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Talking plants with Marge Hols often led to a tour of the expansive, exquisite gardens surrounding her Summit Avenue house. And talking perennials? For more than one gardener, that led to Hols insisting they take a few home.

A plant from Hols came with a backstory, penned in careful script: its Latin name, the year it was propagated, when it might bloom.

"She was so willing to be a teacher and to be a promoter of being in the garden — and all the joys and rewards of that pursuit," said Deb Venker, president of the St. Paul Garden Club, where Hols was a "lodestone" volunteer. "She definitely opened the garden gate."

A master gardener and former Pioneer Press gardening columnist, Hols died June 18, four months after receiving a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. She was 86.

Last year, "the Hols Garden" was accepted into the Smithsonian Institute Archive of American Gardens.

"Her garden will be her living legacy," her son Brian Hols said.

Several gardens, really, one flowing into the next. Hols cultivated an English cottage-style garden in front, a woodland garden on one side and a perennial garden along the alley. She filled her conservatory — designed by a local architect and crafted in England — with more than 100 plants, including fuchsias, jasmines and citrus trees.

"Those gardens were learning beds and neighborhood valentines," Venker said. "It was a gift to the neighborhood."

Hols grew up in a walled garden in Massachusetts.

"My mother, Helen Schmidt, was a lover of nature and gardening," she wrote. "Among my earliest memories is planting snapdragon and zinnia seeds."

Together, they went on "wonderful excursions into the hills and woods looking for wildflowers and warblers, which we would identify with field guides," she told Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.

At the University of Connecticut, Hols studied communications and journalism. She wrote for a magazine in New York City before moving to Minneapolis, where she hosted a Dayton's department store radio show.

After working as a speechwriter, Hols started at the Metropolitan Council, becoming director of communications.

"It was not easy to be a woman in a leadership role in the '70s," said Susan Haigh, former CEO of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, who was then "just a baby attorney" at the Met Council. "You had to be strong, and she was. Let's put it this way: You'd never walk all over Marge Hols."

When she and her family — her husband David Hols, an attorney, and their two children — moved into their Tudor-style home, it featured a chain-link fence, a concrete dog run and 200 feet of thick buckthorn hedge that hid the property from the sidewalk.

Hobbled by a leg cast, she spent the winter of 1992-93 poring over a book about English cottage gardening, picturing her new front yard.

"Roses would cascade over the iron fence," she wrote in a 2001 column. "Bearded iris, phlox, bell-flowers and catmint would drift through the garden. Lady's mantle, lavender, hardy geraniums and lamb's ears would spill over the border.

"And today, nine years later, they all still do."

Her retirement, in 1993, allowed her to dig in. She studied horticulture and landscape design at the University of Minnesota, earning a Master Gardener certification in 1996. From 1998 to 2007, she wrote "Garden Path," offering seasonal checklists and answering questions from readers.

Her writing, like her gardening, was meticulous.

Hols designed gardens for others, judged the Blooming Saint Paul program and helped the city remake Rice Park.

"She had a trained and observant and detailed eye," said Tony Singerhouse, lead landscaper for the city of St. Paul.

When he first met Hols, Singerhouse was intimidated by her formality. "But once we started nerding out on plants, boy did we make a connection."

After learning she had stage 4 cancer, Hols doubted she'd be able to grow her seedlings this spring.

But with her son's help, she planted, using tweezers to deposit each seed.

Hols' survivors also include her brother John Schmidt, daughter Jennifer Hols and two granddaughters. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. July 19 at the Landmark Center in St. Paul.