topped torii gate until Laureen found the moon gate trellis structure online. She had a Padgett Building and Remodeling carpenter put it together.
“Holy smokes,” Kevin said. “We hired a professional to install it. I stayed home from work and helped him.”
I will work out here 12 hours a day. I spend my whole summer out here. It’s good exercise. It’s healthy to be outdoors. It’s healthy to keep your mind and hands occupied.
Laureen Hughes on her zen garden
The firepit came after the moon gate.
“So I can have fire coming up out of the ground,” Laureen said, “coming up over the moon gate.”
The Hugheses live in a brick ranch on an acre lot with a lake in back in O’Fallon. They updated much of their 41-year-old home three years ago, giving the exterior a Craftsman-style look, redoing the fireplace and wall around it, adding stone in the foyer and putting in a state-of-the-art kitchen. Back then, Laureen compared the projects to opening Pandora’s box.
The zen garden grew much the same way.
“I (put in) a lot of granite all by myself,” said Laureen, who expanded the garden several times, using stones to mark new boundaries. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I will work out here 12 hours a day. I spend my whole summer out here. It’s good exercise. It’s healthy to be outdoors. It’s healthy to keep your mind and hands occupied.”
She often asked Kevin, a retired Marine Corps colonel, to help when he got home from his Civil Service job at Scott Air Force Base.
“I’d say, ‘Honey, can you change your clothes and dig this hole for me?’ It takes him 10 minutes to do what I would do in an hour. He would say, ‘There is no zen in this garden for me.’”
Kevin understands his wife’s process.
“She’s out there working and she has an idea and just goes with it,” said Kevin. “She has moved plants countless times. I was the beast of burden. I did the heavy lifiting.”
Laureen and Kevin, who have grown children and grandchildren, pick up things for the garden when they travel. Shells from South Carolina. A trilobite fossil from a Nauvoo rock shop. An orthoceras fossil from Branson, Mo. Petoskey stones from Lake Charlevoix, Mich.
“I have rocks from all over the world,” she said. “I’ve mailed rocks from Ireland. ... Rocks are the oldest things on earth. When I see rocks, I see history.”
At night, the garden glows from lanterns on battery-operated timers that hang from trees and sit atop small stone piles or cairns.
“My way of creativity is seeing something I like and incorporating it,” she said. “I wouldn’t do well doing this for a living. I have to see it and be visually and artistically stimulated, finding a way to use it. I like little surprises — walking around the corner and finding a Buddha head.”
Or discovering small ceramic fish in the fountain. Some are blue and white; others orange.
“A girlfriend bought me the two little orange ones.”
And what is that tangle of roots? Rose of Sharon roots that Kevin dug up on the other side of the house.
“If you use them in the right place, they look really good,” Laureen said.
“I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’” said Kevin. “I just tore these things out of ground.”
During the process, the Hugheses had a couple trees cut down, including one that was leaning over the garden.
“(The area) was starved for light,” said Laureen. “After we did that, it was a whole new canvas. I got more stones and doubled the size of the garden. I laid it out with stones. I am like an artist who has to see it.”
Laureen mixes common plants with less common. Hostas, ferns and miniature lariope share garden space with azaleas, corkscrew rushes and feathery Japanese maple trees. Small boxwoods define paths and tie in with boxwoods in front. A limelight hydrangea, grafted onto a stick to make it taller, pokes above its shorter neighbors.
“Next year, these hostas, Empress Wu, will get 5 feet wide,” she said. “They will really blossom out. Shrubs will have gotten their flowers. Everything is done in purples and pinks.”
A staghorn fern, a woodland plant purchased from Starr Greenhouse in Belleville, grows from a coconut.
“In the wild, you will find them growing out of rotten tree trunks,” she said.
Then, there’s the red dragon purple contorted filbert tree.
“You can see how windy the branches are,” she said. “What a cool tree. It wintered over in the Market Basket greenhouse. They buy really unique plants there. It might get 10 feet tall. Its character is in its corkscrewy branches, and it did have one filbert.”
Before Laureen bought it, she went online to see a mature filbert tree.
“It looks like something out of a haunted forest. I like something unique.”
Just right for the Hugheses’ zen garden.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Kevin of the space. “As you’re out looking at the lake from the patio, the garden adds a lot more beauty. It was scruffy-looking grass before. Nothing did well. Now, we have this zen garden kind of feel. It feels like you’re in another world.”
A world they delight in sharing.
“It was just a walk-through garden, then I moved a bench out,” said Laureen. “Every time I’d look for my son, he’d be sitting on the bench, enjoying the view. People find their spots that are places of peace for them. ...
“Yesterday, my 8-year-old grandson was playing hopscotch on stones by the fountain.”
- No need to be grand scale: “Even starting with a little row of rocks or stones and a fountain, it’s a start. It’s still your happy place on whatever scale.”
- One step at a time: “It doesn’t have to be a finished project. It can be ongoing as it is for me.”
- Consider your location: “If you have a sunny area, you can do things with color. If it’s shady, look for plants that grow best in shade. That’s simple, but that’s it. If you have arid conditions, yuccas and hostas are pretty drought-resistant. Where water collects, use plants that like a lot of moisture.”
- Adding inexpensive plants: “Look for sales. When you wait till July and August to do things, people mark things down.”
- Nursery personnel are a big help: “I go in often and am on a first-name basis. They offer a wealth of information. That’s why they are there.”