From every direction, Como’s exterior gardens are designed to give visitors a warm welcome. As we reach the height of summer’s growing season, now is a great time to make a reservation to visit, and to learn more about what it takes to keep the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory looking great from every angle. 

In her role tending to the exterior gardens at the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, horticulturist Mindy Walter gets a lot of questions from the public. “But the one I hear most of all is, ‘When are you coming to my house?’ ” Walter says, laughing. “Visitors definitely come to our gardens for inspiration and design ideas they want to try in their own yards.”

With more than six acres of exterior gardens, Como’s horticultural collections actually extend far beyond the footprint of Como Park Zoo and Conservatory. Here’s a look at some of the horticultural features that make the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory a gorgeous, green oasis for our community.

Drone photo by: Josh Wiederin

The Minnesota and Circle Gardens

Providing multiple pathways to Como’s front door, this extensive garden exclusively features plants, shrubs and trees that are native to Minnesota, inspiring visitors with a variety of easy-growing, low-water perennials that thrive in our climate. Installed in 2018, the Minnesota Garden is still a work in progress, Walter says. “Like any garden, there are plants that are taking off and others that are taking their time,” she says, noting that the most popular plants in the collection seem to be the allium—an ornamental flowering plant that’s part of the onion family. When weeds pop up, Walter and her team prefer to pull them by hand rather than use pesticides. “With so many animals and small children coming to Como, we use pesticides very sparingly,” says Walter. “And I’ve never used a chemical that’s as reliable and efficient as hand weeding.”

The Centennial Garden

This formal garden of shaped evergreens is designed as a quiet complement to the splashier Water Gardens around it. “This is where visitors come before the doors open, and where they often snap pictures of the Water Garden during the summer,” says Walter, who incorporates just a few annuals into the mix for a pop of color. Opened in 2015, the garden’s fountain was the centerpiece for the 100th anniversary of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory.

The Enchanted Garden and The Excedra

A favorite destination for wedding parties and graduation pictures, these side-by-side gardens are across the street from the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory and have been featured in scrapbooks and social media feeds for generations. Playing against the gleaming glass backdrop of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, the Enchanted Garden is a butterfly-friendly landscape full of color and nectar. Continue on the garden path, and towering pine and fir trees will lead you to the Excedra, where scores of couples say “I do” every year. The Excedra overlooks the historic Frog Pond.

The Gates Ajar

Building colorful living carpets of thousands of annual bedding plants is a horticultural art form known as mosaiculture, which was all the rage in the late 19th century. Inspired by the mosaiculture forms he’d seen throughout Europe and as a gardener in Great Britain’s Kew Royal Gardens, St. Paul’s first parks superintendent Frederick Nussbaumer created this ornamental fixture, giving it a title taken from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Golden Legend.” Built in 1894 and moved to its current location on Lexington Avenue in the 1960s, this mosaiculture garden is growing again after pausing for the pandemic in 2020.

The Historic Lily Pond

Como’s traditional Victoria Water Platters got their start back in 1895, where heated water, drawn from the boiler from the Park Superintendent Frederick Nussbaumer’s home, made it possible to grow stunning tropical water plants in spite of Minnesota’s weather. Restored in 2013 and landscaped in 2015 with help from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and donations from Como Friends, the Historic Lily Pond garden features blooming aquatic plants and seasonal flowering trees, shrubs and perennials. The charming footbridge has been a backdrop for wedding vows and family events for generations.

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