Garden Retreat

A backyard designed for outdoor entertaining and relaxation makes staying at home more desirable than ever for this West Des Moines couple.

Annual water lilies open early in the morning and usually stay open all day in John and Cyril Mandelbaum’s West Des Moines water gardens.

Writer: James Augustus Baggett
Photographer: Duane Tinkey

John and Cyril Mandelbaum

For Cyril and John Mandelbaum, making the world a better place starts in their own backyard. The couple purchased 14 acres of mixed woodland and prairie in unincorporated Polk County (now West Des Moines) more than 50 years ago and have transformed it over the years into a series of gardens and water features surrounding a contemporary 4,500-square-foot home John designed himself. Each spring, 20,000 deer-resistant daffodils enhance the views.

The Mandelbaums are familiar figures in Greater Des Moines. John’s the developer behind Mandelbaum Properties, and Cyril is a trailblazing accountant specializing in business valuation. Both have been involved in numerous community organizations.

When these parents of three grown sons were ready to tackle their landscape, they turned to landscape architect Ted Lare of Ted Lare Design Build & Garden Center. “Cyril and John have a great respect for their land and the beauty of the things that occur naturally,” Lare says.

“My job was to work with the elevation changes and natural water runoff, to respect the existing trees on-site and to create a good circulation path that works well with all patterns of walking through the space,” he adds. To meet those goals, he created a walkway constructed with limestone flagstone and stairs made of stone found in Iowa and Wisconsin.

Changes in elevation facilitated the need for retaining walls and accent rocks—glacial granite boulders quarried from Dickinson County. Next came the fun part: incorporating water features, including four ponds. Lare created water movement that intertwines with walkways and flows from pond to pond, creating streams, small falls and reflections from many angles and views. Perhaps most importantly, the water features provide a tranquil soundtrack enjoyed from the patios and the screened-in porch overlooking the garden.

Originally, the Mandelbaums stocked the ponds with koi. “But after about three years, we had a mink visitor who scooped my favorite fish out and laid him on a rock, preparing for a delicious dinner,” Cyril recalls. “John ran out and shooed him away, but the next morning all our fish were missing.”

The next year, they purchased only small fish, “but they met the same fate,” Cyril says. “We no longer have fish, but we do have the occasional water lily.”

Beds and borders are packed with hardworking perennials, ornamental grasses and blooming shrubs that soften the stones and hardscaping and attract bees, birds and butterflies.

“Native plants have always been important for my garden,” Cyril says. “Most important are deer-resistant plants as we have an abundance of wildlife here,” including wild turkeys, fox, muskrat, raccoon, mink and birds.

During this past year of social distancing and staying at home, the Mandelbaums gained a newfound appreciation for their backyard retreat. “Seeing how the gardens transform over spring to fall gives us daily pleasure,” Cyril says, adding that she has two favorite spaces: the lower patio and the screened-in porch.

There, “I can admire the flowers while reading in a bent birch rocking chair,” she says. “I appreciate my home and gardens now more than ever.”

Native purple coneflower attracts butterflies and pollinators and their prominent seedheads draw finches and feathered friends well into winter.

A series of gardens surrounds the 4,500-square-foot contemporary home on the 14-acre property.

Tens of thousands of spring-blooming daffodils fill the fields surrounding the home.

Glacial granite boulders quarried from Dickinson County in northwest Iowa were used to create the garden’s water features.

Changes in elevation below the main wooden deck were created among existing trees using retaining walls and accent rocks. The spaces are planted with hard-working perennials like sedum and black-eyed Susan and accented with colorful containers of annuals, including fan flower and coleus.

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