After nearly two decades of gardening, Nancy Reichert-Sisson has learned her place.

“You try something, and if it works, it works,” she said. “It’s nature. It has very little to do with us.”

Reichert-Sisson’s garden, which abuts the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, is awash in gorgeous layers of colors, textures and shapes. Irish moss lines the stone pathways, the terraced slopes are filled with a lush mix of annuals and perennials, and hundreds of kinds of hostas fill the shaded area that surrounds the formal fountain.

So it strains credibility to hear her say, “I don’t design, I just put it in.”

But the reason she started gardening rings true: “I don’t like brown space,” she said.

There was plenty of brown space when Reichert-Sisson and her husband, Chuck, moved to the Bloomington cul-de-sac in 1997. Aside from a few tracts of grass and some scraggly arborvitae, the lot was largely brown.

Her first fall, she had some retaining walls installed in the sloping back yard. The next spring, she had Bachman’s come out and plant some perennials.

That was all the help she’s ever had in the garden.

Since then, Reichert-Sisson has done it all herself — the planting, the watering, the dividing and weeding. She’s selected and sited statues, created paths and laid pavers.

“Every stone was put in by me,” she said. “My husband doesn’t help. He calls himself a grass farmer.”

Starting small

Reichert-Sisson wasn’t much of a gardener when she bought the house. Her first goal was a modest one: to have 10 hanging baskets out front.

From there, she started creating garden beds and filling them with “the tried and true” Zone 4 plants, such as rudbeckia, coneflowers and coreopsis in the sun; hostas, ferns, ligularia and astilbes in the shade.

Soon, Reichert-Sisson found herself spending as many as 8 hours a day in the garden every spring. Naturally, she found her knowledge expanding as the seasons unfolded.

She figured out that she could use begonias, impatiens and other annuals to fill in the bare spots in her perennial beds. She discovered which ground covers (including pachysandra and lamium) could best blanket the steep slope that tumbles down to the refuge. And she came to the realization that she can’t hold back when it comes to certain plants.

“I’ve gone crazy with my silly voodoo lilies,” she admitted.

At some point in her self-education, her gardening lessons became more advanced.

She expanded her plant portfolio, using turtlehead, pulmonaria, meadow rue and Tiger Eyes sumac to add pizazz to the more commonplace selections. She turned a retaining wall into a living edifice by cleverly sowing creeping sedum across the top. Eventually, seeds from the sedum filled in the chinks in the wall.

She moved beyond plants, creating walkways of stones leading from the side yards to the back. After installing a gate, she framed it with white liatris and white coneflowers. Around the garden, she carefully placed statues in just the right spots.

Despite her protestations, her garden makes it clear that Reichert-Sisson is a designing woman.

Go with what you like

She’s also cemented her garden philosophy: Find and embrace what works for you, and discard what doesn’t. While it sounds disarmingly simple, it’s taken her years to hone it.

“Do it the way you think you like it,” she said. “If a bush or flower is taking up too much space, cut it off. If a plant starts to put out babies and you like it, go with it.”

That doesn’t mean she’s hands-off when it comes to maintaining her garden.

An example: When her phlox started inching down the hill, she let it go. However, she kept deadheading the plants so they’d bloom later in the season.

Oh, her philosophy has an addendum: Be patient.

Though she counts her time in the garden in decades rather than years, she still considers it a work in progress. “I always say that I have a different garden every year.”

Another of her sayings: “It takes about six or seven years to get an area right.”

In the meantime, in her own yard, Reichert-Sisson strives to let her plants have plenty of leeway, and to keep herself from letting “perfect” be the enemy of good.

And she continues to fill in those brown spots.


Bill Ward is a Twin Cities freelance writer. He can be reached at