Putting Down Roots

Whatever happened to the 23-year-strong FamilyMeans Garden Tour? The perennial favorite shelved its rakes and spades in 2015, but its gardeners’ and volunteers’ friendships continue to bloom to this day.
Sue Crouse Part of the FamilyMeans family, This Stillwater resident turned to gardening to help heal her grief after her daughter died in 2008.

FamilyMeans—a Stillwater-based nonprofit that’s been in operation since 1963 and has locations across the metro, southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin—seeks to “strengthen communities by strengthening families.” The organization does that through a full line-up of educational and support services for the aging and their caregivers, youth programs, grief and marriage counseling, mental health services, and financial support and education. Just as family situations are complex, so are FamilyMeans’ approaches to addressing them.

In the early 1990s, the organization developed an annual garden tour where community members could purchase tickets and visit a number of gardens in the St. Croix Valley. It was part fundraiser, part social mixer and all about community. As visitors walked through the gardens, they’d meet families whose lives had been touched by FamilyMeans. Strangers would become friends—and many became more familiar with FamilyMeans’ offerings and connected with the community it serves.

Though the tour hung up its gardening hat for good in 2015—following a 23-year run—it leaves behind a group of volunteers-turned-friends who have decades of stories and blooms to share.

While the tour is defunct, FamilyMeans is still going strong. And its community of volunteers and supporters still celebrates beautiful outdoor spaces every chance it gets. Here are a few of the stories behind what was the FamilyMeans Garden Tour.

Humble Beginnings
The FamilyMeans Garden Tour began as a simple social gathering and fundraiser in 1993. “The whole idea was to get out there and connect with families,” former chairwoman Peg Quinn says.

It quickly grew into a favorite local event, drawing hundreds to a collection of perfectly trimmed gardens across the area. Soon Quinn was coordinating some 100 volunteers, and just like its featured gardens, the event took a little pruning to become the event that the community eventually grew to know and love.

“We had some crazy first years!” Quinn says. “One year there were seven gardens, and they were too far apart. It must have taken 100 signs to get people where they needed to go. I remember packing SUVs full of balloons and signs to make it all happen.” With an educational component to the event, organizers enlisted master gardeners to answer questions at each stop—suggesting products and explaining plant choices. “Having 1,000 people trample your yard is intimidating enough,” Quinn says.

A Newcomer’s Welcome
Jenna Weiss was involved as a board member, volunteer and committee member, and her yard was on the tour at one point. Even though she’s let her yard go “a little more natural” in recent years, she says being a part of FamilyMeans and its annual tour was key to developing her social network and sense of place in Minnesota. When her family moved here more than a decade ago for her husband’s medical career, she had to start fresh with new community involvement and friends.

“In the last place we lived, I was too busy, and I swore I wouldn’t do that again,” Weiss recalls. But she got involved with FamilyMeans anyway, and despite her initial hesitation, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It really did bring people together. Each year, on the day after Mother’s Day, we had lists of hundreds of former volunteers, and we’d start calling. Some volunteers waited for me to call—some just called me,” she says. Weiss also hosted the annual volunteer kick-off and meet-and-greet. Yard to yard and year to year, those volunteers became friends and solidified her place in Minnesota. “Gardeners are great people—they’re truly people who will be my friends forever,” she says.

Organic Benefits
Gloria Desch was one of the few people who had the role of rounding up gardens to feature on the tour, and she says it was a positive event designed to expand the organization’s reach to “bring out families for FamilyMeans,” she says. “You don’t exactly go around telling people when you’re going through counseling or debt relief—word never got out that FamilyMeans was available to people in our community.”

An avid gardener who says she was “into organic gardening before that was a thing,” Desch says there have been benefits to being involved in the tour. “It’s been an educational event. Just like gardening, it’s a learning experience,” she says. “The food always tastes better when it’s out of your own garden. But every year, when the deer eat everything, I say I’m not doing it again—then my neighbor reminds me that I say that every year!” Though the tour was a labor of love, with countless hours poured into coordinating the event, it was worth the wait and produced beautiful results. (And yes, she’s developed a few tricks for dealing with the deer: “They don’t like mint, and I’ve tried coyote urine, too,” she says.)

A Way to Cope
Sue Crouse lost her daughter Laura McDonald to an accident in 2008, and she turned to gardening as a way of coping with the loss and channeling her attention toward something beautiful. A friend had told her about FamilyMeans’ grief and loss services, and “it was a really important part of my healing,” she says. Her love for gardening—originally, she mostly grew vegetables—bloomed into an artistic love for all things green and growing. She’s since transformed her yard into distinct spaces featuring prairie, woodland, shade and perennial plants. A “secret garden” is dedicated to Laura: Her bike and small statues anchor a beautiful layered, secluded space. “My Laura”—a variety of hostas sourced by Funky Gardens in Scandia—allow her daughter’s memory to live on through both beautiful foliage and their name.

“Hostas have such magnificent names,” says Crouse, who has become a part of the FamilyMeans family through the years. Though her yard was never a stop on the garden tour route, she gladly opened it up in 2016 for a fundraiser wine tasting. “I love for people to see these beautiful spaces,” she says.