Growing up on a North Dakota farm gave Monroe woman a green thumb

Lee and Russ Riesinger transformed their backyard of junk and brush into a beautiful garden with flowers and produce.

MONROE, CT — Bright yellow Stella d’Oro daylilies surround a small wooden sign that says, “Garden Tours 5 cents” with a rusted tin holding nickels. It’s the first flowers Lee Riesinger planted in her backyard. Over time, the garden grew to rock beds hosting wide varieties of flowers, trellises and wooden beds with beans, strawberries, peppers and other produce.

Soon after buying their ranch-style house on Longview Road in 1994, Lee and Russ Riesinger took down 50 trees and began to clear away brush and junk that accumulated in back of the property, which used to be a rental.

Lee Riesinger started her garden with yellow Stella d’Oro daylilies.

The couple built a patio and made flower beds out of rocks, while transforming their one-acre-property.

“I grew up on a huge farm in North Dakota, so I think gardening is in my blood,” Lee Riesinger said.

While not a gardener himself, Russ built the wooden flower beds and other things in the garden. Riesinger said her husband grills on the patio and cooks with the fresh vegetables her garden produces.

“We plant a lot of peppers, because my husband makes a lot of chili,” she said. “The hotter the better. We try different varieties. About 70 percent of the vegetables here are peppers, all from seeds, nothing from a nursery. We get seeds from friends.”

The couple has four grown children. One of them, Kelli, still lives in town, where she has a beautiful garden, Riesinger said.

No master plan

This flowerbed has purple salvia, red coneflowers (echinacea), lilies and yellow coreopsis.

Riesinger said a friend gave her the Stella d’Oro daylilies to plant in the original bed, which also includes Echinacea (coneflower), pink yaro, blue hydrangeas and lilies.

“My grandmother had coneflowers in Texas,” Riesinger said. “When she passed away we brought the seeds and now they’re everywhere. When you walk by it makes you think of her and when you share the flowers, you’re passing her memory on to other people.”

Riesinger estimates that she gives away hundreds of plants a year. She said most gardeners overgrow plants and many exchange the excess on the Monroe Garden Swap Facebook page.

“When you dig something out, you post it and people come and pick it up,” she said.

Riesinger also gets free things for her garden on Monroe Buy Nothing, CT.

“And the nurseries do have really good stuff,” she said. “They’re a good resource for gardens.”

Riesinger’s first flowerbed also has purple salvia, yellow coreopsis, creeping thyme and succulent. There is no master plan, she just built out her garden from there.

“It’s a work in progress, so every year we add something,” Riesinger said.

More than plants

A St. Francis statue is among the decorations that can be found throughout Lee Riesinger’s garden.

A St. Francis of Assisi statue stands against a stonewall surrounding the garden in an area that forms a nook, where Riesinger’s mother, Alma Laumann, sits to make sketches.

Within the wall are two stone cherub heads.

“I like to place things in the walls that people can find,” Riesinger said.

Among other items throughout Riesinger’s garden is a rusty old roller skate, toy cars and two stone tool sharpeners her grandfather used to use.

A tall windmill decoration stands in the middle of the garden. “These are the types of things I get for my birthdays and anniversaries,” Riesinger said. “Anything that can go into a garden.”

A giant windmill decoration adorns Lee Riesinger’s garden.

Two of the Riesingers’ daughters had their weddings in the garden.

“My mom moved here from Arizona. She has hummingbird feeders in the back,” Riesinger said. “She added her own Southern flare.”

Riesinger’s husband built wooden garden beds for vegetables. One has strawberries, kale, Swiss chard and lettuce. Beans are growing on a trellis.

“It’s different every year,” Riesinger said. “We have beans, sweet peas and cucumbers. Nothing’s better than a homegrown salad.”

She said she usually doesn’t like turnips, but this year Riesinger is growing a new variety that is juicy and flavorful. It is a silky sweet hybrid.

Not for the squeamish

Lee Riesinger grows a silky sweet hybrid, which is a juicier and more flavorful species of turnip.

When starting your own garden, Riesinger says not to be afraid of making mistakes and she suggests starting small.

“I think people get overwhelmed,” she said, adding people often get frustrated by trying to do too much right away. “And join some sites. That’s the one thing about gardeners, there’s so many people willing to share their knowledge.”

“First you have to find out what grows best in your soil and plant a lot of that,” Riesinger said of starting out, “and don’t be afraid to move things around.”

Riesinger spends a lot of time in her garden.

“Every morning before I start work, I’m out here pulling weeds and doing bug checks,” she said. “You have to stay on top of it.”

Just as people hire a dog sitter to feed their pet when they go on vacation, Riesinger said you should have someone water your garden while you’re away, so it’s in good shape when you get back.

Among the challenges to maintaining a garden, Riesinger said those with Asian lilies often complain about destructive red beetles.

“You literally have to take them off by hand,” she said. “When you have a garden, you can’t be squeamish because you’re constantly squishing bugs.”

For related articles, visit The Sun’s Home section.

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