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Ask Our Gardener: Bringing Lakewood’s Gardens to Life in Spring

Before the last of the snow has melted into the ground and the first robins hop onto bare branches, preparations have been underway to welcome spring at Lakewood. We sat down with Greenhouse Manager Paul Aarestad to learn what keeps the greenhouse and grounds staff busy at this busiest time of year.

Behind the Scenes

Q: In March and April, the greenhouse crew seems pretty busy. What’s been going on inside?

A: We’re getting ready for Memorial Day! We’ve been repairing the indoor irrigation system so it’s ready for the thousands of seedlings and cuttings that need to be grown and ready for transplanting outdoors when danger of frost is over. We’ve also been preparing the 700 vases and potted plants that are ordered for Memorial Day. We pot everything inside until it’s safe to take plants outdoors.

Greenhouse misting/rooting in Lakewood’s greenhouse.

Geranium cutting taking root.

Q: We see workers out on the grounds too. If all the plants are still in the greenhouses, what’s being done outdoors?

A: One of the first jobs is picking up all the holiday wreath easels that were placed over the winter, which we repair and store so they are ready for next winter. We also clean up the perennial beds, rake out leaves from around the shrubbery and lay new mulch. We remove burlap from the boxwood hedge at the front entrance and mulch family plots. Then we add new mulch to the perennial garden areas. Plus, there are about 500 above-ground planters that must be prepared for new plants.

A planter at Lakewood

Q: Lakewood is famous for its tulip beds. Thousands of bulbs were planted last fall. How do you make sure they are in bloom at the right time?

A: We purchase our bulbs directly from a Dutch farmer. After the bulbs are planted in the fall, we put down a thick layer of straw. When the snow melts away and the straw is no longer frozen to the ground, we have a small window of time before the tulips begin to emerge. It’s much harder and slower to remove straw from around fragile young tulips so we try to time this right. Any frost or snow that may occur right up to bloom will not hurt the tulips.

Tulip garden at Lakewood’s front entrance in the spring.

Q: Lakewood is also known for its brilliant scarlet canna lilies. Are they a tradition you plan to maintain?

A: We will continue to have beds of canna lilies although our method of growing them has changed. For many years, we dug up the bulbs and kept them inside, replanting them in spring. We had some that were 120 years old. But a few years ago a virus struck cannas all over the world. It was discovered right here in Minneapolis in the Lyndale Park Rose Garden. Now we plant virus-free seeds in the winter and set the plants after the danger of frost has passed.

Scarlet Bronze canna lilies surrounded by ornamental pepper and lantana at Lakewood.

Q: What is going on with the trees?

A: During the winter about 100 trees were trimmed, so the grounds crew picks up all the brush left behind from the trimming work. Ninety-six ash trees had to be completely taken down (because of emerald ash borer), leaving brush to be picked up and stumps to be ground. The grounds crew was not able to remove all the fallen leaves before winter set in, so they are finishing that job, blowing the leaves into rows and picking them up to be composted. (Read more about Lakewood’s trees.)

Q: Is there work to be done around new graves?

A: All graves dug over the winter need to be filled in, the soil tamped down and the surface prepared for new sod. When that’s done, markers need to be installed. And of course the sod must be watered regularly. When the turf starts to green up and grow, mowing begins.


Q: No matter what kind of spring we’ve had, Lakewood always looks beautiful for Memorial Day. How does that happen?

A: Memorial Day is our version of Showtime. We have 10-12 workers on the grounds every day in May. Even though it wouldn’t be desirable for a home garden, we start early enough to make sure we’re ready for Memorial Day.

Many families have perpetual care funds for planters or vases and expect to see them in bloom by then. So one day in the first week of May we start filling the planters. In the event of frost, we go around and cover them with breathable frost blankets. Mother’s Day is the second Sunday in May, and we set aside one entire day the week before to put out bouquets ordered by families.

The next two weeks are our busiest. Planting all the flowerbeds takes at least six full days. Three days are dedicated to placing all the Memorial Day bouquets.

Memorial bouquets ready to be placed at Lakewood.

Placing the topiaries that we’ve been growing in the greenhouses requires teamwork. The Garden Temple setup takes a half-day, the Harp two hours, and the Knot Bed four hours. Then, of course, the mowing and trimming must be done so every corner of the cemetery is ready for the big day. (Watch a video of Lakewood’s grounds crew assembling the Garden Temple.)

Knot Garden takes shape at Lakewood.

Knot Garden at Lakewood in May.

Moving the Harp topiary into place with a crane.

Harp topiary at Lakewood

Q: You have made great efforts to make Lakewood and its gardens a sustainable landscape. What does that mean?

A: Our goal is to make as many of the topiaries and flowerbeds self-renewable as we can — that is, to use cuttings of the same plants year after year. In the fall, we plant the cuttings in the greenhouses where they can be kept at steady temperatures and watered regularly. The topiaries are taken inside and repaired with cuttings where needed. And we are using more heat-tolerant plants such as succulents like sedums, Angelina, and tropical varieties that grow fast and like the heat.

Q: Tradition seems to be important for Lakewood. How do you honor the past while adjusting to changing conditions and invasions of destructive insects such as emerald ash borer?

A: By continuing the early horticultural traditions set in the Garden Cemetery Movement and at Lakewood. Selecting a diverse variety of trees is even more important now as we face the effects of global climate changes. Trees that once were hardy in Minnesota will in the coming decades become more vulnerable to stress and disease as temperatures increase. On the other hand, trees that once were border to our zone now are hardy. So selecting a wider range of trees to plant is important both to our ecology and our tradition.


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