Handmade creek serves as a focal point for Duluth backyard retreat
DULUTH — A cool breeze rolls off the leaves that quiver in the morning wind and into the cracked-open bedroom window on the backside of the house in the Lester Park neighborhood.
Songs of the birds accompany another sunrise as the couple inside awakes to the constant trickle of a small stream they call Keenan Creek.
From behind the walls of their home, Carrie and Scott Keenan relish in the oasis they created in the small backyard layered with plants of various colors and textures.
"The inspiration really came from Carrie," Scott said. "When I married her 24 years ago, she was the gardener, and I transformed."
For the past 15 years, he's played an active and excited role in the garden's expansion, though the couple prefer to look at the space as more of a backyard than a garden.
His introduction to keeping a backyard started with digging, said Carrie, who started gardening with her grandmother at a young age.
Before the couple married, Scott already lived in their home on Oneida Street. His first landscaping project under Carrie's direction included planting. Next, he planted three rose bushes along the foundation of the house. For awhile after, each new addition was just another hole he had to dig, he said.
Soon, he would start initiating the projects, and about 10 years ago, he decided the backyard should have a creek running through it. With Carrie's approval, he started digging until the clay-based soil became so tough that he needed to bring in a backhoe.
Now, a pump keeps water flowing down the creek they built with rocks and lined with plants. This wasn't the first homemade contribution to the backyard. Twenty-one years ago, Carrie began building the two-story playhouse that still stands today.
"I always wanted to be an architect, and I always enjoyed working with wood," she said. "It just kind of adds some depth to the yard."
So with the help of her 6-year-old granddaughter at the time, the two set out to build the playhouse with only a hammer and a circular saw, collecting more power tools over the four years it took to complete.
The finished playhouse has served as a retreat for the grandchildren, who range about 20 years in age. A couple of grandchildren attempted a sleepover in the little building, only to end the night short when they smelled a skunk. Another grandchild asked if he could move into the playhouse to avoid having to move schools.
'A big stress-reliever'
Their backyard hosts more than just kid dreams and childhood imagination. It's a space to keep in touch with old friends, host family gatherings and even raise money for a charitable cause.
Twice now, Scott has auctioned off an evening in their backyard to help support University of Minnesota Duluth men and women's sport scholarships. The highest bidders received a small garden party at the Keenans, accompanied with a full course meal and live music.
Scott, a retired race director for Grandma's Marathon, said he waited until the right moment to tell Carrie what he had done after auctioning off their yard the second time in 2015. Organizing a successful dinner could become daunting.
"It was way too much food and way too much wine, but we had fun," he said, with a grin.
Though Carrie enjoys the gatherings, it's the quiet, reflective moments among the flowers and plants that mean the most.
"It's a big stress-reliever," she said. "You can come out at the end of the day and forget about everything bad that happened."
Flowers stir up memories for Carrie, and she often walks around reminiscing on the stories behind each one. The hollyhock flowers sprouted out of the seeds collected from her grandmother's property. Other plants grew from the seeds she purchased on vacations in Vancouver or California.
A tree even came from Carrie's mother, who gave each of her children money to plant one in her memory before she died. Carrie chose an apple tree, one of three in the yard.
Although no explicit vegetable garden sits on their property, the couple has no shortage of food growing. They plant a range of edible goods scattered around the property: raspberries, blueberries, grapes, rhubarb, cucumbers, herbs.
Scott finds some of his greatest garden enjoyment in the birds that pass through, whether for the water, shelter or bird feeders. He considers himself an amateur birder.
Every day feels like a vacation in the backyard, the couple agreed, and the trick to a happy garden means keeping it small enough to stay manageable.
"We have enough to keep us occupied," Carrie said. "You have too much, and it keeps you from enjoying other things in life."