Four Area Growers Showcase Their Gardens in the 75th Annual Mahtomedi Garden Club Tour

For some, it’s the excitement of digging in the soil. For others, it’s the rewarding bloom of snow white dahlias unfolding in their yard, or watching the monarchs gently settling on the clusters of a Joe pye weed plant, seeing tender shoots poking out the moist dirt or the serenity of a waterfall, pond or stream near the house. For these Mahtomedi-area gardeners, the reason why they garden varies as much as the temperature variance of the seasons. But one thing they do have in common: They love gardens.

Ellie Bruner

Ellie Bruner got into gardening “probably because my mother was an avid gardener,” she says. “We grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, and she had a beautiful rose garden and an organic vegetable garden.” In the interim of moving to Minnesota, “I didn’t do much gardening,” she says. “I got into it through the St. Paul Garden Club. I learned a lot and put my knowledge to work here in these gardens.”

A stroll around the 11-acre property will take you past the old dairy barn, the backyard wetlands and on the other side of the house, a bridge takes you across the creek to the raspberry patch near the tennis court. The gardens are found on about three acres of the property.

When she and her husband moved to the property in 1975, “We started from scratch,” Bruner says. “We had a lot of buckthorn we had to get rid of first … then I had a fella give me a plan. I didn’t necessarily follow it,” she says with a laugh. Over time, her original plan has changed considerably as she experimented with the different areas of the landscape.

The wetlands behind the spacious backyard allow for Bruner’s “fall garden. The tall grasses look just beautiful, especially in the morning with the dew. The tips are shimmering like ice.”

“Basically, I like to see masses of color,” Bruner says, and has no shortage of flower varieties to keep visitors admiring for hours. “I have lilies, irises and roses, and a lot of clematis that do beautifully. Into the late summer, I’ve got the hibiscus. And I love dahlias, which are some of my favorites. They’re in full bloom [then] and they look absolutely gorgeous.”

As a member of the St. Paul Garden Club and Mahtomedi Garden Club, Bruner gets a lot of gardening inspiration. “We bounce ideas off each other all the time,” she says. “We’re always going to each other’s gardens.”

“Trees are very important to us here,” Bruner says. You’ll see maple trees to hearty magnolias and cottonwoods.

One of her favorites, the pagoda dogwood abounds in the shade garden.

“I just love the shape of it; it reminds me of a Japanese garden,” she says.

George and Monica Morin
White Bear Township

When George and Monica Morin moved to their one-acre lot in 1968, the backyard was just a thicket of Norway maple. “We had someone come in and clear a path so the kids could ride their bikes around the yard,” George says. “And that was the beginning of it.”

The gardens, about 15 in total, have evolved from many different plants and flowers incorporated over the years. In the garden’s earlier stages, “We discovered one of our sons had started building a pond in the backyard,” Monica says. Today, the pond is a permanent stone fixture complete with a waterfall, adding to the serenity of a backyard sanctuary in the city.

From there, the pair has planted gardens around the house, adorning the front yard and winding around to the back, a delightful secret garden you wouldn’t know was there without exploring. Paths, over 1,000 feet long, wind throughout the gardens and take you on an adventure past trilliums, moccasin flowers, yellow lady slippers and a unique collection of ferns. Spot the Asian lantern statue, engraved stones with Chinese proverbs and a beautiful statue of the white stone lady bending toward the earth.

The pair each like to add things that make the garden their own. “George loves to do things with lights,” Monica says. “The Japanese maple near the pond has a light on it, so until midnight there are nice lights over the pond, so you can sit back there and listen.”

“We always plant new things,” George says. “We collected all the hostas we can.” Over 250 grace the gardens. “Every year we add a few things and get rid of a few things,” George says. One of Monica’s favorite parts about the garden is the cycle of rebirth. “There’s something about coming through the winter and seeing the little plants come up in spring,” she says. “And you say, ‘Oh, you did make it.’ There’s just this pleasure to it.”

Reid Smith

From the vibrant red Frank Lloyd Wright–style house, to tiered hillside gardens overlooking the nearby golf course, to the tropical flowers and creatures sharing the property, there’s no shortage of things to wonder at in Reid Smith’s gardens.

Smith, who bought the property in 1998, says he “started planting immediately. There was nothing here, not even a petunia,” he says. “Just the house and grass on one-and-a-half acres.”

Now, visitors can enjoy a winding pathway through the grasses to observe the wildlife and native plants, and stroll up the hillside to admire the various blossoms and a fabulous view from the top.

“When I bought the property, it was just a wasteland,” Smith says. “So it was a big 10-year job.”

Both a designated wetlands and bird habitat, the unique property allows for native plants to thrive and a wealth of creatures to make their home in them. A number of wood duck and birdhouses rise above the marshy grasses and give shelter to tree swallows, great crested flycatchers, blue birds and chickadees.
“Mine is a wild place,” Smith says.

“It shows that even in Minnesota, this abundance of blooming power and bird life can be achieved. You could do this in the South, where I’m from, very easily.

But to have that intensity here, is my goal.”

The patio near the house is an unexpected oasis and brings that touch of the South. “I have a lot of annuals and tropicals here,” Smith says. “Dipladenia in pink, mandevilla, these are oleander, and hibiscus,” he says, pointing out the varieties. “The hummingbirds and the orioles love the tropical plants.”

The beauty of the grounds is the harmony achieved through four differing environments. “You have the mesic, which is half-water, half-dry and then you have the wet plants,” Smith says. “Pollinators go between the hillside to the mesic, to the wet and then there’s the prairie, so it’s like four zones that work together. So that is what I tried to create,” Reid says. “I feel like I’ve achieved that.”

Diane and Bob Hagstrom

Along the Hagstrom’s Grant property, a small half-acre native garden borders the road with a wooden sign reading “Bob’s Prairie.” The prairie is the first welcome to the sizable yard containing lots of surprises dotted throughout the grounds. The several acres near the house contain as many as 17 different cottage gardens, an English style of garden showing clusters of flowers and beauty informally falling into place on the landscape.

For the Hagstroms, the process of putting the gardens together was both a little strategic and a little spontaneous. As trees fell down one by one, the pair would decide to make a garden in their place.“They are all different sizes, all with different flowers,” Diane says. “And Bob has a wonderful vegetable garden.”  

Each garden has a special name, like the “Garage Garden,” where the spruce tree had to be taken down, or the East Gardens, each spot its own exclusive retreat with its own personality. Walking to each garden allows visitors to absorb the sunlight peeking through the property’s woodlands.

Diane’s affinity for gardening grew out of her upbringing. “My dad always had gardens, and I loved spending time with my dad,” Diane says. “I think it’s genetic. I took the course for master gardening in ’79 [from the University of Minnesota],” Diane says. “I just love to work in the soil, and to plant new things and watch how they grow.” Freshly picked bouquets of dahlias or gladiolas from the gardens often find their way into the house.

The patch on the other side of the house provides nourishment for monarch butterflies. “We plant a lot of plants for butterflies: Verbena bonariensis, Joe pye weed,” Diane says. “The monarchs will only lay their eggs on milkweed.
I love to go out midsummer and see the pure white eggs that lay there.”

Diane lights up as she talks of her blossoms: “I can’t imagine not having gardens if you love them.”

Deep Roots
Digging into the history of the Mahtomedi Garden Club.

A place to connect with other lovers of things growing and green, the longstanding Mahtomedi Garden Club is a hub for gardening education, meeting other gardeners and becoming involved in community activities.

First known as the Lincoln Town Garden Club, the group was originally formed in 1943 and had 23 charter members who were all interested in meeting other gardeners. “It was a small group,” current president Mary Kiel says. “They decided to meet in each other’s homes and wanted to learn more about gardening.”

At the time, members paid dues of 35 cents to join the affiliated Minnesota Horticultural Society and receive its publication. Guest speakers came to the Lincoln Town Garden Club and presented topics ranging from growing fruit to planting victory gardens.

In May 1946, the first garden club plant sale was held. Club members donated the plants and the event took place on a community member’s own front porch. The plant sale was a success and has continued every year thereafter.
In November 1952, the group officially became the Mahtomedi Garden Club. Today, the organization is still going strong with over 90 members, and follows its tradition of meeting and socializing with other gardeners, promoting horticultural education and beautifying the community. The club will celebrate its official 75th anniversary in June.

You can find members meeting monthly at the Mahtomedi District Education Center from September through April.
The Mahtomedi Garden Club welcomes people of all ages who are actively involved or interested in gardening. “The club allows people to make new friends and socialize around gardening and community,” says Kiel, who became club president in 2016. “We have members who are longtime gardeners, and those who are just beginning. It’s a place to learn and share and get to know other gardeners. People want to belong to the Mahtomedi Garden Club because we do things that enhance the community and are good for the environment,” Kiel says.

The garden club hosts several fundraisers each year to support gardening education and ongoing projects, like the sunflower growing contest for local third- and fourth-graders, plantings at Triangle Park and City Hall. The fundraisers also support grants given to members of the public who want to beautify the community. Recent grants have been awarded to the Mahtomedi High School Eco Club who purchased native seeds to be planted by students, Mahtomedi Community Education to install protection for the new white pine seedlings planted around the athletic fields, and the White Bear Center for the Arts to continue to develop their gardens.

Every May, the club hosts a plant sale Mother’s Day weekend in Mahtomedi, which includes locally grown annuals and hanging baskets, as well as perennial divisions from member gardens. The club also coordinates the garden tour fundraiser folks look forward to every June. Over a four-hour period, people can follow the addresses listed on the tour ticket to admire the blossoms gardeners have tended so well, while meeting friends, neighbors and new acquaintances along the way.

Mahtomedi Garden Club Tour

Catch the gardeners listed, plus several more, in the 75th Anniversary Tour this June 24. Tickets will be available for purchase beginning mid-June at Lila & Claudine’s Yarn & Gifts, at the Mahtomedi Farmers Market or online at the website here.