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Ryan Johnson, Published September 21 2013

Secret garden: West Fargo home boasts sprawling, intricately landscaped backyard

WEST FARGO - Paula Simley said she doesn’t have to leave home to be in the right place each Sunday.

“If we don’t get to church, it’s kind of like a little bit of heaven right here,” she said.

Paula and her husband, Lute Simley, have turned an undeveloped lot that backs up to the Sheyenne River into a “retreat” that gives them the comforts of a lake cabin right in West Fargo.

They bought the land in 1996, when it was nothing but trees and dirt.

But in the hands of the homebuilding couple of 40 years who own Paula Rae Homes, it has become a relaxing oasis that continues to evolve today.

“It was just solid trees when we bought it,” Lute Simley said. “When we built the house, we just handpicked the trees out that we needed to remove to be able to build, and then we left everything else.”

The 3,000-square-foot home was designed to put the focus on outdoor living, even if they’re indoors, he said.

The kitchen, dining room and living room all face the river, and the view from the master bedroom that walks out onto a wrap-around deck on the back of the house boasts the Sheyenne in the distance.

But the intricate landscaping throughout the large lot steals the show, making it hard to want to stay inside when there’s so much to explore.


The looped driveway that runs in front of the Simleys’ house, located at 118 50th Ave. E., gives visitors an enticing glance at the meticulous planning that went into making this lot a home.

An entry garden grows to the left of the front door, with railroad ties holding back the raised landscaping and bunches of hostas.

Two swings are nestled among trees in the front yard, a favorite place for the Simleys’ two young granddaughters to bide their time when they visit.

But the front of the lot doesn’t betray the serene world the Simleys have created in back – and that’s by design.

“Our goal was if people drove by and didn’t really notice we were here, that would be fine,” Lute Simley said.

A path that runs along the east side of the house takes visitors past the entry garden, narrowing into a walkway made of Perrington Pavers – the bricks that formerly lined downtown Fargo streets, forgotten in a heap in a city employee’s yard until Lute Simley repurposed them – that leads to an arbor made from native ash trees.

Another arbor, this one purchased at a flea market and covered in white clematis flowers that bloom each September, continues the path toward the river, passing by a large iris garden that comes alive each June.

But getting off the path is a necessity to notice all of the details in this yard, whether it’s the grinding stone that was used by Paula Simley’s grandfather that rests below a big tree or the tepee made by Lute Simley that allows an unknown big weed that sprouted in the backyard to climb to its full potential.

“There’s things that grow that you don’t even expect, but they just come up by themselves,” he said.

Paula Simley said the rule of thumb is simple – “If they don’t look like weeds, we let them be.” That applies even to plants that are a nuisance just about anywhere else, like the large cow parsnips the Simleys couldn’t resist when they spotted North Dakota’s largest weed growing in a ditch near Horace.

“We just love the looks of the leaves,” Lute Simley said. “They kind of look tropical, and in June they get a big flower.”

The Simleys have a knack for finding a fitting use for just about anything, including a set of old columns that formerly hid augers that now are wrapped with birch branches and hops, separating the backyard from the walkway that runs along the Sheyenne River.

Apple trees come in handy toward the back, providing a sweet snack before the path continues toward the little fishing hole dubbed “Dutch Harbor” that lies along the riverbank about 8 feet below the yard level, accessible only by a ladder leaning up against the embankment.

Lute Simley said he and his two granddaughters often have luck catching catfish, walleyes and other fish in the river, downstream from Lake Ashtabula and teeming with life.

He created a fence this year to keep visitors safe and avoid an unintentional spill down to the riverbank below, but said he wanted to make sure safety wouldn’t obstruct the view of the river.

Instead of a traditional fence, Lute Simley used rebar and rope. Grape plants eventually will grow high enough to mask the barrier – and make for good homemade wine.

The riverside walkway leads to the west side of the yard, traveling past a bed of ferns imported from the riverbank and another arbor made of hog panels.

Or take another path, this one cutting through the ferns and leading through an old church window standing on the ground that now serves as a doorway, accented by colorful lightning rods from old buildings.


The trail on the west side of the yard continues past the Garden House, a shed designed to look like a miniature house that stores the tools that keep the yard looking its best.

Not far away, Lute Simley gets some golf practice in each day from a golf tee that lies across the yard from a flag he can aim for, the perfect practice for his three-quarter lob shot.

Two chairs made of willow branches provide a place to rest and admire the view before continuing into a forested trail that leads to another hidden gem – the so-called Enchanted Forest that acts as a buffer between the driveway and the neighbor’s property.

Many of the plants in the forest were growing there when the Simleys purchased the lot, and the added ferns and hostas add to the atmosphere of the hidden retreat.

A winding path under the cover of old trees leads to the Fairy Village that ends at the Crystal Tree, a favorite hangout for the granddaughters in the summer.

The Enchanted Garage that lies just on the back edge of the forest provides more storage for the Simleys to stash away their homebuilding equipment and model furniture. A balcony leads off the top floor of the garage, designed to give the impression it’s a tree house. Eventually, Lute Simley said he’d like to clear a couple more trees from the yard and add a zipline that could quickly take him from the balcony to the backyard.

He said there have been a lot of perks to living “off the beaten path,” including a lack of streetlights that makes it easy to get impressive views of starry skies while gathering around a campfire and the wide variety of birds that find a calm place to eat in this riverfront yard.

Still, he said the work to add new seating areas, antique decorations and landscaping continues 17 years after they bought the property.

“We’ll change things every year, and we take everything in each year and if we see opportunities to do other things, we’ll do that,” he said. “I would say it’s going to evolve over time.”

Paula Simley said their tranquil setting has become more beautiful each year, even as they’ve watched new houses and entire neighborhoods pop up on this once lonely southern edge of West Fargo.

“There’s just something about it that you feel like you’re living in a park almost,” she said. “Even as busy as it is around us, it’s really a retreat.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587