Just before another gardening season began in Minnesota, Marge Hols received an unexpected diagnosis: she had stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
So Hols, the former Pioneer Press gardening columnist, spent most of the spring not digging in the dirt but undergoing cancer treatments. She also began letting go of her extensive collection of houseplants: some, including her orchids, have been given to friends and family; the topiaries were donated to the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory; other standout plants were part of a sale benefiting the St. Paul Garden Club, a non-profit organization where Hols volunteered for years, sharing her encyclopedic knowledge of gardening with others.
With more plants and flowers — and her family — by her side, Hols died Saturday at her home on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. She was 86.
“They say when a person like Marge dies, it’s like burning down an entire library,” said Deb Venker, president of the St. Paul Garden Club.
Her legacy is preserved in a library – actually a museum: “The Hols Garden” has been extensively documented by the St. Paul Garden Club and was added to the Garden Club of America Collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Gardens in 2021. This means that the Hols garden will be available for researchers to study – the list of plants alone is pages long.
“As the Smithsonian points out, a garden can be ephemeral,” Hols said in a 2021 interview. “Here today, gone tomorrow.”
LION DRAGON & ZINNIA SEEDS
Gardens can also be remembered, and that includes Marjorie Schmidt’s Childhood Garden.
“I grew up in a walled garden in Northampton, Mass.,” Hols wrote in a Q&A filed with the Smithsonian archives. “My mother, Helen Schmidt, was a nature and garden lover. My earliest memories include planting snapdragons and zinnia seeds in the garden border. My love and knowledge of wildflowers grew as Mom and I walked in the woods and fields.”
That green thumb loved words, too: she majored in English, earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut, and has worked most of her life in journalism and communications, including for a newspaper in Massachusetts and a magazine (Scholastic) in New York city . She was also a speechwriter and Director of Communications for the Metropolitan Council from 1984 to 1993. This is when gardening became therapeutic.
“The garden became a peaceful retreat,” Hols recalled in 2021.
It was quite a sanctuary – both the garden and his house: Known as the George and Emmalynn Slyke House, the house was designed by architect Peter J. Linhoff and built in 1909 for the merchant and his family. The site was transformed in 1916 when the Slykes used their swimming pool as the foundation for a house they were building for their son. When Hols and her family—husband David Hols, a lawyer, and their two children—moved into the original home in 1968, their side of the divided site had lost its original glory. A concrete dog run was removed, as was a tall buckthorn hedge and some large American linden trees.
In addition to creating an oasis for her own family, part of Hols’ mission was to share the beauty of a home on one of America’s most historic streets with the community — even if some of them just walked by while walking their dogs.
“Since our home is in a historic neighborhood,” she wrote in her contribution to the Smithsonian, “we wanted the landscape to be visible and appropriate.”
She spent the next half century designing this landscape: In the front yard, the formality of the iron fences contrasted with the rustic charm of the lilacs and azaleas. A woodland garden, a nod to Hols’ childhood, was tucked to the side. In the backyard, a tiered bluestone patio was framed by a glass conservatory on one side and a porch on the other. Even the garage alley wasn’t overlooked, with a garden she trimmed last fall.
After her retirement, Hols really turned to gardening: she studied horticulture and landscape design at the University of Minnesota, became a master gardener, served as president of the St. Paul Garden Club (and volunteered to be a member to preserve and improve the public Parks), founded a garden design business and wrote Garden Paths, a gardening column, for Pioneer Press from 1998 to 2007.
Each week during the growing season, Hols provided our readers with helpful checklists, such as this one for June 1998: “Wait for the garden to dry out before working in it. If you walk on wet ground, you reduce the oxygen available to plants. You could also spread diseases among plants by brushing against wet leaves.”
What did you enjoy about gardening? It was always about learning and knowledge; the challenge of growing things in this cold climate (“I’m a plant freak,” she wrote). It also helped her stay young; She never lost her muscles: “I love being outside every day and doing something so challenging and satisfying,” she said.
“CAN’T GO ON FOREVER”
“My husband David likes to paraphrase Stein’s law like this: ‘Anything that cannot go on forever must end,'” Hols wrote in her 2007 farewell column. “Now it’s my turn to quote the law. After writing this column for 10 years I have decided to stop… I will miss visiting the gardeners of Twin Cities, learning from them and passing on to you their experiences and amazing knowledge of the garden.”
She never stopped learning from or sharing her knowledge with her fellow gardeners. In May, she assisted the Pioneer Press in finding local gardeners for interviews for an article on “No Mow May”. After the article was published, she shared more news with us: “The news here is not good,” Hols wrote on May 1. “In February I was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer and am being treated with chemotherapy. With my son’s help I managed to plant some annual and native seeds but my gardening activities are being reduced. The purple leaves started to open yesterday. A late but welcome spring.”
Spring is over, summer is here. A funeral wreath designed by Leitner and gifted to the family by the St. Paul Garden Club hangs at the front of the house. His black ribbon lets passers-by know that the family is in mourning. But Hol’s flowers are still blooming in the garden, including the forget-me-nots.
“This garden is her legacy,” said her son, Brian Hols. “We will ensure that it continues.”
In addition to her husband and son, Hols is survived by her daughter Jennifer Hols; two grandchildren, Olivia Hols and Shavon Hodges; and a brother, John Schmidt. A public memorial service will be held at 11:00 am on July 19 at the Landmark Center, 75 W. Fifth St., St. Paul. Instead of flowers, memorials are preferred to the St. Paul Garden Club, the Minnesota State Horticultural Society, or the Second Harvest Food Bank.