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Gardens a beautiful destination in St. Cloud

St. Cloud residents and visitors can enjoy not one but two civic gardens, one cottage style, one formal–and both at the same site.  Munsinger Gardens started growing in 1923, in a shady area near the Mississippi called Riverside, a neighborhood park.  It took shape over the years, adding a gazebo, rock-lined pathways, greenhouses, fountains, a wishing well, and ponds. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) did much of the labor.  In 1949 the name was changed to honor Joseph Munsinger, St. Cloud’s first parks superintendent. Riverside Park is still there, and features a tennis court, splash pad and volleyball court. Visitors can fish at the dam or watch the rushing Mississippi River. In Munsinger Gardens, the gazebo accommodates picnickers, weary walkers, or this June, knitters celebrating World Wide Knit in Public Day.  Monarch butterflies flutter among the colorful flowers as the occasional bald eagle soars above. Caged peacocks near the greenhouses add their distinctive voices. Mallards have been known to flap over the Mississippi and come to rest in the pond. The difference between the informal and the formal comes when visitors leave Munsinger Gardens and climb a short rise (or drive around the block) and find themselves in an Alice in Wonderland-like reality. “In 1986 they started developing the Formal Garden, now Clemens Garden,” explains garden supervisor Nia Primus, “because they wanted more sun- loving plants instead of shade loving.”  The land, once a gravel pit and then a seven-acre lawn, used as a skating rink in winter, adjoined Munsinger Gardens.  It was across the street from the home of businessman Bill Clemens who founded Bankers Systems, a multi-million dollar national corporation. “Mr. Clemens saw what the staff doing, came over, and asked what was going on,” Nia says. Clemens liked what he saw. He bought all the land and donated it to the City of St. Cloud. He also purchased all the “hardscape”–iron gates, benches, fountains, and statuary–and instituted the rose garden, named for his wife. Stricken with multiple sclerosis, Virginia Rose Clemens was unable to travel to her favorite European gardens in later life, so her husband brought them to her. She enjoyed the garden very much, sometimes appearing in her wheelchair to talk with visitors and staff. She died in 1998.  She and her husband are commemorated with a bronze statue showing him bending lovingly over her chair as they both admire the roses. “It’s not just a garden–it’s a gift of love,” Nia says. Enormous amounts of work and workers are involved in caring for the gardens.  Roses need special attention. “We actually cover the roses with big construction blankets in the winter instead of doing the Minnesota tip method, where you would dig a hole next to a rose after you’ve stripped of all leaves and bury it,” Nia says. “In springtime we would dig them up and plant them. But we found it was too hard on the roses. The blankets insulate them better.” Only the tree roses are dug up and put in the greenhouse over winter. Over 1,000 varieties of roses scent the air, with delicious names like Ruby Ruby, Rainbow’s End, Smoke Rings and Sparkle and Shine.  Mulch and special fertilizers keep them blooming.  They are at their best around mid-June, depending on the weather.  The rest of the gardens peak in late July and early August. “We do constant research,” Nia says.  “Some don’t make it through the winter, and we have to replace them.  We like to try and find hardy roses; we don’t want to be using chemicals all the time.  It takes time and costs money.” The remaining part of the garden is very reminiscent of Europe.  The Treillage Garden   features a domed arbor approached by steps.  It is divided into four sections, each planted in a different predominant color.  Below this is the perennial garden, meant to recall an English country estate. The white section is modeled after Sissinghurst Gardens in Kent, England, and the whole effect is inspired by Virginia Clemens’ favorite painter, Claude Monet. Statues dot the grounds.  The central and most impressive is Renaissance Fountain with Cranes, which was once one of the largest outdoor fountains in the Midwest.  On a superstructure of cast bronze are four bathing boys and soaring cranes topped by Hebe, cupbearer to the gods. The Windsor Court Fountain features bathing swans. Art fairs, theatrical events, weddings and wedding photo shoots take place in the gardens. Nia says, “We plant 100,000 annuals and 10,000 perennials every year, plus all the perennials that come up every year.  We try to do all the latest trends in the industry.  This year succulents are huge, so we have a succulent planter in Clemens rest area garden.  We also have 3-D osteospernum or Cape Daisy and princess and prince grass, along with penisetum vertigo. Grasses are huge.  More and more we’re incorporating ornamental grassses into our planting.   There are lots of different begonias.  We’re using a waterfall begonia this year and getting in some new elephant ears.”   Another newcomer are sunpatiens, which are tall, sun-loving impatiens.  They will grow three to four feet tall.”  The gift shop in the rest area offers birdhouses, garden statues, Christmas ornaments, wind chimes and other garden-themed items. Some of the work is done by Opportunity Services, high functioning special needs adults, who come in regularly to help the paid staff with cleaning bathrooms, sweeping sidewalks, planting, and weeding. “They water pots and urns which can take hours. We try to teach them life skills they can use and bring into another workplace,” says Nia, who earned a biology degree at St. Cloud State University.  She ran the City Nature Center until it closed in 2010 and she moved to her present position. She explains that work at the gardens goes on even in winter, when walks must be plowed, greenhouses maintained, and new plantings designed. It’s also time for the staff to use up vacation days. “We can take some time off in summer, but we try to be as present as much as possible.” She adds, “It sounds terrible, but my mom has to weed my garden.  I’m so tired when I get home I don’t want to do it any more!” Munsinger and Clemens Gardens are between Michigan Ave. SE and 10th St. SE on Riverside Drive. There are no admission fees, except for guided tours. It is open daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

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