YELLOW, TALL AND DRAMATIC, the sunflower exudes strength and happiness. I love this flower, so prevalent now in the Minnesota landscape.
But this year especially, this strong, simple, sunny flower symbolizes much more than the end of the growing season, the ripening of crops, the transition into autumn. The sunflower, as we’ve come to learn this year, is the national flower of Ukraine, the symbol of peace.
Every time I see a sunflower now, I think of the people of Ukraine and the war that still rages there. I remember watching, in the first days of the Russian invasion, media footage of people fleeing the country, people who looked very much like the average Minnesotan. And I thought, this could be us, this could be me.
As the war goes on and on, it is easy to move onto the next headline, to forget about the horrors, the atrocities, the death, the destruction and displacement happening in Ukraine. But then I see a sunflower and I am once again reminded of the suffering in Ukraine, of the elusiveness of peace.
Here in Minnesota, sunflower fields draw families into mazes under bold blue autumn skies. It’s all about the experience and making memories and photo ops among sunny flowers. Thoughts are far from Ukraine in those moments. But even then, in imagining the scene, I see yellow and blue, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. And my thoughts shift back to the people of Ukraine and those who love them, including people right here in Minnesota. In Pittsburgh. Throughout the world.
This year, the sunflower has also evolved to symbolize resistance, unity and hope. We’ve certainly seen that happening in Ukraine. Hope is a powerful word, one I’ve latched onto through challenging times. Hope infuses strength. And hope grows sunflowers that rise tall and dramatic in the landscape, their sunny heads turning toward the light of peace.
SATURDAY MORNING FOUND ME wandering among vendors at the Rice County Historical Society Fall Flea Market in Faribault. It was, as always, an enjoyable event, marked by conversations with friends I haven’t seen in awhile, conversations with vendors and reflecting on the past.
Really, this is what local gatherings are all about for me. They’re about community and connecting, about embracing and appreciating this place I call home.
I was especially delighted to find, among all the vendors of miscellaneous merchandise, several artists. That includes Erin Sellner Honken of Erin’s Acre at Honken Farms. Erin creates with flowers she grows, tends, harvests and arranges into stunning bouquets for CSA subscriptions and special events. With an abundance of flowers right now, she decided to do a pop-up sale at the flea market featuring $10 dahlia mixed bouquets.
Just down the way by the historic schoolhouse, I discovered Jeremy of JS Woodcrafts. It was his “river” table which drew my attention and admiration. If I could afford the $500 price tag, this maple top table with stones and pebbles epoxied in the middle like a river, would be mine. Love, love, love this work of art.
John “Spanky” St. Clair of Spanky’s Woodshed also specializes in woodcrafting. I learned that he uses pallets and aged barn wood to create. Anyone who recycles to create earns my praise.
I found more art in spoon flowers, in a Louie Armstrong figure, in paint-by-number paintings, in an endless array of merchandise.
And while I walked I heard music rising from A Fun Lil’ Band in Rice County with a sign declaring WE JUST LOVE TO PLAY MUSIC!! Their music added an extra touch of joy to the morning market.
This event is a fundraiser for the Rice County Historical Society. But history is also very much a part of the market in aged and vintage merchandise vended. I reminisced over old farm toys, a baby stroller, a yellow Pyrex mixing bowl. I picked up a few items, pondering whether I should buy, but, in the end, held steady in my determination not to acquire more stuff. I’m at that age…
Instead, I collect with my camera, gathering images to tell a story, to share this market, to showcase the works of creatives, to express my appreciation for my community, this place I’ve called home for 40 years.
ANYONE WHO GARDENS understands just how quickly plants can grow. Sunshine and rain make all the difference.
A month had passed between visits to the Rice County Master Gardeners Teaching Garden located at the Rice County Fairgrounds in Faribault. And in those few weeks, the vegetables, flowers and other plants grew in length, height and width, some blossoming, some with fruit emerging.
To walk here again among the prairie flowers, the zinnias, the hydrangea and hosta, the burpless cucumbers, eggplants, tomatoes and much more is to feel a deep connection to the earth. For it is the soil which roots, which feeds these plants watered by the sky, energized by the sun.
And it is volunteer gardeners who plant and tend this beautiful garden for the enjoyment of many. Like me. I appreciate their time, their efforts, their desire to create this peaceful place in my community.
To visit this spot is to understand how much we each need such a contemplative place. A place simply to meander along wood chip or brick pathways, pausing to appreciate the likes of broad-leafed Pig Squeak or the silvery sheen of Silver Mound or a little-finger-sized prickly cucumber or a Prickly Pear Cactus. There’s a lot to take in among the vast plant varieties.
And then there’s the water, oh, the water. No garden feature soothes more than a fountain. Here five replica tree stumps spill water into a shallow pond, a focal point defined by a circle of bricks connected to brick paths.
Even a bird bath drew my attention with a feather floating therein.
Strategically situated benches offer sitting spots to pass the time, chat, read a book or simply take in the garden, the being outdoors, in nature. In this fast-paced world of technology and a deluge of news that is often awful and horrible and unsettling, this garden provides a respite. Nature has a way of working calm into our beings. Easing stress and anxiety. Lifting spirits.
In the challenges which have defined my life in 2022, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for this garden. I feel at peace here among the flowers and vegetables, the birds and butterflies, bushes and trees, here under the southern Minnesota sky.
IN MY FARIBAULT BACKYARD, wild tiger lilies stretch above a tangled mess of greenery, popping orange into the hillside. On the other side of town, domesticated orange lilies grace the neatly-cultivated Rice County Master Gardeners Teaching Gardens at the Rice County Fairgrounds.
Also in my yard are scattered milkweeds, food for Monarch caterpillars. In the gardens tended by the experts, a mass of intentionally-planted milkweeds flourishes.
Blocks away from my home, Donahue’s Greenhouse grows one of the largest selections of clematis in the U.S. That’s their specialty. Across town at the master gardeners’ garden, clematis climb an arbor, lovely blooms opening to the summer sky.
Within a short distance of my home is the birthplace of the Tilt-A-Whirl, a carnival ride no longer made in Faribault but in Texas. On the edge of the master gardeners’ garden, a giant strawberry sits. It’s a Berry-Go-Round, a spin ride produced by Sellner Manufacturing beginning in 1987, before the company was sold.
It’s interesting how, in life, so many connections exist. Even in a garden.
Gardens connect us to people, places, memories. A life that touches others goes on forever. I come from a family of gardeners tracing back generations. Vegetables grown in my mother’s massive garden fed me, and my family of origin, for the first 18 years of my life. I worked that garden with her, planting, weeding, tending, harvesting. I left gardening when I left southwestern Minnesota. But I still appreciate gardeners and gardens.
I value the beauty of flower gardens, the purpose of vegetable gardens to feed. And I appreciate, too, the peace a garden brings. To sit among the blooms and plants in a garden oasis like the Rice County master gardeners created is to feel a calm, a sense of serenity in the midst of chaos and struggles and challenges.
Water, especially, soothes me. The Rice County master gardeners understand that and added a water feature to their garden plot. I delighted in watching a tiny yellow bird (I think a goldfinch) splash in the water. Such a simple joy.
And isn’t that part of a garden’s purpose—to bring joy? Joy to those who work the soil, seed or plant, tend and care for that which grows. Joy to those who delight in the all of it.
I feel such gratitude for gardeners, for the nurturing hands that link me to nature. It’s all about connecting to each other in this world we share, in the commonality of humanity.
AT THE RICE COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS in Faribault, an unexpected oasis brings nature into a setting of buildings, grandstand and roadways. It’s a welcome respite, this Rice County Master Gardeners Teaching Gardens.
On a Sunday in early July, Randy and I packed a picnic lunch and set out for the fairgrounds garden, a place we haven’t previously lunched. There we settled onto a fountain-side shaded bench, the soothing rush of water creating a peaceful ambiance.
Afterwards, I ambled through these gardens, admiring the plants and blooming flowers. Clematis climbing an arbor. Sedum. Hosta. Lilies and roses and Pig Squeak. Masses of milkweed for monarch caterpillars. Eggplant, prickly pear cactus, Mugo pine and much more.
If you’re into gardening, and even if you’re not, this compact garden patch showcases a wide variety of plants that are beautiful to behold. Some are grown as seed trial plants for the University of Minnesota.
There’s a seed library, too, with packets of seeds tucked into a tiny red house similar to a Little Free Library.
Strategically-placed signs identify plants and provide information about gardening in general. This is, after all, a teaching garden.
But for me, these gardens proved primarily a spot to retreat for a bit, to immerse myself in a place that feels restful, soothing, calming. Connecting to nature, whether in a natural or cultivated setting always, always renews my spirit.
TELL ME: Have you found a similar oasis mini garden where you live?
Please check back for more photos from this lovely teaching garden in additional posts.
OH, HOW LOVELY this flush of flowers folding around a corner house in northwest Faribault. The scene proves eye-pleasing in color, composition and height.
I wouldn’t say that about every massive quantity of potted plants. I’ve seen enough scattered-across-the-yard pots to recognize when I see a well-done grouping. This one I like. A lot.
The narrow color palette of purples and pinks mixed with some yellow is simply beautiful. Sweet potato vine and other spillers among the primarily petunias and million bells create a unified look. I also spot backdrop orange lilies and purple clematis in the mix.
This gardener clearly worked hard to create this floral painting. Choosing all these plants, then potting and arranging them takes time, effort and an artistic eye. And money. Plants are costly as are pots and soil.
I deeply appreciate those who beautify my community via the flowers they plant, grow and tend. In recent years, I’ve cut back on gardening. No longer do pots of flowers grace my front steps, the patio or the driveway next to the garage. But old-fashioned hydrangea still spill around the corner of my house. Ferns wave. The occasional milkweeds, phlox and assorted whatever mix in unruly flower beds that my Grandma Ida would have appreciated. Her flowerbeds were, like mine, a bit of a lovely mess.
I miss the zinnias I once grew, the zinnias which filled my mother’s garden and then vases inside the southwestern Minnesota farmhouse of my youth. This spring my 3-year-old grandson planted zinnia seeds I gave to his mom, my eldest, on her February birthday. He was so incredibly excited when the seeds sprouted and even more so when the plants grew and blossomed. His mom praised him. “You have a green thumb, Isaac.”
He looked at his thumb and replied, “No, I don’t.” Sometimes we forget how children take everything literally.
Such joy flowers bring. Memories. Inspiring a new generation to perhaps plant flower seeds that will grow into a lovely mess of a garden or contained in a pot.
This summer I celebrate the northwest Faribault gardener who brings beauty into his/her yard near the back employee parking lot of the Faribault Mill with this massive potting of flowers. This shows pride in community, pride in neighborhood and creativity.
TELL ME: Have you spotted a similar potted flower garden in your community? Do you grow flowers, either in beds or pots?
OH, HOW STUNNING the traditional Hmong dresses worn by two sisters posing among the peonies in a rural southeastern Minnesota garden.
Their unexpected presence graced my annual tour of Aspelund Peony Gardens with culture and color on a recent Sunday afternoon. What a delight to encounter these friendly women who say they simply love peonies. Their attire included floral print fabric. They traveled from the Twin Cities metro to this country location northwest of Wanamingo/northeast of Kenyon, site of Aspelund Winery and Peony Gardens. After they photographed each other, one sister asked me to photograph them with her camera. I obliged.
I try to come here every year in early June to see the rows and rows of peonies in bloom. And to sip wine. This visit, Randy and I met our friend Valerie and her friend Jean. The place was busy. Owners Dawn and Bruce Rohl sell wine and take orders for root peony tubers, available in the fall.
Here Rascal the dog welcomes guests up the gravel driveway with raucous barking. I’d barely opened the van door when Rascal ran up and I reached down to pet him. Later I saw Princess the cat weaving through the peonies.
Those are the nuances which endear Aspelund Winery and Peony Gardens to me. The simplicity of this place atop a hill overlooking the Zumbro River Valley, red barn and silo in the distance. This place of towering oaks and tire swing, of old tin-sided shed, apple trees, massive rhubarb plants, twisted grapevines…
On this June afternoon, the wind blew fierce, whipping lose ends of my hair, dipping peony stems, playing a refrain inside my head of “summer breeze makes me feel fine” (Seals & Croft 1972). I felt mighty fine in this peaceful place among blooming peonies. Some buds remained clamped tight, but likely have opened in the days since my visit.
I prefer meandering on this plot of land among the apple trees and grapevines and, especially, in the peony gardens. Here assorted shades of mostly pink and crimson flowers bloom. Colors vary from subdued to vibrant. Shapes, vary, too.
But it’s not all visual for me. I take time to bend close to the blossoms (check for bees), smelling their fragrant perfume which, if you’re a romanticist, may prompt you to reflect on long ago brides gathering peonies from their mothers’ or grandmothers’ gardens for bridal bouquets. They did so in my community of Faribault, storing peonies in the cool sandstone caves along the Straight River to preserve until their wedding days. Faribault was once The Peony Capital of the World. Some of the Aspelund peonies were sourced from those once grown in Faribault.
Touring Aspelund Winery and Peony Gardens has become an early summer tradition for me. I feel comfortable here, at peace, soothed by the wind and the wine and the welcoming conversations. The small scale of the business suits me as do the unpretentious owners and the rural setting. As I watched two young girls sway on the tire swing, pushed by their dad, their happy voices rising, I felt such joy in witnessing this scene.
And I felt happiness, too, in that chance encounter with the two sisters from the Cities, celebrating their Hmong heritage in a field of peonies.
FYI: Aspelund Winery and Peony Gardens is open from 4 – 7 pm Thursday and Friday, noon – 7 pm Saturday and noon – 5 pm Sunday. Note that the tasting room is small, basically a walk-up and order space. Outdoor seating on the deck and other areas can be difficult to secure during busy times. However, you can order a glass of wine and walk around the gardens. If you want to see the peonies, go now; their bloom period is nearly done.
I HAVE SEVERAL TOPICS on my mind today, all unrelated, but a trio of information I want to share.
First up, Aspelund Winery and Peony Gardens. This is one of my favorite rural Minnesota places to visit each June. On this 10-acre parcel of land just outside Aspelund (northeast of Kenyon or northwest of Wanamingo), Dawn and Bruce Rohl have created a little bit of heaven. Here they cultivate 50-plus varieties of peonies and also make wine. The couple are the most down-to-earth friendly folks. I always feel welcomed by them and their roaming dog, Rascal.
Now, with fragrant peony buds opening, is the absolute ideal time to visit Aspelund Peony Gardens and walk among the rows of flowers. I do so at a leisurely pace—dipping my nose into the perfumed petals, stopping to photograph these old-fashioned flowers that once graced many a bridal bouquet, noting the lovely shades of pink and crimson.
The gardens are also a business. The Rohls invite guests to stroll the gardens, then order peonies. In the fall, root peony tubers are available for customer pick-up or shipping. Gardens are open from 4-7 pm Thursday and Friday, from 10 am-7 pm Saturday and from 10 am-5 pm Sunday.
Be sure to order a glass of wine to enjoy on-site outdoors overlooking the scenic Zumbro River Valley. And then buy a bottle to take home.
Next up, Mailbox Mysteries created by OrangeGuy Games, aka Matt Stelter. During the pandemic, this Cannon Falls librarian crafted mysteries to mail to patrons stuck at home while the library was closed. It was a creative outreach program that I learned about while visiting Cannon Falls. I got on the mailing list for those mysteries and found them challenging, informative and a welcome escape from reality.
Now, with the library reopened, Stelter is no longer creating Mailbox Mysteries for the library. But he is selling his mysteries via Etsy through his private business, OrangeGuy Games. Given all the hard work, time and effort he invested in the games, simply letting them languish seems unwise. Thus the Etsy offering. His three mysteries—Spy School, Gangster’s Gold and Cypher Cabin—have been tweaked, updated, fine-tuned and improved. And they are half-price from now until the end of June.
Lastly, applications opened Wednesday for the Minnesota Frontline Worker Pay program for those who continued to go to their respective workplaces during the pandemic without the option of working from home. There are income and other guidelines.
I’m thankful this legislation finally got passed because, as the spouse of an employee whose job requires him to be present (in the automotive machine shop) and in close contact with co-workers and customers, the risk of getting COVID was (still is) real and concerning.
State officials expect approved applicants to get about $750/each in frontline worker pay, depending on number of qualified recipients. That’s not a lot considering the risk. But it’s something and will help us as Randy is now paying more to commute 30 miles to and from work daily. In less than three months, he won’t have that gas expense as he’s losing his job of 39 years under new company ownership.
And so that’s what’s on my mind today. Peonies. Mysteries. Pay. And a glass of wine.
IN THE DEPTHS of a Minnesota winter, when snow layers the landscape and cold settles into my bones, I long for spring. I yearn for color, for warmth, for stepping outdoors without first donning, boots, winter coat, scarf, hat and mittens.
In that mind frame, I recently purchased a hyacinth bulb at Aldi. It was in the non-food aisle of oddities—those items you don’t necessarily need but may buy on impulse. But I did need this. I needed a visual pop of spring, of color, in my home.
A year ago I bought a hyacinth bulb in a mini vase at Aldi, too, but for my son who at the time lived in Madison, Wisconsin. He struggles with the cold, with winter in general. So, for a few bucks, I jolted color into his apartment. He’s now living in Indiana, some eight-plus hours away, thus no hyacinth this winter.
Instead, I would delight in this spring flower associated with the Greek god Apollo. I chose a pink hyacinth this year rather than the blue gifted to Caleb. My granddaughter loves pink and I was hoping to give the spring flower to her. But then my mom died and Izzy was sick (not COVID) and time got away and I haven’t seen the grandkids since early January.
It was meant to be—for me to tend this bulb with buds clamped, then lengthening and unfurling into two beautiful blossom branches.
Each morning I moved the vase to the east-facing front picture window, into the morning light. I delighted in white roots expanding in the water-filled vase. I topped the water as instructed. I watched the greenery grow remarkably fast…until the first flowers bloomed. Lovely pink. And a fragrance equally lovely in intensity.
Then the bulb tipped in the vase at the weight of the blooming stem. I leaned the heavy bloom against the window, propping it into balance.
Soon a second shoot shot to the side. More flowers. Flowers set against a backdrop of snow. A symbol of spring in the depths of a cold Minnesota winter.
TELL ME: Have you grown a spring bulb inside your home in winter? I’d like to hear what and why.
I RECENTLY CELEBRATED a milestone birthday and I’ve never been happier to turn another year older. Gone is my absurdly high monthly health insurance premium of $1,245 (with a $4,250 deductible), replaced by affordable (and usable) Medicare coverage. And now I’m also eligible for the Pfizer booster vaccine. Yeah. Here’s to turning sixty-five.
I didn’t celebrate my birthday with great fanfare or the usual birthday treat of dining out. (Even though vaccinated, I continue to be cautious and careful in these days of COVID-19.) Rather, Randy and I hiked across the prairie and woods at River Bend Nature Center, a treasured place to connect with nature in Faribault.
Afterwards, I enjoyed a delicious brunch prepared by Randy. We dined al fresco on our patio at a card table draped in one of my many vintage tablecloths.
Then, in the afternoon, we spent time with our eldest daughter, her husband and our precious grandchildren at their home. I appreciated the grilled burger and vegetables with my favorite, cheesecake, for dessert. A wonderful way to celebrate.
The only thing that would have made my birthday even better would have been the presence of our second daughter, her husband and our son. But they called from southeastern Wisconsin and northwestern Indiana and that brought me joy.
Some friends and extended family also texted wishes. I got greeting cards, too.
Andy’s genuine passion for MEG’S Edible Landscapes showed in his pitch and his personality. He is a genuinely warm and engaging person. To summarize, Andy sells a mobile system for growing vegetables like peppers, basil, beans, lettuce, carrots and more in bags that you can easily pick up and move. It’s ideal, he said, for someone like me without garden space. If enthusiasm and knowledge make for business success, then Andy is certain to succeed.
His unexpected birthday gift of those smoked cayenne peppers touched me in a way that resonated deeply. In these challenging times, I needed that affirmation of an unexpected act of kindness. What a great way to begin my next year of life.