Vietnam veteran, wife create backyard oasis


Story and photos
By Christine MacIntyre
Staff writer

Neal Carlson, 73, lives in Jackson with his wife Bonnie in their own nook of paradise. Large picture windows provide them the perfect view of their picturesque backyard as they drink coffee and enjoy breakfast together each morning.

Several people have stated that the Carlson’s backyard oasis is magazine-worthy; however, they dedicate their efforts not for show but for a space they enjoy and love.

It all began with a few rocks encircling a miniature pond and a weeping willow tree, of which the stump remains a strategic component in the landscaping. Neal, a retired Vietnam veteran who suffered the loss of his leg during his stint in the U.S. Marine Corps (1966 – 1969), discovered he was intrigued by rocks – in particular, pudding stones. As the couple added more rocks and expanded their workspace, “Neal would move the rocks, then move them again, and do it several more times,” says Bonnie. As it became a hobby for Neal, he says, “I kind of got carried away with [the rocks].” (More below)

Since then, the Carlson’s purchased a slice of neighboring property and expanded their backyard space which now features several themed areas, including safari, farm, tropic, and wildlife. Bonnie contributes her knack for decorating and her creative eye. “She always knows exactly what’s missing and what would fit well in each area,” says Neal. So lawn ornament critters, a gazing ball, an old-fashioned water pump, strategically placed signs, and even a waterfall with running water are found among the space.

The outdoor playhouse was handmade by the Carlsons and was dedicated to their grandchildren’s enjoyment.

An assortment of unique free-by-the-road finds, refurbished/repurposed items, and unique handmade treasures add character and charm. Bonnie recruited some of their grandchildren to assist by utilizing terra cotta pots for various scenes filled with miniature people and various trinkets.

Two ceramic geese are an example of items found for free at the end of a neighboring driveway. “Neal saw those and thought, instead of paying a higher price for new ones, why not take the time to fix these up?” says Bonnie of her husband, who spent years in the construction business. As a result, Neal could fix chips and cracks, repaint, and restore the geese to a fresh, lively state. “He’s sort of the animal doctor around here,” says Bonnie of her husband’s handiwork.

Squirrels, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, chipmunks, butterflies, and even an occasional groundhog are among the variety of (real) critters found among the Carlson’s landscape.

Neal also built several components of the landscaping, some with the help of Bonnie, such as birdhouses, a roof that covers the outdoor bench swing, a kids’ playhouse with French doors and working lights, and an outhouse. He also dug up the area two years ago and replaced the old materials with plastic and pea stone which he says helps deter weeds and leaves.

As Neal writes out a list each morning, the project has become a sort of ritual, naming the tasks he needs to accomplish in the space that day. Daily tasks include feeding the animals. “We see all kinds of wildlife out here,” he says. “We truly enjoy watching all the little critters. It’s a reminder of God’s many blessings for us.”

Squirrels chase each other through and around the vegetation, then up their small ladder leading to food. Woodpeckers, chipmunks, hummingbirds, and even the occasional groundhog enjoy the serenity found in the space.

The couple agree they enjoy a beautiful life together. While they have both endured obstacles along the way, they are content and happily enjoying every moment. The Carlsons were junior high school sweethearts; however, life carried them each their separate ways until fate brought them together again decades later. Having each been married once previously, Neal gathered the courage to ask Bonnie if he could call her after seeing her at the bank she worked at and where he banked. They have been married for 10 years now. (More below)

The couple has seven grandkids and recently became first-time great-grandparents. “It’s such a joy to watch the younger grandkids enjoy the space now that some of the others have outgrown,” says Bonnie.

Neal says he thinks the space is almost finished . . . for now. “I am planning on staining the deck and repainting the garage floor.” Bonnie, smiling, says, “Most mornings after breakfast, I tell Neal, ‘Have a good day, Hunny. See you this evening,’” as he heads out to the backyard to tinker.

Neal says now that he is retired and finishing the landscape, he is unsure what he will do with his time. However, he does know he will continue enjoying the fruits of his labor with his beloved wife, walking his dog Ginger, and continuing to give thanks for blessings God has bestowed on their lives.