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Hands in the dirt

Retired Albany woman trained to be Master Gardener, has garden featured on PBS show

Donna and Dwight Christen, of Albany, at their farm near Albany. The Christens have filled about six acres of their land with  flowers and trees. The garden is being featured on Prairie Lawn and Garden, a PBS gardening show.  Photo by Jean Paschke

Donna and Dwight Christen, of Albany, at their farm near Albany. The Christens have filled about six acres of their land with flowers and trees. The garden is being featured on Prairie Lawn and Garden, a PBS gardening show. Photo by Jean Paschke

Retired Albany School administrative secretary Donna Christen had always planted a few flowers around the rural home she shares with husband, Dwight.

And then when her children were older, she said, “I found this little article in the St. Cloud Times that they were forming a new garden club in St. Cloud, and I thought, ‘OK, it’s finally ‘me time.’” Now 30 years after joining the Stearns County Horticultural Society, Donna has learned a wealth of information about gardening and transformed approximately six acres of the farm into a wonderland of flowers and trees.

Speckled yellow and purple irises contrast with purple lilacs. Annual poppies in brilliant pink seed themselves in profusion, while some 30 varieties of hen and chicks, a succulent, line a border. A red fox salvia, a gift from a neighbor, has been blooming for 40 years. Old fashioned coral bells, penstamin, yellow primrose and tango lilies all bloom in their turn, making sure there is always color in the garden. Three different varieties of grasses surround the TV antenna. A Santa Cruz begonia spends the winter in Dwight’s garage, then comes to brilliant red life in summer, overflowing an old cream separator, its roots still intact. Donna plans to plant tulips next year, the type that stay in the ground and don’t have to be dug up.

“This Christmas cactus is confused, because it’s blooming in summer,” she said. “Anything is possible.’ Rhubarb grows in several places, just as a shade plant, not as a part of a kitchen garden.

“I grew up in a house where we had rhubarb on the table 365 days a year. I like it, but am I going to get carried away making it? No. I give it away or sell it.” She has never gotten heavily into fruits or vegetables. There are a few raspberry bushes in her garden, and she said, “I used to grow peas just so I could eat them raw out of the garden.” She is currently growing a few pumpkins for her daughter-in-law.

A hanging wooden heart holds tiny jars of grape jelly, to attract orioles.Trees, including flowering crab, curly willow, catalpa with its orchid-like flowers, hackberry, and pagoda dogwood provide shade, color, and contrast. Not all of them are native to Minnesota; the Cristens brought home a yellow buckeye from Washington DC and a variegated lilac from Montana. She also successfully germinated a Kentucky coffee bean tree from seed. Unfortunately, it produces no coffee. “But it has nice, long beans, and it’s an interesting tree,” Donna said.

All of the plantings blend into a landscape that follows the natural lay of the land.

“It’s actually not hard to mow, Donna says.” If something isn’t right, the mower tells me I have to move that garden or fix that corner because the mower doesn’t go around it. The mower has to keep on moving.” She has the advantage of good soil, much improved after years of putting mulch on it and letting it do its magic. Old rotting hay shaped up a spot that pigs had totally destroyed by their natural behavior.

As a master gardener, Donna worked hard to earn her distinction.

Donna (center) gives a tour of her gardens. Photo by Jean Paschke

Donna (center) gives a tour of her gardens. Photo by Jean Paschke

“You need to take a class. The first year you do 50 community service hours and after that it’s 25 every year. Then you need five hours of continuing education classes. I spend a lot of time at the Stearns County fairgrounds, working on the butterfly gardens. Master gardeners in St. Cloud do question-and-answer sessions at the library, school projects, and work on the rain garden in Clemens Gardens.

The Christens live on a century farm, designated by the Stearns History Museum and founded in 1892 by the Christen-Neameyer families. In the 1950s, line winds wiped out all the trees in the back yard. The first year they were married, Donna and Dwight planted 500 Colorado blue spruce and 500 Norway pine to form a three-row windbreak.

“We expected people to steal the blue spruce,” she said. “They cut off the tops for Christmas trees.. We took a few out for our own Christmas trees, but we should have taken more out because they’re much too close together, but at the time we didn’t know any better, and we wanted a windbreak. It held the snow back beautifully for many years. They weren’t even all that big when it started making a difference.” Now many of the trees are dying because of the drought years of the 1970s and because of their close proximity to each other.

“That was one of our learning processes. We could never believe they would grow that close together.”

Donna says that joining a garden club can be a great boon to a beginning or experienced gardener.

“You can get an awful lot of stuff by plant exchanges without spending a lot of money. We do garden tours, we share tips, and have plant sales and speakers.” Recently Ray Painter, owner of Cottage Gardens, New Munich, demonstrated how to turn a bowling ball into a gazing ball.

“We meet in Albany at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church on the second Monday of the month.Tour times vary. People can call me or just come to a meeting as a guest.

We do a lot of gardening conventions and educational things with speakers. Part of the fun is doing garden tours, to see what other people grow and ask what are other people are doing right that I’m doing wrong. That’s a good learning curve. Sometimes you learn by doing, and sometimes you think, oh well, that didn’t work.”

Some other gardening advice from Donna:

• Buy pretty containers, or just use fencing, and make your own compost. Use all your lawn clippings, provided they don’t have weed killer in them. A local tree service might share their leftover mulch free of charge.

• If you have sandy soil, plant anything that will like to be dry, such as succulents. Use plenty of mulch.

• Prune maples in July and August so they don’t bleed as much.

• Plant grasses in fall, not in the spring, for better survival rates.

• Succulents can be planted in baskets, placed under a tree where they won’t get excessive rain, and sheltered in winter.

• Divide plants that are getting too big and donate them to plant sales. On the other hand, sometimes plants just need to be left alone, where they’re happy. Feed, but don’t overfeed; water, but don’t overwater. If you fertilize, read instructions on the box. Use at half strength, maybe use a little oftener, but never fertilize something that’s totally dried out, because it could burn it.

• Sometimes you learn things just by doing them wrong. Use trial and error. “I planted astilbe, and astilbe likes to be watered no matter how much you mulch it, so I have one astilbe plant left. They like consistent moisture. Geraniums on the other hand like to be watered well and then left to dry out quite a bit.”

• If you keep your plants in pots, put in a tag with the date, Next year add some fertilizer, some top soil, and use it again the second year. Don’t use same old soil over and over.

• Seeds will keep many years if properly stored. To test if they are still viable, put 10 or so seeds on a damp paper towel, roll it up, seal it in a plastic bag. If three germinate, you have 30 percent germination. If nothing germinates, throw them away.

• Red oak are susceptible to wilt. Plant white oak for longer-lasting trees. Hackberry are a good replacement for dying elms, if you have the patience to wait a few years for them to grow.

Recently Donna’s garden came to the attention of the producers of Prairie Lawn and Garden, seen on PBS’s Minnesota Channel. Host Mary Holm and crew arrived in July to tape and interview, stressing Donna’s geraniums.

“I thought it went well. I won’t know until we see the final product.”

The show is now being aired on PBS channels throughout the state. Check your local listings to see when the show airs in your area.

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