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Two things have quickened the spirits of Mankato couple Sue and Bob Olson for more than half of their 40-year marriage: gardening and the Minnesota Vikings. Some years ago, the pair combined these seemingly disparate passions into something they can savor from spring through early fall.

They planted a Vikings patch with purple and gold flowers overseen by Vikings garden gnomes. The distinctive "V" in the team's logo is outlined in Angelonia. And the Olsons have thrown a CheeseHead potentilla shrub — that's the actual name — into the mix, nodding to the football rivalry with Minnesota's curdling Upper Midwest neighbor.

"Here, the Vikings are always over the cheeseheads," Bob said. In his garden, the Vikings are always winning.

The Olson's flowerbeds, lush with places for quiet contemplation, are attractive to pollinators and people alike. The colorful plantings also are a source of honor as their garden is a winner in the Star Tribune's annual Beautiful Gardens contest. The family finds joy, catharsis and natural therapy in their flora.

"In the early morning or in the evening when the birds are chirping, I just come out here to commune with nature," Sue said as she stood among some waist-high tiger lilies. "The cycle of growth and rebirth as things die out and come back — that's very healing for me."

Heartache and gratefulness

The Olsons speak from achy hearts but with a sense of gratefulness. A mother of two adult children, Sue was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. The tumor, which was caught early, has required a rigorous, sometimes painful, regimen. And in 2021, Sue again had another serious diagnosis, this time for Parkinson's.

"Parkinson's limits my abilities to dig so Bob's become my right hand," Sue said, looking to her husband. Bob smiled back at her.

That right hand has been locked with hers for 43 years. Sue Pittorf met Bob Olson at Concordia College in Moorhead when Bob, now 65, was a senior and Sue, 62, a first-year. They married after she graduated.

Bob went on to medical school, specializing in psychiatry, and the family's trajectory followed his practice. They bought their home in Mankato's Kensington Hills subdivision 24 years ago, putting an addition on the house.

But it is with gardening that they have made the biggest transformation to their one-acre property. Sue explained that the backyard had an overgrown garden, which she liked because she could see the possibilities.

'Like an artist's palette'

"It was like an artist's palette," she said. But she didn't get to painting with flowers right away. She waited a year to see what would come up. After that, the gardening gloves went on.

"From peonies in early spring to hydrangeas in the fall, the goal is to have continuous color," Sue said. To wit, they also use annuals to fill in the landscape.

The Olsons' initial plantings were for aesthetic reasons. They liked beauty. But over the years, the family added edibles to the mix, including pumpkins, cucumbers, strawberries, potatoes and basil, all in raised beds to keep away pesky rabbits. (Playfully, they say that their garden pig, named Boink, was enlisted to scare away critters.)

Sue makes pestos from the basil harvest and her husband becomes puppy-giddy when he thinks about the foods from their hands.

"I'm gonna keep working in the garden because I know I'm going to get rewarded," Bob said.

As coneflowers, monarda and lilies draw a steady stream of winged visitors into their yard, the Olsons also point to the spirits of ancestors with garden areas that honor loved ones.

"When my dad passed, we were given this birch tree," Sue said, pointing. "He loved owls and so there are owls by it. Bob's dad and my mom died within a month of each other. And they were given memorial trees, too."

The Olsons also use the garden to mark Sue's cancer journey. Long before her diagnosis, they were mindful to plant flowers that attract bees and butterflies. But that interest in helping pollinators intensified after she found out about her illness.

"It was in the spring when I found out, and I thought, Oh, my gosh, the gardens," Sue said. "I thought I would clean up as much as I could, and I was out there one evening by myself and this butterfly landed on me. Now, this was April in Minnesota, and it would not leave me alone."

The Olsons considered the butterfly to be a messenger, like the "Three Little Birds" in the Bob Marley and the Wailers' optimistic song, and one that renews her faith.

"It was a sign that everything was going to be OK," Sue said. She added that in the face of the direst news, nature comes through with encouraging reassurance and that she can feel the effect of the divine.

In the springtime, the Olsons have another ritual. They divide their plants and leave them on their driveway. Neighbors come and retrieve about 250 potted plants that they give away, including divisions of plants from their Vikings garden.

"We've been incredibly blessed and we don't take it for granted," Sue said. "Paying it forward is one way to show our gratitude."