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Spring 2003: How to plant 150,000 flowers

Posted by Candi Helseth 10/20/2016 11:29:54 AM

Some of the International Peace Garden's biggest fans are not welcome. They just make life difficult for horticulturist Connie Lagerquist and her summer crew.


One day last summer Lagerquist and her crew were finishing last minute touch-ups prior to the weekend's arrival of 700 people planning to celebrate the Eastern Star and Masons Jubilee at the International Peace Garden.


As an extra touch, Lagerquist had planted parsley to create a special design in the area where convention activities would be held. But woodchucks saw the parsley before convention goers and ate all the tops off it.


Woodchucks, deer and moose may love the Peace Garden, but Lagerquist doesn't love them. Still, she admits, as she makes her daily early morning rounds, she enjoys watching the wildlife that can make her job difficult.


"We have a moose that thinks the Sunken Garden is her drinking hole," says Lagerquist, who has spent nearly her entire life at the Peace Garden and has never tired of it. "She comes in every morning for a drink and on her way out she uses the Peace Poles as her rubbing post. In the spring she showed up with a baby. It's really something to stand and watch them surrounded by all the flowers. Not a sight you'll see many places."


The moose has better manners than Lagerquist's other four-legged companions at the Peace Garden. When the dirt was freshly turned and the seedlings young, the moose routinely plodded through the flowerbeds to get to its destination. Lagerquist's crews routinely replanted the beds. When the flowers began blooming, the moose changed its course to skirt the flowers enroute to her watering hole.


"The deer and woodchucks are never that polite," grins Lagerquist, who adds that deer seem to think her workers are the intruders. She can't find anything deer don't like either. They have eaten green peppers down to the ground, unripened tomatoes off the vine, Swiss chard in one swipe, and flowers for dessert.


A woodchuck found the greenhouse particularly appealing and scared one of the staff so badly "that we all heard the screams when both of them tried to get out," Lagerquist laughs. "And Mother Nature hasn't really been fair to me these last couple years either. I think I'm due."


Last spring a malfunctioning furnace in a greenhouse slowly killed plants and made Lagerquist feel ill for several weeks before she connected the two problems and recognized the source.


The previous year, torrential rains fell and washed out 3,000 newly planted seeds, distributing the topsoil well beyond the bed's boundaries. Lagerquist and her crew hauled in more black dirt and peat, rebuilt the bed and began planting all over again. Then an early frost sent many plants to an early grave.


"We usually don't spend a lot of time talking about the problems though," Lagerquist comments. "We just try to make the best of it and do what we have to do to fix it."


While it may sound like the job is all headaches, this head horticulturist wouldn't trade her spot with anyone. She's the third generation raised on a farm near the Peace Garden where her parents still live. She spent summers as a teenager working at the Garden's information booth and concessions stands. For the last 18 years, she has worked here as a horticulturist. She was named head horticulturist in October 2000.


"I have always loved this place," she says. "For a long time, it was one of North Dakota's best kept secrets, but the word is finally getting out. I feel privileged to work here."


During the summer months the Peace Garden is a splendid array of vibrant colors, carefully arranged to maximize their hues. The untrained eye really doesn't understand what it takes to achieve such perfect presentation. Careful planning, a good knowledge of horticulture, hard work and a fair amount of luck are all necessary for success.


From October to mid-March, Lagerquist works in solitude, often the only person on the grounds near the three greenhouses. On graph paper she draws out and plans the coming summer's beds, incorporating new flower varieties and vegetables into the overall designs.


She figures square footage of the beds and how many plants are needed to fill each bed. She calculates germination periods, longevity, growth and heights. For instance, in the Peace Garden's well-known flower clock bed, flowers can't grow too high or they stop the clock's hands.


"It might be quiet that time of year, but there's always something to be doing," Lagerquist says. "I never have a dull moment."


From mid-February to April, she begins plants in the greenhouses. North Dakota's short growing season necessitates greenhouse plantings so flowers will be in full bloom by mid-June.


In March, Lagerquist begins adding staff. By summer, she has a staff of 11 people, several of them college students. Three staff members remain through the fall until after the freeze.


The first week of June, provided weather conditions cooperate, they will put at least 150,000 plants in the ground. Volunteers from the Telephone Pioneers of America help with the planting every year.


Then Lagerquist and her 11 employees spend the rest of the summer keeping the plants alive, the deer and woodchucks out and replacing plants that succumb to woodchucks, weather and whatever else may befall them.


"I don't sugarcoat this job when I hire kids during the summer," Lagerquist says. "I tell them the first weeks they'll probably hate the job and me, but it gets better as they get more limber, and by the end of the summer they'll be tan. They're all looking for that tan when they apply for the job!"

Weeding is a full-time summer job. Lagerquist remembers her mother making her weed as a teenager and how she fumed at its futility. Now, she says, she finds reward in it. "As you get older, you appreciate weeding for the beauty that lies beyond the weeds," she reflects. "It's hard work, yet it's relaxing. I look at these beautiful flowerbeds that started as nothing and feel real pleasure. It's like seeing your children grow up. You plant, nurture, fertilize and then they're on their own."


Lagerquist, who also cares for the thousands of trees and shrubs on the grounds, is responsible for the Peace Garden's 2,300 acres on both sides of the border, including the International Music Camp and the Royal Canadian Legion Athletic Camp.


Since becoming head horticulturist, Lagerquist has begun adding more perennials to the Peace Garden and experimenting with new varieties, such as some of the ornamental grasses that can now be seen throughout the grounds.


She takes pride in the fact that visitors to the Peace Garden can find their favorite color Ð no matter what it is Ð somewhere on the grounds, and they'll always find a variety or type of flower that is new to them.


The International Peace Garden and North Dakota State University at Fargo are the only two sites in the state approved to plant All American Selection vegetable seeds on an experimental basis. When studies are completed, Lagerquist explains, consumers will be able to purchase the seeds on the general market.

Lagerquist enjoys the interaction with fellow gardeners and flower lovers who seek her out to inquire about something they've seen on the grounds. Last year, she said, the biggest hit was several varieties of rudbekias.


"One woman thought she'd died and gone to heaven when she saw the Cherokee Sunset rudbekias," Lagerquist grins. "I guess that's what I hope for, that when people leave here they will have new ideas to go home and try in their beds. That's what makes this job really rewarding, when you know someone has gotten inspiration from something they saw at the International Peace Garden."


The International Peace Garden's season is Memorial Day through Labor Day. In addition to the Peace Garden's serenity and beauty, visitors will find picnic areas, campgrounds, hiking trails and bike paths.


The Interpretive Center provides information about the Peace Garden's history and future. The Peace Garden Cafe offers meals and refreshments, the Peace Chapel a spot to replenish the soul and learn words of wisdom from "people of peace." A gift shop is also on the grounds. Each summer, special activities and tours are part of the schedule.


Admission is $10 per vehicle. To learn about this summer's events or more about the International Peace Garden, call 888-432-6733 or visit

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