Marge Hols, former Pioneer Press gardening columnist, dies at 86

Of the glass conservatory she added to her home on Summit Avenue, Marge Hols writes: “The conservatory was designed by St. Paul architect Kathy Olmstead, built of mahogany by Tower Leisure Products Ltd. in Tewkesbury, England, and shipped here in a thousand pieces — or so it seemed.” (Craig Lassig / Special to the Pioneer Press)

Just before another gardening season began in Minnesota, Marge Hols received an unexpected diagnosis: She had pancreatic cancer — Stage 4.

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, were gifted to friends and family; the topiaries were donated to the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory; other plants of distinction were part of a sale benefitting the St. Paul Garden Club, a nonprofit where Hols spent years volunteering and sharing her encyclopedic knowledge of gardening with others.

With more plants and flowers — and her family — by her side, Hols died at home on Summit Avenue in St. Paul on Saturday. She was 86.

“They say that when a person like Marge passes away, it’s like a whole library burns down,” said Deb Venker, president of the St. Paul Garden Club.

Her legacy is preserved in one library — a museum, actually: “The Hols Garden” was extensively documented by the St. Paul Garden Club and accepted in 2021 into the Garden Club of America Collection at the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Gardens. This means that the Hols Garden will be available for researchers to study — the planting list alone is pages long.

“As the Smithsonian points out, a garden can be ephemeral,” Hols said in an interview in 2021. “Here today, gone tomorrow.”

SNAPDRAGON & ZINNIA SEEDS

Once hidden behind a buckthorn hedge, the front yard of Marge Hols' home on Summit Avenue now greets passers-by with an English cottage look, including this wild columbine.
Once hidden behind a buckthorn hedge, the front yard of Marge Hols’ home on Summit Avenue now greets passers-by with an English cottage look, including this wild columbine. (Craig Lassig / Special to the Pioneer Press)

Gardens can linger in our memories, too, and that includes the childhood garden of Marjorie Schmidt.

“I grew up in a walled garden in Northampton, Mass.,” Hols wrote in a Q&A submitted to the Smithsonian archives. “My mother, Helen Schmidt, was a lover of nature and gardening. Among my earliest memories is planting snapdragon and zinnia seeds in the garden border. My love and knowledge of wildflowers grew as Mother and I went for walks in woodlands and fields.”

This green thumb loved words, too: An English major in college, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and worked most of her life in journalism and communications, including a newspaper in Massachusetts and a magazine (Scholastic) in New York City. She was also a speech writer and, from 1984 to 1993, served as director of communications for the Metropolitan Council. This is when gardening became therapeutic.

“The garden became a peaceful refuge,” Hols recalled in 2021.

It was quite a refuge — both the garden and its house: Known as the George and Emmalynn Slyke house, it was designed by architect Peter J. Linhoff and built in 1909 for the wholesaler and his family. The grounds were reworked in 1916, when the Slykes used their swimming pool as a foundation for a house they built for their son. By the time Hols and her family — husband David Hols, an attorney, and their two children — moved to the original house in 1968, their side of the divided-up grounds had lost its original grandeur. A cement dog run was removed, as well as a tall buckthorn hedge and some big American Linden trees.

Besides 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 were just passing by as they walked their dogs.

“Because our home is in a historic district,” she wrote in her submission to the Smithsonian, “we wanted the landscape to be visible and appropriate.”

She would spend the next half-century shaping this landscape: In the front yard, the formality of the iron fencing contrasted with the cottagey charm of the lilacs and azaleas. A woodland garden, a nod to Hols’ childhood, was tucked away on the side. In the back yard, a tiered bluestone terrace was framed by a glass conservatory on one side and a screen porch on the other. Even the garage alley was not overlooked, with a garden she pruned last fall.

‘PLANT GEEK’

Marge Hols at her home and garden in St. Paul on Monday, May 24, 2021. (Craig Lassig / Special to the Pioneer Press)
Marge Hols at her home and garden in St. Paul on Monday, May 24, 2021. (Craig Lassig / Special to the Pioneer Press)

It was after her retirement that Hols really leaned into 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 as a member to maintain and improve public parks), started a garden design business and wrote “Garden Paths,” a gardening column, for the Pioneer Press from 1998 to 2007.

Each week during the growing season, Hols would provide our readers with helpful checklists, such as this one for June 1998: “Wait till the garden dries out before working in it. If you walk on soil when it’s wet, you’ll reduce oxygen available for plants. You also could spread disease among plants by brushing against wet foliage.”

What did she enjoy about gardening? It was always about learning and knowledge; the challenge of growing things in this cold climate (“I am a plant geek,” she wrote). It also helped keep her young; she never lost her muscles: “I love being outside doing something so challenging and satisfying every day,” she said.

‘CANNOT GO ON FOREVER’

Marge Hols prunes the shrubs in her alley garden in St. Paul in early October 2021. (Courtesy of Ginger Pinson)
Marge Hols prunes the shrubs in her alley garden in St. Paul in early October 2021. (Courtesy of Ginger Pinson)

“My husband, David, is fond of paraphrasing Stein’s law as, ‘Anything that cannot go on forever must eventually stop,’ ” Hols wrote in her farewell column in 2007. “Now, it’s my turn to cite the law. After 10 years of writing this column, I’ve decided to stop … I’ll miss visiting with Twin Cities gardeners, learning from them and passing on their experiences and their astonishing pool of garden wisdom to you.”

She never stopped learning from her fellow gardeners, or sharing what she knew. In May, she assisted the Pioneer Press in finding local gardeners to interview for an article on “No Mow May.” After the article was published, she shared other 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 I am being treated with chemotherapy. With my son’s help I did manage to start quite a few annual and native seeds, but my gardening activities will be reduced. The lilac leaves started popping open yesterday. A late, but welcome, spring.”

Spring is over, summer is here. A funeral wreath, designed by Leitner’s and given to the family by the St. Paul Garden Club, hangs on the front of the home; its black ribbon lets passers-by know the family is grieving. But Hols’ flowers are still blooming in the garden, including the Forget-Me-Nots.

“This garden is her legacy,” said her son, Brian Hols. “We will make sure it goes on.”

Besides her husband and son, Hols is survived by her daughter, Jennifer Hols; her daughter-in-law, Susan Hols; two grandchildren, Olivia Hols and Shavon Hodges; and a brother, John Schmidt. A public memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on July 19 at the Landmark Center, 75 W. Fifth St., St. Paul. In lieu of flowers, memorials are preferred to the St. Paul Garden Club, the Minnesota State Horticultural Society or the Second Harvest Food Bank.

A mourning wreath, created by Leitner's for the St. Paul Garden Club (SPGC), hangs from the home of Marge Hols in St. Paul on June 21. 2022. Hols died on Saturday, June 18, of cancer at age 86. "The Mourning Wreath is a symbol to the community that the family is in mourning," the garden club wrote in an explanation. "Because Marge Hols was such a vital member of the Saint Paul community and member of SPGC, we wanted to honor her with this symbolic gesture with all that this symbol represents." The shape represents the circle of life; evergreen -- which survive in winter -- are symbolic of strength and triumph over death, he black of the ribbon illustrates grief. (Molly Guthrey / Pioneer Press)
A mourning wreath, created by Leitner’s for the St. Paul Garden Club (SPGC), hangs from the home of Marge Hols in St. Paul on June 21. 2022. (Molly Guthrey / Pioneer Press)