Sandy Lester grew up gardening alongside her mother, a horticulturist who owned a successful business selling roses, daylilies, and irises, some of which she hybridized herself. She learned a lot, but all the toil made Sandy and her siblings swear they would never have gardens of their own.
Gardening was in their genes, however. After he retired, Lester’s brother hybridized daylilies, and her sister fills her deck with flowers. Lester herself plants, tends, and continues to redesign the extensive gardens that surround the Plymouth house she bought in 1967.
Back then, the lot—a former cornfield—was flat and nearly treeless. “My mother couldn’t believe I’d bought a house in an empty field,” Lester recalls. The two of them planted trees and shrubs to enclose the yard before adding a couple of small gardens. The real landscape transformation began in 1988 when Lester hired Garden Images of Rosemount to help her create tiered gardens in the front yard.
Packed with ligularia, anemone, lungwort, black cohosh, bee balm, astilbe, phlox and other perennials and annuals, Lester’s English country gardens have a wild, carefree feel—which is just what she wanted. “My mother’s garden was very formal, very structured, and I wanted mine to flow and look like it had been there for years,” she says. One of the ways she achieved that was by planting perennials in groups of three or five, as is often recommended, to create large masses of color rather than a patchwork of stand-alone specimens. Partial to pastels, some of her favorite plant combinations are pink phlox with white lilies; white phlox with blue-hued catmint and pink roses; and red-flowered persicaria ‘Firetail’ with white hydrangea and blue ‘Souvenir d’André Chaudron’ catmint.
Lester, a University of Minnesota Master Gardener, has always done most of the work in her gardens herself, though she continues to call on Garden Images when it’s time for major overhauls. And three years ago she called in a landscape architect to help out when her backyard shade gardens became hot and sunny after a huge silver maple came down in a storm. “That tree was over 100-feet tall and was such a focal point,” she says. “It was like losing my right arm.”
An airy gazebo now sits where the tree once stood. Around it, curving paths of lush green grass lead off to different parts of the garden, including a small pond and an expansive island bed of perennials and peonies that creates the lovely view from the 8-foot window Lester had made for her bedroom. Across the lawn and down a hill toward the driveway is the newest addition to the landscape: a small potting shed, looking like something out of a storybook with its planted window boxes and garden beds designed to scale.
Amish-made, the dainty shed has turned out to be more of a playhouse for neighborhood kids and Sandy’s grandchildren. “But I do keep some gardening supplies in there and a wine cart because I like to use it for entertaining,” she says. Though her yard is off the main street, she likes to share her gardens with people who want to stroll through. “I’ve told neighbors that they don’t need to call me. Just feel free to visit. All summer long I have people wandering through the garden, and I like that. A garden is to share.”
Garden Outside the Box
One of the most striking things about Sandy Lester’s gardens is her use of plants that are out of the ordinary, like persicaria ‘Firetail’ and ‘Golden Arrow’, rodgersia, black cohosh, ligularia ‘The Rocket’, toad lilies, hardy hibiscus ‘Fireball’, ‘Souvenir d’André Chaudron’ catmint, and ‘Marshall’s Delight’ bee balm.
Most garden centers carry strong sellers, leaving out plants that gardeners might love if only they could find them. If you’d like to add something out of the norm to your gardens, try visiting smaller local plant sellers and shopping online. Before you buy, do your homework by reading up on plant options for our climate. A couple of good resources are: Growing Perennials in Cold Climates by Mike Heger, Debbie Lonnee, and John Whitman, and Landscaping with Native Plants of Minnesota by Lynn Steiner.