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Passion for gardening grew into perfect job

Mary Lou Salzl, of Albany, is excited about putting in 90,000 plants in her garden this spring–“the garden” being the world-renowned Clemens Munsinger Gardens in St. Cloud, where she has worked for the past 23 years.

Mary Lou Salzl from rural Albany has worked at the Clemens Munsinger Gardens for 23 years. Photo by Bill Vossler

“We started off on March 26 and had to get 90,000 plugs into groups of 16, 24, 32 or 36 and fill up our new greenhouse. We don’t have an automatic watering system, so it takes two people a good hour each and every day to water all the plants, depending on the sun. If it’s cloudy, you might not have to water for a day. Once the greenhouse is full of plants, the soil outside has to be tilled and gotten ready, and we’ll start planting them outside on the first of June. Everything has to be in shape.”

One spring job is removing straw that covers perennials over the winter. “It’s a cycle. The city gets the compost, composts it all winter, and returns it in the spring so we can put it into the garden.”

Outside work depends on the weather, she added. “Once we’ve gotten them planted, we have the whole month of May to prepare the gardens. With the greenhouse empty we’re done in there for the summer.”

Flowers grow in profusion in the Clemens Munsinger Gardens in St. Cloud. Photo by Bill Vossler

Mary Lou has always liked gardening with her mother and grandmother. “My grandma allowed me a little corner of her garden along the river if I promised to keep it weed free. I mainly planted annual flowers and a few vegetable plants.”

When her youngest turned 17, Mary Lou thought about doing something different and getting a job off the farm. “Dave Morreim, a friend of our priest at St. Catherine’s Catholic Church, always brought flowers that he raised at the Clemens Munsinger Gardens. So at church I asked him how I could get a job at Munsinger Gardens, and he said, ‘You see me. You don’t need any references.’” Two weeks later in her Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) class Fr. Gunther Rolfson, said he had something for her. “It was a letter from Clemens Munsinger Gardens hiring me for three days a week.” Her husband said he supposed she could try it. “That was 23 years ago, and I’m still there.”

Working around the several pools in the garden is part of Mary Lou’s job. Photo by Bill Vossler

Working the Gardens

Different flowers react differently in different years. “The weather makes the difference. Some years begonias turn out beautiful, some years not good. Sometimes a year is right for a plant, and sometimes it isn’t.

Usually we have good luck with perennials, but maybe one or two don’t work out. They’re just not as hardy, and they die.”

“We’re always trying new plants, Proven Winner plants, perennials and annuals. The perennials will sometimes do good, and sometimes they won’t. We try everything.”

Mary Lou and other workers have a say in which flowers are planted each year. “All summer we take notes on which ones overgrew after three or four years and need to be dug out, divided, and planted somewhere else. Or which ones need to be moved, or didn’t thrive and need to be removed.”

The fairy gardens are one of Mary Lou’s favorite areas. Photo by Bill Vossler

Worker input is appreciated. “We tell our supervisor what we like, and what we should try. We’ll say, ‘These didn’t work,’ or ‘We should have more of this and more of that.’ We suggest all kinds of things, and she chooses some of them. She’s very easy to work with. She also trusts us in our work in the garden. So say a hosta needs to be dug up, split, and planted, we do that, even if she isn’t out there with us.”

Spring Comes

In the spring, “Forsythia and tulips bloom, and birds sing while we’re tilling up the soil. There is new life around there.”

Her favorite plants are “Echinacea, which is like a coneflower, lilies, Persian shields, and the pretty petunias. The hibiscus are beautiful, and I still like the old-fashioned hydrangeas. I like a lot of flowers,” she added.

Weeding is an ever-present job during the summer in the garden. Photo by Bill Vossler

Some old flowers are coming back, she said, often with different breedings. “The Shasta daisy is back, and the one-color Echinacea has different colors. We try them all, so every spring it’s exciting to see what’s new.”

Occasionally disaster strikes. “We planted a bunch of beautiful impatiens, and just like that they got a disease, and overnight they went down. So in two days we had to pull them. How that happens, we don’t know, and now we can‘t plant them for many years because the soil is contaminated. I miss those impatiens a lot.”

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