A St. Paul Garden Oasis

A beautiful and lush, green garden outside a home exterior in St. Paul.

Terraced beds welcome visitors to the Mercers’ 19-century Victorian.

John and Leslie mercer both grew up on farms, helping their mothers and grandmothers garden. But they didn’t realize they shared a passion for gardening until they began working on the bedraggled yard that encircled the St. Paul home they bought more than four decades ago.

They started out slowly, adding only a large window box to the front of the house while they were busy renovating their 131-year-old home and raising two daughters. Next they moved on to container gardening, keeping things manageable while going on lots of garden tours to gather ideas. With no overall plan in mind, they began replacing small sections of their lawn with gardens. Gradually, John and Leslie managed to eliminate their turf grass entirely to create a landscape that includes many large specimen trees, a pond, an assortment of annuals in containers, a wide array of colorful perennials, and more than 200 varieties of hostas.

A bright pink Star Gazer daylily.

‘Star Gazer’ daylilies thrive in the backyard.

“Hostas were our first real foray into perennial gardening,” John says, explaining that he learned about them after joining the Minnesota Hosta Society in the early 1990s. Today, they grow a variety of hostas, including ‘Guacamole’, ‘Key West’, ‘Patriot’, ‘Stained Glass’, ‘Captain Kirk’, ‘Empress Wu’, ‘Mouse Ears’, ‘Pandora’s Box’, and ‘Curly Fries’.

A shady path is flanked by hostas leading to the backyard of John and Leslie Mercer's St. Paul home.

Pots dot the shady path leading to the backyard.

While some areas of the yard are sunny, much of it is now shaded by mature trees, including a Skyline honeylocust, a magnolia, a hackberry, and a Katsura, an underused shade tree native to Japan and China. After the perennial flowers fade, Leslie and John create contrast in their shade gardens with plants like ‘Sun King’ spikenard, which has striking chartreuse foliage. They also like astilbe, dwarf goatsbeard, lungwort, brunnera, and coral bells.

A collection of large, specimen hostas are the main attraction in the front yard’s terraced perennial beds, along with tree lilies, which provide great color and can grow as tall as 6 to 8 feet in a couple of years. “Neighbors always comment on the smell of the lilies, and they’ll stop just to take in the aroma,” John says. Boulevard gardens include pollinator-friendly perennials such as black-eyed Susans, coneflower, ligularia, sedum, daylilies, roses, anise hyssop, and milkweed.

A collection of colorful perennials, including daylillies, cone flowers and astilbe.

The backyard bursts with colorful perennials, including daylilies, cone flowers, and astilbe.

With the exception of some front yard design ideas from Scott Endres and Dean Engelmann (before they opened Tangletown Gardens) and local garden writer Marge Hols, John and Leslie have done all of the work on their gardens themselves—save for a bit of heavy lifting for which they’ve hired helpers. Learning as they go, John takes photos of the garden from year to year and Leslie keeps a journal so they remember what has worked and what hasn’t. “I also keep track of what I never want to see in my garden again and what I just can’t grow here in our climate, like lavender and Japanese maples,” she explains.

 A white ceramic pot with a coleus plant inside.

Leslie Mercer fills containers with tropicals and coleus plants.

Leslie excels at growing and propagating coleus. She experiments with varieties such as ‘Mariposa’, ‘Sedona’, ‘Envy’ and ‘Molten Lava’ in her gardens and containers. In late August she takes cuttings from the ones she likes best, roots them in a mixture of potting medium and vermiculite, and puts them under grow lights in their basement. John, who grew up in Florida, is passionate about tropicals and overwinters an ever-growing collection of elephant ears, banana plants and voodoo lilies, including a 5-foot-tall voodoo lily they call “Old Warty.”

Leslie creates container arrangements for the patio along the side of the house that leads to the backyard. Shaded by trees, the inviting space also includes a small sitting area, fountain, and some of the many whimsical metal sculptures they’ve collected on their travels.

 A secret koi pond in the backyard of John and Leslie Mercer's St. Paul home.

Beyond the backyard patio and through the gate is a surprise: a koi pond lush with ferns and hostas.

Beyond the patio, the backyard was intentionally designed to include surprises. “We like how you open a gate and there’s a surprise, like the koi pond,” John says.

By Meleah Maynard. Photos by Tracy Walsh


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