Marge Hols, St. Paul’s gardener and columnist, dies aged 86

Discussing plants with Marge Hols often led to a tour of the expansive, exquisite gardens surrounding her Summit Avenue home. And talking perennials? For more than one gardener, that led to Hols insisting they take a few home.

A plant from Hols had a backstory written in careful script: its Latin name, the year it was propagated, when it might flower.

“She was so willing to be a teacher and to encourage gardening life — and all the joys and rewards of that pursuit,” said Deb Venker, president of the St. Paul Garden Club, where Hols was a “magnet for volunteers.” She definitely opened the garden gate.”

Hols, a master gardener and former Pioneer Press gardening columnist, died June 18, four months after receiving a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. She was 86.

Last year, the Hols Garden was included in the Smithsonian Institute Archives of American Gardens.

“Her garden will be her living legacy,” said her son, Brian Hols.

Actually several gardens that merge into one another. Hols cultivated an English cottage style garden in front, a woodland garden to one side and a perennial garden along the avenue. She filled her conservatory – designed by a local architect and crafted in England – with more than 100 plants including fuchsias, jasmine and citrus trees.

“These gardens were neighborhood learning beds and Valentines,” Venker said. “It was a gift to the neighborhood.”

Hols grew up in a walled garden in Massachusetts.

“My mother, Helen Schmidt, was a nature and garden lover,” she wrote. “One of my earliest memories is of planting snapdragons and zinnia seeds.”

Together they made “wonderful forays into the hills and forests in search of wildflowers and warblers, which we would identify with field guides,” she told Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.

Hols studied communications and journalism at the University of Connecticut. She wrote for a magazine in New York City before moving to Minneapolis, where she hosted a radio show at Dayton’s department store.

After working as a speechwriter, Hols joined the Metropolitan Council, becoming communications director.

“It wasn’t easy being a woman in a leadership role in the ’70s,” said Susan Haigh, former CEO of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, who was “just a baby advocate” at the Met Council at the time. “You had to be strong and she was. Let’s put it this way: you would never flatten Marge Hols.”

When she and her family — husband David Hols, a lawyer, and their two children — moved into their Tudor-style home, it featured a chain link fence, a concrete dog run and a 200-foot-thick buckthorn hedge that hid the property from the Sidewalk.

Disabled by a leg cast, she spent the winter of 1992/93 poring over a book on English cottage gardening and imagining her new front garden.

“Roses would fall over the iron fence,” she wrote in a 2001 column. “Bearded irises, phlox, bluebells and catnip would drift through the garden. Lady’s mantle, lavender, hardy geraniums and lamb’s ears would spill over the border.

“And now, nine years later, they still do.”

Her retirement in 1993 allowed her to delve deeper. She studied horticulture and landscape design at the University of Minnesota and earned a Master Gardener certification in 1996. From 1998 to 2007, she wrote Garden Path, providing seasonal checklists and answering readers’ questions.

Her writing, like her gardening, was meticulous.

Hols designed gardens for others, judged the Blooming Saint Paul program, and helped the city redesign Rice Park.

“She had a trained, perceptive, and detailed eye,” said Tony Singerhouse, senior landscaper for the City of St. Paul.

When he first met Hols, Singerhouse was intimidated by their formality. “But once we got into plants, boy, we made a connection.”

After learning she had stage four cancer, Hols doubted she would be able to grow her seedlings this spring.

But with her son’s help, she planted each seed with tweezers.

Hols’ survivors also include her brother John Schmidt, daughter Jennifer Hols and two granddaughters. A memorial service will be held at 11:00 am on July 19 at the Landmark Center in St. Paul.

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