Best overall winner: John and Maureen Lalley, Ruxton

Creating a beautiful garden isn't a matter of luck. The winners of this year's Baltimore Sun garden contest prove it takes knowledge, artistry — and a strong back.

These gardeners hoisted paving stones, moved heavy pots and cut logs from fallen trees in their quest to create beautiful spaces where they could relax, reflect and spend time with friends.

Best Overall: John and Maureen Lalley, Ruxton

John Lalley's children surprised him with an unusual Father's Day gift: They nominated his and his wife's garden for The Baltimore Sun's garden contest.

"The garden is a constant source of pride and inspiration for its owners and has become the focal point of a beautiful suburban property," they wrote.

Lalley, who sells commercial telephone systems, and his wife, Maureen, a real estate agent, have created flower beds bursting with color and a formal vegetable garden so immaculate that it provides not only nourishment for the body, but also for the soul.

Lalley describes the couple as "accidental gardeners. … We really didn't know what we were doing."

When they moved to the 1¼-acre property 31 years ago, the Lalleys inherited gardens created by previous owners. "We were kind of forced into it, but we really started to enjoy it," he says.

At first they simply tried to maintain the gardens that existed. But as the years passed, the couple's confidence and ambitions grew. They eventually tore out the old beds and replaced them with their own. They attended classes, drawing particular inspiration from Atlanta-based landscapers Hugh and Mary Palmer Dargan, who produce a website called Landscape Your Life.

A couple of years ago, the Lalleys became more serious about their gardens when they had to dig up large portions of their yard to replace a water line and, at about the same time, prepare for a daughter's wedding at their home.

In the center of their front yard they created a perennial garden featuring lavender, coneflower and roses surrounding a cherry tree. Beds along the perimeter of the property include day lilies, phlox, butterfly weed and ornamental grasses. Hosta, Solomon's seal and creeping Jenny are among the plants tucked into shady areas.

But the outstanding feature of the Lalleys' gardens lies behind an enclosure of boxwoods, where the couple created a vegetable garden with tomatoes, peppers, chard and other edibles laid out in formal grids and walkways. A plum tree provides a focal point to the garden.

At one end of the garden a waterfall cascades into a goldfish pond beside a shed with a porch for summer dining.

Lalley has recently been studying composting by using earthworms. He started with 10 worms from the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service and now has thousands. He feeds them shredded paper from his business and takes the compost they create and seeps it in water to create a compost tea that he applies to his gardens.

With most of the front yard now as they want, the couple is turning their attention to the backyard.

"I'd like to create a way to walk the property and enjoy," Lalley says. "I'm envisioning something that combines walls, large boulders, perennial bushes and flowers."

Lalley says he knows it might be several years before his vision becomes a reality, but gardening has taught him patience.

"It's really is fun to see these results evolve slowly over time," he says.

Favorite plants: wolf eyes dogwood, hydrangeas

Advice: John Lalley advises gardeners become knowledgeable about soil conditions and to have a design plan before they begin. "It is really nice to have a game plan in mind rather than just digging in the dirt," he says.

How the contest was judged

The gardens were judged on plant variety and health, overall design and sound environmental practices. Judges included Susan Reimer, a Baltimore Sun columnist and master gardener; Ellen Nibali and Christine Pfister-McComas, horticulture consultants at the University of Maryland Extension's Home & Garden Information Center; and Liz Atwood, The Baltimore Sun's former home and garden editor.

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