Shari Taylor Wilsey and her teenage son Tyler were clearing out buckthorn and overgrown bushes in the yard behind their St. Paul home.
Then Tyler’s shovel hit something hard. “He yelled ‘There’s bricks under here,’ ” Wilsey recalled.
Before long, they had unearthed an antiquated brick pathway, which was part of the century-old home’s original horse paddock. Wilsey was elated.
“The path was shaped like a giant cross with four defined sections,” she said. “It could become the four-color garden I’ve always wanted.”
Wilsey’s vibrant gardenscapes were one of six winners chosen from more than 150 garden nominations received by the Star Tribune last summer.
Her garden makes a bold first impression, thanks to the cast-iron urns, filled with hot pink rose topiaries and unexpected spiky artichokes, that line her front walkway on St. Paul’s historic Summit Avenue.
Formal English-style boxwood hedges twist and turn through the backyard, shaping the pink, blue, yellow and white color-coordinated beds.
Together, Wilsey’s array of gardens fits the stately facade of her 1904 Jacobean-style home, where she’s lived with her husband, Roger, since 1999.
“I can’t do petite,” she said. “I like big and grand.”
Wilsey credits some of her gardening success to Tommy Brandt, her friend and gardening partner, who helps with fall and spring cleanup, digging, holes, pruning and deadheading, especially since her knee-replacement surgery.
“Gardening may be good for the soul, but it can be tough on the old joints,” she said.
Even after plotting and planting for 41 years, Wilsey still gets excited about each new growing season.
“Gardening gives you hope,” she said. “It’s an amazing miracle of what can come out of that barren, cold Minnesota ground.”
Shari Wilsey’s tips and tricks
How to create a showstopping planter
Don’t skimp on plants. Wilsey’s friends are always calling their pots “boring” compared with hers. “You have to pack the pot to get that lush ‘Wow!’ effect,” she said.
Favorite container plants
• Double Knockout rose standard in hot pink delivers a vertical focal point in her cast-iron urns. The plant is hardy only to Zone 5, so she trims the heads and overwinters them in a shallow trench in the yard, covered by straw bales.
• Vibrant neon pink zinnias.
• Artichokes for their exotic spiky foliage and periwinkle blue flowers in July.
• Pink double sun-loving “sunpatiens.”
• Amsonia Blue Ice clusters of star-shaped flowers.
• “Spillers” (plants with a trailing habit) include blue lobelia, chartreuse Algerian ivy, calibrachoa and Wine Red lofos vine.
Eye for design
• Wilsey, a retired interior designer, treats each garden vignette like an outdoor room. “Flowers are like artwork in the home,” she said.
• Create layers of colors, contrasting textures, shapes and size, grouping plants for impact.
Wilsey’s pink garden showcases plants chosen for different shades of pink, such as astilbe, cranesbill and Asiatic lilies. Place taller plants in back, and layer low mounding plants beneath.
• Add stunning structure, such as a dwarf magnolia tree, which produces an explosion of pink blossoms in May, signaling the start of spring. A row of arborvitae is an eye-pleasing backdrop and stays green all year long.
• Place a tall urn packed with plants or a statue in the center of a bed to “bring your eye up higher,” she said.
• Plot out bloom times for season-long color, from early spring to late fall.
• Sprinkle in surprises. Wilsey planted massive elephant ears for “umbrellas of green” among the coneflowers, zinnias and phlox in the white garden.
• Mix in natives such as Joe-Pye weed with other hardy perennials.
• Research books focused on Minnesota gardens to find out which cultivars and color schemes you dig. “Gardens are personal,” said Wilsey. “You can’t go wrong if you pick plants you love.”
Pathway to success
• For pots each spring, empty out half the old soil and top with new soil. Buy soil with fertilizer already in it or add Osmocote after planting.
• Start with healthy plants from the nursery.
• Envision what you want your beds and planters to look like, and overplant rather than underplant.
• Fertilize pots every three weeks.
• Water, water, water.
•Wilsey’s favorite garden resources are Leitner’s and Lilydale Garden Centers in St. Paul and Nature’s Harvest in Wayzata.
Six favorite plants and why
• Heracleifolia clematis for its dark green foliage, height and clusters of fragrant violet-blue blossoms.
• Zinnias offer a wide range of varieties, just about every color in the rainbow, “and they never let you down,” she said.
• Shrub rose Cinco de Mayo is the birth date of her father, who passed down his passion for gardening to her. “Rich crimson flowers bloom all summer long. It’s happiness,” she said. In fall, she covers the tender shrubs with straw bales.
• Popcorn cassia plant has butter yellow flowers and smells like buttered popcorn.
• Dr. Seuss-like lemon cypress topiaries in planters along a pathway are “different and unexpected,” she said.
• English-style impeccable boxwood hedges, which she keeps at waist height.
“It’s a myth that boxwood doesn’t do well in Minnesota,” she said. “The secret is regular watering, and pruning twice a season.”