A garden grows in St. Cloud: world-class gardens in a small Minnesota city

Bridget Falbo

Violet ageratum and yellow marigolds colorfully engulf the stone supports of an engraved wooden sign erected by a city park and recreation department. For most city parks, this small offering would be the extent of the flowers planted. This sign, however, reads “Munsinger Gardens,” and these accent flowers offer only a hint to the visitor of what is to come.

The Munsinger Gardens and the newly created Virginia Clemens Rose Garden and Clemens Gardens, located in St. Cloud, Minnesota, display a profusion of flowering annuals and perennials amidst rock and brick walkways, set on the banks of the Mississippi River. The St. Cloud Parks and Recreation Department in this central Minnesota city of 58,000, known for its granite deposits, manages the gardens and has established a few “firsts” in regards to gardens and parks departments operating in the upper Midwest.

It is one of the few parks departments in Minnesota — and the upper Midwest — that grows all of the plant material for its gardens. In greenhouses located next to Munsinger Gardens, the staff grows about 100,000 bedding plants each year. A unique white garden in the formal Clemens Gardens has the distinction of being the only public white garden in Minnesota. The Virginia Clemens Rose Garden and formal Clemens Gardens display more cast-iron ornamentation in benches, balustrades, and arbors than any other public gardens in the upper Midwest. To pay for all that cast iron and to create and maintain the Virginia Clemens Rose Garden and Clemens Gardens, the park department received the largest gift to a city parks department in Minnesota from a single private source, a sum totaling $4 million.

This much appreciated park resource began with the foresight of a city to set aside prime real estate on the banks of the Mississippi and the dedication of a flower-loving parks superintendent. The people of St. Cloud have long considered their gardens to be a tremendous resource for the St. Cloud community. In 1946, The St. Cloud Times described the gardens as one of the real beauty spots of the country, “Munsinger Gardens, blazing with flowers and patterned with shrubbery, trees, stone walks and cobblestone wells, attracts visitors from many states.”

Today, the two gardens, part of 38 parks in the St. Cloud park system, draw more than 200,000 people annually. According to Jay Vachal, executive director of the St. Cloud Visitors Bureau, the Munsinger and Clemens Gardens are the biggest attraction in the area. “I’ve heard from many visitors, like the travel writer I just talked with from the United Kingdom, who’ve said these are one of the best gardens in the world,” said Vachal.

Dig this Plot

Joseph Munsinger became parks superintendent in the 1920s (upon his retirement the city named the gardens after him). Although not a professional horti-culturist, with a background as a plumber then a city fireman, he loved plants and was genuinely interested in flowers. In the 1930s, Munsinger began work on a flower garden on land the city purchased after a sawmill that previously occupied it was abandoned. This strip of parkland alongside the river totals 55 acres and extends one mile along low banks of the Mississippi. Munsinger Gardens occupies about four city blocks on the south end of this park.

Munsinger designed the flower beds and the rock-lined paths and engineered the digging of the lily pond. He began construction in the middle of the Depression and hired crews of unemployed quarry workers and farmers to create the first gardens. Once the gardens were established, Munsinger built a greenhouse and began the tradition of growing plants for the gardens.

Munsinger and the present staff seem to have followed the landscape design style of Beatrix Farrand, a garden designer of the early 1900s. A garden writer described her landscapes as “always made to live in, as well as to look at.” A few hours spent at Munsinger Gardens illustrate the accessibility of these gardens.

The meandering paths under the 60-foot-tall Scotch pines of Munsinger wander around grassy open areas for picnickers, as well as through the floral landscape. Re stone paths take the visitor by the fine mist spray of a fountain surrounded by purple perillafructens and gomphrena, along the spring-fed spillway that runs under the cobblestone wishing well and curved wooden bridge to the original lily pond. Benches offer a place to meditate on the multitudes of pink and white impatiens, spiky smartgrass, and wide-leaved hostas. Climbing the stone steps on a hill of fiery red salvias offers a vantage point to view the restful gazebo amidst the pines, the one-room log cabin turned interpretive center, and the ever-flowing river. Benches positioned near the river provide ideal spots for readers and thinkers, and the path at the river’s edge carries joggers who get a view of the running water and sprawling colors in one broad sweep. Everywhere colors of pink, white, blue, yellow, and violet outline curves and accent corners, inviting visitors to stay a while and absorb it all on the benches and soft grass.

When Munsinger died in 1946 at the age of 70, The St. Cloud Times reported, “The work he did for the city was not a job, but a labor of love, and to it he gave his talents in planning and execution generously year after year with such astounding results. Most men when they die leave only memories and a marker at their grave, Joe Munsinger’s memorial will be a living and perpetual one in the park system of which he was truly the father.”

Tradition and Beauty Mix in Munsinger Gardens

This dedication to the gardens is carried on today by nursery supervisor David Morreim. “Dave is very knowledgeable about horticulture. But it is not only his intelligence that has continued the success of the gardens, but his love of the garden, his devotion to it and his ability to motivate his staff,” said park director Larry Haws, a 20-year veteran with the department.

Under Morreim’s 14-year tenure, Munsinger Gardens has been upgraded and updated. Four temporary greenhouse buildings recently replaced the original nursery. With the help of Julie Dierkhising, who is in charge of planning the gardens, Morreim said he’s trying to give a little more flow and a sense of focal points to the 60-year-old Munsinger Gardens. “We try to keep the historical flavor of the gardens, yet update them with new hybrids and new varieties, also,” explained Morreim.

Maintaining the beauty and historical significance of the gardens brings with it many challenges. The garden staff must contend with the poor quality of some of the older perennials, as well as the poor soil. The mature Scotch pines, maples, and hemlocks provide Munsinger with a part of its character but also shade most of the garden and send their roots throughout the planting areas. Maintenance crews are in the process of widening the paths for handicap accessibility, trying not to sacrifice the ambience that was originally created by the winding paths.

Morreim also contends with people’s memories and sense of tradition. Atop the rock garden made from the excavation of the lily pond, bright red salvias have been grown for 50 years. One year, Morreim planted rose-colored geraniums. “There was such an outcry, we went back to the salvias. Tradition is a very important part of Munsinger,” said Morreim.

With that in mind, the maintenance crew recently completed the restoration of a cobblestone wishing well, an item Morreim said many people relate to as the symbol of Munsinger Gardens, having been constructed during Munsinger’s time. Some of the perennials thought to be planted by Munsinger, which are still maintained in the gardens, are a white-flowered hosta (Hosta plantaginea grandiflora), double orange daylilies (Hemerocallis) and hybrid smartweed (Polygonum).

Clemens Gardens Created Out of Love

Munsinger Gardens has formed a St. Cloud tradition in its casual, accessible, free-flowing design. The Clemens Gardens, on the other hand, take its traditions from the classical gardens of Europe, employing a more formal design. In six different gardens, red-bricked paths, radiating out from a central fountain or raised circular planting, divide gardens into symmetrical quadrants. A black iron treillage at one end of the gardens creates a dramatic counterpoint to the Clemens Rose Garden, exhibiting 1,100 varieties of roses at the other end of the two block-long gardens. In between, the gardens are colorfully filled with a wide variety of hardy Minnesota perennials and pathways lined with annuals, in addition to a dramatic white garden and four other vibrant, single-hued gardens.

The creation of the Clemens Gardens has the sound of a fairy tale, but only because of the established gardening staff already in place and the forward-thinking city administration, which developed a unique public-private partnership in developing the gardens, has it been so successful upon completion.

Across the street and up a significant rise from the established Munsinger Gardens lies an empty lot next to a greenspace that is maintained by the park department. When the owners decided to sell the lot in 1988, St. Cloud business owner Bill Clemens and his wife, Virginia, heard about it and purchased the property, afraid it would be used for a convenience store. They offered the land to the city to do with it what it wanted.

“Reading between the lines, we thought we should really do something special here,” said Morreim. They decided to move the rose garden, which was begun in Munsinger, to take advantage of the full sun the new lot offered. When Mr. Clemens learned of the plans, he contacted Haws and Morreim and offered to pay for all of the rose bushes, all the costs in completing the project, and the salary of a full-time rose grower. This began a relationship that included the Clemens family creating a $2 million trust fund for the maintenance of the Clemens Gardens, beginning in 1999, and the spending of close to $2 million in out-of-pocket expenses to create the rose garden, as well as the formal gardens that would soon follow.

What originated as a gift to his wife, who loves roses but is often housebound because of multiple sclerosis, has turned into a very generous gift to the city of St. Cloud. A gazebo in Virginia Clemens’ front yard offers her a wonderful view of the gardens for which she and her family are a namesake.

Ten trips to tour European gardens and searches through gardening journals inspired Morreim in his design and flower choice. On learning that Mrs. Clemens’ favorite flower color was white, Morreim decided to create a white garden similar to the famous White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, England. Sent to visit the White Garden by Mr. Clemens, Morreim spent a week gathering information about the design and plants that could be grown in Minnesota. In the Clemens white garden, artfully staged ornamental grasses and box-shaped arborvitae and junipers complement the dusty miller, artemisia, phloxes, and dramatic daisies.

Since designing the white garden was so much fun, Morreim decided to create four more one-color gardens. Rich-hued celosias, geraniums, dahlias, and begonias fill the red garden; glowing marigolds mix with bright daylilies and rubeckias in the yellow garden. Rich amethyst petunias and dahlias share the purple corner with violet ageratums. In shades ranging from sky blue to lavendar, delphiniums, pansies, iris, lobelia, and agapanthus grow in the blue garden.

Because of the unique relationship with the Clemens family, who have promised to fund the development of the gardens through 1999, capital improvements need not go through a lengthy approval process by the parks board and city council. A board composed of Clemens family members, as well as Haws and Morreim, approves new plans, and Clemens himself may hire the contractors to complete a certain project, like the much needed restroom facility. Because of whence the funds initiate and the different approval process, the whole bidding process is eliminated on the more creative projects, such as the iron work.

This has allowed the Clemens family and Morreim to contract with Robinson Iron in Alexander City, Alabama, for all their iron work. This unique company has molds for ironwork that predate the Civil War. one of which was used for the center fountain in the Clemens Rose Garden. The company custom built the 104-foot-long treillage with its 20-foot dome and Victorian ornamentation, modeled after one in Easton Lodge, England. A spindled balustrade, based on a 100-year-old design in the Philadelphia Water Works, extends from either side of a brick stairway, constructed of cast iron; the garden staff added the finishing touches of paint, antiquing, and texturing. Ornate iron settees, modeled after those in the Midwest’s oldest botanical gardens in St. Louis, offer a seat to simply enjoy the smell and colors of the flowers. Large Venetian fluted urns, draped with vinca vines and red geraniums, add height to the flower beds.

The gardens are a canvas still in the process of being painted. Future plans include installing a 24-foot-tall fountain in front of the rest-room building; a fountain under the dome of the treillage, which will eventually be lit; and more gates.

“In 1990, Mr. Clemens told me `I’m 70 years old, and I don’t have a lot of time left, so you better get going,”‘ said Morreim. The 2,000 visitors who tour the gardens each day, composed of many serious gardeners from around the country, attest to the fact that Morreim and his staff really did get going.

Flower Gardens – Beautiful but Expensive

Flower gardens are labor intensive and expensive, which is why a flower garden of this size is so unusual for a city park. Thirty staff members maintain the gardens throughout the peak summer period.

Currently, Munsinger Gardens is funded approximately 10 percent by gifts and 90 percent from the tax base; Clemens Gardens is totally funded through the benevolence of the Clemens family, with support staff from the park department. Although the department considers itself very fortunate to receive the Clemens’ philanthropy, it must plan for the future when the contribution will be limited to the trust fund, an amount providing only half of the yearly required funding.

Funding programs currently underway throughout the park system, and specifically in Munsinger, have laid a basic framework upon which to build. For more than 30 years, St. Cloud has run a successful Adopt-A-Park program.

“Organizations give financial contributions as well as volunteer hours to the parks. Twenty-seven parks have been adopted, and each year 2,000 volunteers help paint, clean up parks, install equipment, and maintain grounds,” explained Haws. He estimates that this program has brought $8.5 million into the park system.

A unique fund-raising event earns $10,000 to support Munsinger Gardens. A yearly plant sale conducted by the garden staff sells excess plants from available stock and the product of dividing plants in the gardens, plus posters and postcards of the gardens.

A few years ago, the beautiful gazebo, flower-draped fountains, and impatiens-lined paths of Munsinger drew so many wedding parties for picture taking it caused disruption of the enjoyment of the gardens by others, so the park department decided to create a special-events area. A special-events coordinator schedules the wedding parties and baptism celebrations, and people are charged by the hour for the use of the red-bricked area surrounded by urns of lantanas and dracaena and elegantly trimmed arborvitae.

The granite benches that offer sturdy seating at the river’s edge also have become a way to memorialize family members. This program worked so well that the department has a waiting list of people who have requested the service. Bricks in the special-events walkway memorialize people or acknowledge donations from companies and citizens. “It’s real typical to see everyone staring at the ground when you pass by this area,” said Morreim.

Although the challenge of raising $50,000 next year as just a “beginning step” toward self-maintenance of the Clemens Gardens may seem daunting to some, in a city with an established appreciation for the beauty of flowers and their benefits, Morreim and Haws are optimistic. Haws said, “This garden has continued through the Depression and a recession, a world war and various conflicts, and we will continue the tradition through my term. It’s a challenge, but a worthwhile challenge, and the people of St. Cloud always come to our rescue.”

COPYRIGHT 1998 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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