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photos by Lauren Krysti
Trios of Korean boxwood shrubs flank the entry to the back garden, where large urns of black-eyed Susans add interest to both sides of the bluestone walkway. Lime 'Paul's Glory' hosta lightens the bed beneath a 'Leonard Messel' pink magnolia.
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Marge and David Hols added the English conservatory to their 1909 house in 2000.
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Pots of annuals surround a weathered teak chair that David Hols built.
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Master gardener Marge Hols says her 1909 English Tudor villa needed English cottage–style gardens. “The style of the house called for wrought-iron fences and gates and a bluestone terrace and walkways,” she says.
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A large collection on Minnesota-hardy ferns complements flowering perennials in Marge and David's woodland garden.
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From left to right: Wood Fern (known for its lacy fronds), Lady Fern (gets its name for the cluster of leaf spores said to resemble a lady's eyebrow), Maidenhair Fern (has light, feather leaves that add a delicate texture to the garden), Sensitive Fern (tolerates both sun and shade, but its name is a nod to the plant's intolerance of cold temps).
Bluestone paths slip through the gardens at the St. Paul home of Marge and David Hols on historic Summit Avenue like a secret note passed between school children. Their furtive flow cedes center stage to the thousands of plants—especially flowers—Marge has devoted the last 48 years to growing. There’s fun along the way: the shadow games of a ‘Golden Shadows’ pagoda dogwood’s variegated leaves, rounds of peekaboo played by the now-you-see-them/now-you-don’t paths and feisty planted borders that brush up to Marge’s favorite chartreuse lady’s mantle and purple verbena, which she grows from seed.
“The home is a 1909 English Tudor villa, and it needed English cottage–style gardens,” she explains. But nothing as quaint as those framed by white picket fencing. “The style of the house called for wrought-iron fences and gates [added in 1992] and a bluestone terrace and walkways,” Marge says. And flowers in glorious abundance.
Her work was literally cut out. When she and David bought the property nearly a half-century ago, its only landscaping comprised a double row of buckthorn hedge. “Which I eventually ripped out,” laughs Marge, a master gardener who for many years wrote a garden column for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and who opens the couple’s gardens for public tours several times each year.
What began as a backyard project has yielded so much more. A front perennial garden now runs along the north fence line. Facing a public sidewalk, it treats passersby to a heady dose of colors, shapes, and scents. Tucked up close to the front facade, plantings of magnolia, yews, rhododendrons, and tulips embroider a hemline along the home. Borders of perennials and shrubs frame the property along the east and west.
A wildflower garden on the shady east side of the house adorns the 80-by-220-foot lot with blooming color that changes with the seasons. “I never rake or fertilize the woodland plants. I allow them to just duke it out and self-seed,” Marge says. An array of ferns thrives where grass and sun-loving bloomers struggle.
“I have to have flowers, but I’m also beginning to plant more and more foliage. I love the interplay of the foliage—the contrast between the large heart-shaped leaves of the wild ginger and the lacy leaves of the maidenhair fern. There’s so much you can do with leaf color, like that of the ninebark ‘Amber Jubilee.’”
But it’s the flowers that are closest to her heart. “I can’t wait each year till the bloodroot blooms—it means winter is over.”
If the summer breeze is right, the sweet fragrance of roses beckons from the 60-foot alley garden Marge planted along the property’s south edge. Here, 10 varieties of shrub roses, including the beautifully mellow, butter-color ‘Yellow Submarine,’ sprawl across an old brick wall and the original carriage house. The alley features the new columnar serviceberry, ‘Standing Ovation,’ and bears testament to hardy native plants the likes of blazing star, purple coneflower, and black-eyed Susan, which suggest an English garden in spirit if not in species.
No space is left unadorned. In fact, when growing space ran out, Marge wanted more. “When I told David I wanted a greenhouse, he said, ‘Why? This whole house is a greenhouse!’” But Marge prevailed. Sixteen years ago, a local architect designed a conservatory to mimic the roofline of the house, and the couple had it constructed in England and shipped back to Minnesota. “Almost all of the conservatories built here are made of aluminum, and we wanted wood,” she explains. The resulting English conservatory, crafted from Philippine mahogany, was a game changer.
“It has changed my life in winter,” Marge says. “It faces south and gets full sun and allows me to play with my plants. It makes winter bearable.” Just as important to her, it looks original to the house. It opens onto upper and lower bluestone terraces where more plants are stationed in containers during mild weather.
Marge’s expansive gardens include familiar names like dusty miller, hardy geraniums, and Shasta daisies, but they also embrace cultivars (new plant varieties) created by horticulturists at the University of Minnesota. Marge looks forward to trying her luck with each season’s newbies. So the question becomes: Is there anything she won’t grow? “Although I may like their appearance, there are plants I don’t grow in my garden because they’re thugs and don’t play nice with their neighbors. Examples are gooseneck loosestrife, downy yellow violet, and Virginia waterleaf.”
Marge’s green thumb may not be apparent on any given chromosome, but there’s little doubt it’s somewhere in her DNA. As a 3-year-old growing up in Massachusetts, she planted snapdragons and zinnias from seed alongside her mother, who tended a brick-walled garden. Jack-in-the-pulpit, which grew in her mother’s garden, was the first flower to fully capture her imagination. “I loved the name and the idea of Jack inside the spathe.”
But it’s memories of wildflowers that linger most fondly. “My mother would take me on wonderful excursions into the hills and woods looking for wildflowers and warblers, which we would identify with field guides,” she recalls. It’s only fitting that Marge’s favorite part of her plantings, the wildflower garden, is grown in memory of her mother. “It is my favorite place in the gardens. I have a bench where I can sit with a cup of tea and enjoy the lusciousness. But that’s not often. Usually I see something that needs to be pulled.”
Gardening for Marge is much more than watching plants grow. “I like to propagate plants. One of the first things I ask when I find a new plant is, ‘How can I make more of it?’” For example, when a leaf dropped from the begonia ‘Cowardly Lion,’ she immediately put it in her propagation tray and tried to root it. “Whether it’s from seeds, leaves, or cuttings, I try to make more.” And at the Hols home, there is much to make more of. “This is an ongoing project,” Marge says. “It’s my passion.”