There’s something fairy-tale-like about Cottagewood. With its peninsula chock full of lake homes and tidy yards, the charming Cottagewood Store and hometown events, it’s a place that practically screams “Minnesota nice.”
Take a drive through the community in the spring or summer, and you might notice Didi Hastreiter trimming roses in her colorful yard—wearing her famous garden hat, of course. She’s become a bit of a celebrity—in Cottagewood and nationally—for her idyllic gardens, her yard full of wildlife, and her come-as-you-are-and-grow-where-you’re-planted demeanor.
“Didi is Cottagewood’s very own Snow White,” says Laurie Jenkins, manager of the Cottagewood Store. “She feeds the wildlife in the woods behind her house 365 days a year, regardless of the weather. Her gardens are magical and everyone loves walking by them.”
In addition to being included on garden tours, the gardens have been featured in Victoria magazine in 1989, the Star Tribune, on HGTV, in Better Homes & Gardens magazine in 1985 and by the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. But Hastreiter downplays all the attention. Her blue farmhouse is full of what she calls “idiosyncrasies,” and she jokes that the gardens are “all to detract your eye from the lousy lawn!”
“It’s a welcoming garden. It’s not a stiff, formal garden,” she says. Adirondack chairs invite visitors to take a seat and relax, and creeping Charlie happily intermingles with perennials and ornamental roses. A wild cacophony of colors, shapes and organic textures fits Hastreiter’s personality and creates a magical scene as cars drive by toward the rest of Cottagewood.
“I like to mix colors so they tug at each other. I’m more of an artist than a gardener, really,” says Hastreiter. The media attention happened organically and without her marketing the garden, she says. “I’m not the type of person who would call someone up and say, ‘Come look at my garden!’”
The gardens were born out of necessity, and a little bit of grace and prayer. “When we moved here from Puerto Rico in 1978, I thought I was being sent to Siberia,” says Hastreiter. Her father was a naval officer and took a job in the area. She turned to gardening to make the most of the shorter summers, and also as a therapeutic way to cope when her mother was in a coma after a 1979 car accident with a drunk driver; a year later, her mother suffered a cerebral hemorrhage which left her with brain damage.
“I said to God, ‘You’ve got to give me something to keep my mind occupied,’” Hastreiter recalls. A dream and a sketch later and she was picking up free landscaping bricks advertised in the Sun Sailor. The garden blossomed from there: one plant, one trim, one shovelful at a time. “I’ve never hired anyone. I’ve done everything myself, including hauling rocks in my Jeep,” says Hastreiter. “My poor kids—God bless ‘em—would go, ‘No, Mom! Not another project!’”
Libby and Anna Regan are 10-year-old twins who have lived next door to Hastreiter for most of their lives, enjoying a front-row seat to the magical gardens.
“The front of Didi’s garden is really pretty, and the backyard is filled with statues and a fountain. It’s really cool to be able to see her yard from our window,” says Libby.
Anna remembers Hastreiter naming the wild animals and making up stories about them. “Like Triscuit and Ritz, the two ducks that cross the street from Lake Minnetonka to Didi’s yard!” she says.
In fact, Hastreiter’s gardens have become a sanctuary for hundreds of wild birds and animals over the years. There have been squirrels, chipmunks, turkeys and countless wild birds—including a then-endangered red-shouldered hawk that had missed its south-bound flight.
Hastreiter had prayed that God would give her something to get her through the long Minnesota winters (since she couldn’t garden) when the red-shouldered hawk showed up. She got special permission from the Department of Natural Resources and training from the University of Minnesota Raptor Center on how and what to feed it. The DNR eventually asked her to take calls from the University of Minnesota about her special relationship with and knowledge of her hawk friend. Deer come for the corn cob buffet Hastreiter puts out in the evenings. “Deer are like the Mafia. You give them a little and they come back,” she says.
The gardens have also welcomed more than stray hungry animals. Hastreiter once found a woman in her garden at 5:30 a.m. The woman was crying; she had been diagnosed with cancer, and the garden was the only place she could find to be alone and pray. Hastreiter insists the garden and those who enter it aren’t hers alone. “It’s not me. It’s God,” says Hastreiter. “I do the gardening; He does the work.”
As for inspiration of the non-divine kind, Hastreiter turns to a handful of local go-to shops. The Garden Patch, The Sitting Room, or Gray Home + Lifestyle are her favorites for garden and yard accessories. Frattalone’s Ace Hardware on Highway 101 and Highway 7 fills in many of her shrubs and fountains. As for her famous roses, she shops for interesting colors that will layer and pop. Jessie Jacobson, managing director at Tonkadale Greenhouse, has worked with Hastreiter for years. “I see her in here all the time. She’s shopped here forever! She’s just so lovely—with her signature garden hat and bright pink lipstick. She’s so darn cute.”