Extreme Gardening: Duluth’s Story

Editor’s note: The May/June issue of Northern Gardener, which is available on news stands starting this week, includes an article called “Extreme Gardening.” It offers suggestions for gardening in extreme weather, such as heat, humidity, cold, drought and flood — and, of course, snow, which we have dealt with so much this spring. That article got us thinking about Duluth’s flooding in 2012 and its effects on gardens. If you remember, Duluth suffered severe flooding in June 2012, when up to 10 inches of rain fell over a few days. (For a reminder of the flood, check out this photo gallery.) Duluth is a city of gardens — well worth a visit in the summer — and we wondered how the city’s landmark gardens, as well as private gardens, fared after the flood. Veteran northern Minnesota writer, Margaret Haapoja, filed this report:

Despite the Duluth flooding, most of the city’s public gardens survived amazingly well. City gardener Tom Kasper reports that Enger Park’s paths suffered some erosion as did the gardens in Canal Park, the Lake Walk and the Civic Center, but otherwise had little damage.

The Leif Erikson Rose Garden also came through in remarkably good shape, according to Mary Tennis, assistant city gardener responsible for the popular tourist attraction, although roses were more prone to disease later in the season. Elizabeth Donley, who donated all the peonies in the rose garden, says the very heavy, hard rain fell on already soft and damaged blooms. “Peony flowers beyond the soft bud stage cannot withstand that,” she says. “I was expecting the very worst, but because there were many buds that had not begun to open, the latter part of the season was splendid.”

The gardens at Glensheen Mansion also endured the deluge, according to gardener Roger Johnson. “We lucked out because we’re so elevated here that we didn’t have any damage to our gardens like we did on the property from the rivers that overflowed there,” Johnson says. “Some of the beds got a little bit eroded, and the beds just got super saturated. We had to get in and aerate and cultivate all our soils again to relieve the compaction.”

All the produce from Glensheen’s vegetable gardens goes to Second Harvest Food Shelf, and many of the newly seeded crops were washed out and had to be reseeded. To get a crop after the flood, the gardeners chose to use short-season varieties in some cases and in others switched to annual crops that can be seeded later in the season—for example lettuce, beets and radishes.

“If soils were poorly drained we had issues with root rot,” says Bob Olen, St. Louis County horticulturist. “The potato crop was severely damaged in heavier soils and on lighter soils we experienced nutrient losses as the continuous rain flushed soluble nutrients through the soil profile. I advised gardeners to terrace sloping areas, use transplants instead of direct seeding, improve drainage on poorly drained soils and pay careful attention to nutrient availability on light or sandy soils.”

Hostas Did Well After Flooding

Barb Aker’s garden in the Fond du Lac area of west Duluth was devastated.  “All my yard ended up being consumed by the river’s flow with water varying from 2 to 3 feet deep,” she says. “Upon my return five days later, the water was receding with the vegetable gardens still under water. Everything in that garden died.

“Many of the other plants just needed to be lifted up and fluffed,” she says. “Without a doubt the biggest overall survivors were the hostas. I lost none. It appeared that how long plants were under water was a factor. I tried to clear away as much silt as I could from the base of the plants so they could breathe, and then came the meticulous task of trying to clean the leaves.”

Roger Hill’s gardens south of Floodwood survived although his vegetable garden was the worst it’s ever been. “Everyone around Floodwood and the surrounding townships who had flat ground and heavier soil has terrible gardens in 2012,” Hill says. Because his flower beds are raised, most plants survived although he lost half his bearded irises since they were not well enough drained.

—Margaret Haapoja