Spring seems to be the time when family and friends can come together, catch up on recent events, and inevitably, commiserate over their many to-do lists. But some people have come to appreciate—even revel in—the “unfinished project.” Jerry Kennedy is one such person. He and his wife, Bonnie, have been working on the gardens surrounding their Lake Minnetonka home for the last 30 years. There’s still no end in sight, and that’s just the way they like it.
Kennedy’s appreciation for gardening seems to run in his genes. He grew up on a farm outside the rural community of Corcoran where his mother cultivated peonies. He remembers her as an “industrious farmer,” and recalls moving the peonies to the home she retired to in the city, then allotting them a space in his own garden, years later. Despite the recent popularity of hybridized plants and the constantly increasing number of available varieties, Kennedy admits that “they’re all nice, but the old red ones” have always held a special place in his heart, he says.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t made way for other plants, though. The multitude of gardens that populate his secluded property started with a single hosta garden in the front yard. His career as a litigation attorney left little time for outside interests, and initially, the going was slow. Fifteen years ago, however, he and his wife added a plot to the backyard, and five years later, a second went in. Gradually, Japanese lilac bushes, an oversized Red Prince Weigela, two magnolia trees, a cascading hill of wild geraniums, and countless varieties of elegant lilies and enormous hostas have made their way into the Kennedys’ garden.
As Kennedy puts it, “a garden evolves.” The family’s backyard lakeside gardens started as a shady haven for hostas and other sun-shy plants, but after a large storm in 1995 brought down one of their largest trees, many of their shade-loving plants had to be replaced by more sun-tolerant ones. And Mother Nature isn’t the only trouble-maker in the garden.
A few years ago, Kennedy decided to relocate a large plant from its home beneath a flourishing clematis vine. Shortly thereafter, the clematis’ vibrant violet blooms began to shrivel, and after a season of frustratingly poor growth, he finally realized the relocated plant had been protecting the clematis’ heat-sensitive roots. As Kennedy found out, change is essential and often inevitable, but not always productive. “Sometimes things work, and sometimes they fail miserably,” he says. “It’s all trial and error.”
Gardening was one thing that definitely worked for Kennedy, though, and after a long and successful law career, he was ready to hang up his litigation hat and put on the gardening gloves for real. “I wanted to do more than take care of my own garden; I wanted to help other people get started with theirs,” Kennedy says. He subsequently applied to the Master Gardener Program, an intense, month-long course offered through the University of Minnesota Extension Service.
After being accepted, Master Gardener students meet three times weekly—twice during the week and once on Saturdays—and log a total of 52 classroom hours by the end of the course. Along with the usual book-learning, students are also exposed to an array of guest lecturers, from bee-keepers to horticulturists and entomologists, all eager to share their knowledge and experience. The diversity of these encounters enables the newly minted Master Gardeners to complete the next phase of their education: teaching others.
The Master Gardener Program requires 50 hours of community service the first year, and 25 hours each year thereafter. It may sound daunting at first, but Kennedy notes that the opportunities for service are endless, as “we get notices almost every day,” he says. Volunteer Master Gardeners plant and upkeep many of the public gardens around the county, including the Courage Center beds in Golden Valley and Noerenberg Gardens in Orono. They also volunteer their landscaping talents to Habitat for Humanity houses, work at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, field questions in local nurseries, and share their knowledge with school classrooms.
Another popular option for service is the Master Gardener Helpline. Eighty-five of the 87counties in Minnesota host a non-profit call center, staffed by Master Gardeners, where citizens can turn for gardening advice and resources. The University of Minnesota also hosts an online version, where web-goers can submit questions and receive a response within 48 hours.
What kind of questions do they field? Interestingly, many aren’t even about plants. “A lot of the calls are about animals—gophers, chipmunks, moles; people just become obsessed with getting rid of them,” Kennedy says. The questions also seem to vary by season. “In spring, it’s about dividing the perennials and lawn care,” he says. “In the summer, it’s about fruit, like raspberries and strawberries, and how to get rid of bugs and increase the harvest.”
Due to the sheer diversity of calls, even the most seasoned Master Gardener can’t field everything on the spot. “Sometimes you have to look things up and call them back,” he says. “You can’t just shoot from the hip on these things.”
Although Kennedy admits to having to hit the books to research many of his caller’s questions, this isn’t the first venue he recommends to the average gardener. For the tough, technical questions, he points people in the direction of local nurseries, like Gerten’s in Inver Grove Heights, and staff at the University of Minnesota Horticulture Department. Often they have Master Gardeners on staff who can combine their experience and on-site resources to give you the best answer to your questions. According to Kennedy, “it’s the most fool-proof way to do it.”
He also refers people to plant specialists, like the American Hosta or American Peony Societies, where you can obtain plant-specific information, buy plants, and keep up-to-date on the newest hybridizations, which often aren’t available to the general public.
If you’re just looking for simple design ideas or plant recommendations, Kennedy prefers staying close to home. “Go to your friends’ yards,” he recommends. “You’ll see things you like, things you don’t and things that make you think, ‘Why don’t I have that?’ If they have a perennial, have them dig it up for you.”
Kennedy avers that “plants are tough,” and that most are able to be safely transplanted towards the end of the summer. He also recommends supplementing with annuals. His favorites are the classic snapdragon and the new hybridized petunias. “They give you color,” he says. “You could garden forever with perennials, but there are always gaps [in bloom times].”
The aesthetic color combinations, the perfect design arrangement and coordinating bloom times seem to be the universal goals of all gardeners. But perfection is a lofty and often unobtainable goal. Kennedy recommends setting small goals and a reasonable timeline, and keeping the urge for large-scale designs in check. “Gardening is a slow, slow process,” he says. “If you start small, you’ll see results, you won’t get discouraged and you’ll keep on going.”
At 30 years and counting, Kennedy would be one to know. “You’re never done, that’s the fun of gardening,” he says.
Contact your local Hennepin County Master Gardener Helpline at 612.596.2118 or contact a Master Gardener through the University of Minnesota Extension Service website.