Susana Nystrom, a native of the tropics, had a lot to learn about Minnesota gardening. Two decades later, her lush cottage garden is one of the prettiest in the city.
Twenty-one years ago, Susana Nystrom got her first look at peonies. She was horrified. “They were the ugliest flowers I’ve ever seen,” she remembers.
It was June, so the spent blossoms had collapsed on the ground and were turning brown. “I didn’t realize they were done for the year,” she says.
Susana laughs at the memory, but at the time she had a good bit of culture shock still ahead of her. She had just arrived in St. Paul, Minnesota, from her home in Ecuador. She and her husband, Billy, had brought 9-month-old Erica to meet Billy’s family. The young family intended to return to Ecuador after a few months, but they wound up staying in St. Paul. Over the next few years, Susana came to grips with a different culture and a different climate, and this native of the tropics not only thrived—she created one of the city’s prettiest private gardens.
When the Nystroms settled into their St. Paul home (which Billy’s grandfather had built in 1950), there were no gardens. Aside from the withered peonies, a few hostas, and some sad-looking foundation hedges, there was only a bit of ivy crawling up the side of the house and a lot of grass. Susana hadn’t gardened before, but she loved flowers, so that first summer she picked out some bright marigolds and salvia to bring color to her yard. She still remembers the shock she felt when the clerk announced the total cost: $30. “I thought, ‘That is so much.’ Because that’s what I made in a month in Ecuador.”
A few months later, Susana lived through her first Zone 4 winter. It was a long one for someone who had never known anything but tropical weather. “In Ecuador you have 12 months of sun,” she explains. “You have many beautiful flowers. And you don’t appreciate that until you come to Minnesota.”
When spring finally came, Susana was bowled over by the extravagant color and perfume of lilacs and other spring flowers—including the peonies that had disappointed her the summer before. Inspired, she turned over a tiny rectangle of lawn, about 2 feet by 9 feet, next to the garage and planted a few tomatoes, some marigolds, and a handful of other flowers. Susana didn’t yet know the difference between annuals and perennials, so she didn’t realize most of the flowers she’d planted wouldn’t survive to see the next summer.
The perennials she did have—hostas—didn’t exactly receive the red-carpet treatment. “I pulled them all out,” she says. The following year, when they came back, she pulled them out again. Eventually, she was down to one incredibly persistent variegated hosta, and that’s when she finally realized that hostas have their own subtle beauty. Today, waves of hostas spill out of shade beds next to the house and along walkways. Susana estimates she has ten or twelve different cultivars.
The garden grows
Over the next few years, Susana’s family grew—Erica was joined by Earl, Juan, and Maria—and so did her garden.
She enlarged the small garage garden and put in classic perennials like bee balm, garden phlox, and clematis. These days, the tumbling patch of purple and red blooms also includes fireweed. This Minnesota native is one of her favorites because of its long season of bright purple-pink blooms and its unique seeds, which have silky hairs like those in a milkweed pod. “The seedpods are like a curtain,” says Susana. “It’s really pretty to see them.”
At the front of the yard is another rollicking, multilayer flower bed with ornamental grass at the rear and alyssum and portulaca spilling out over a low stone terrace and onto the sidewalk. This used to be a low, steep slope where nothing wanted to grow—not even grass. At first Susana put a little pot of annuals out there—and her husband laughed. “It looked so out of place,” she recalls.
Billy, a carpenter by trade, brought her some stone and showed her how to read a level. She built a terrace and filled it to bursting with Russian sage, sedum, black-eyed Susans, and other hardy favorites.
Along the side of the house, Susana put in lush borders of hydrangeas, hostas, and coneflowers. Billy built an arbor, and she covered it with clematis and honeysuckle. She carved wide swaths of perennial beds at the edges of the yard, at the back of the house, and around a pergola and brick patio and walkway. The Nystroms planted a dogwood and pine trees (which they grew from seed). Susana trained a sweet autumn clematis to lie like an ornamental swag along her white picket fence.
At some point, one of Susana’s sons said to her, “Mom, you’re going to leave us without a lawn!” Susana just laughs at that—she says that even today, she’s only turned a little more than half of the yard into garden. She adds, still laughing, that she has also recently taken over the boulevard.
Of honor and dirt
A few years ago, a local gardener brought a dinner invitation to Susana’s door. She and her husband attended the awards dinner and had a great time, oblivious to the reason they were there. Someone had nominated their garden for an award—but the nominator only listed their garden by its address. When Susana heard the announcement for the prize—the Golden Bloom award— she was flummoxed. “But that’s our house,” she said to Billy. Then she was elated, but still modestly puzzled. “I don’t think anything of it,” she says of her gorgeous yard. “It’s just my plants that I planted, and I love them.”
Susana also doesn’t think anything of going to work at 4 a.m. (she does data entry) in the summer so she has time to garden when she gets home. “I love it,” she says. “I live in my garden. It’s just calming. I like the feeling of dirt and I like to see what grows. And I like to see the happy faces.” Passersby love her garden, she says—especially children, who sometimes stop and pick a few flowers.
Much has changed for Susana since that first summer. For one thing, peonies are now her favorite flower, bar none: “I absolutely love them,” she says. “The smell, the color…I cannot get enough peonies.” On the topic of northern gardening, she has gone from novice to expert. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is her enthusiasm. Her dedication, like her garden, just keeps growing. And she’s not done yet. Those wisteria vines she just planted near the front walk need an arbor to grow on.
Elizabeth Noll is senior editor of Gardening How-To.