In August, I will have been with Conservation Minnesota for two years, and I can’t believe how fast the time has gone and how much the job has evolved in that short time!
In the beginning, I had lists. The lists were full of the names of all our members in southern Minnesota who had reached out to us in some way and who we knew were interested in at least one of our issues. But, which issues? How interested? There was only one way to find out, so, I started calling members – I started in Rochester and I started with the A’s. I had no way of knowing that on my third dial, I would connect with one of the most interesting, dedicated people I have met in the last two years, Doris Amundsen.
Doris and I talked for over a half an hour that day—about 27 minutes longer than most of the calls I made in those first months. We talked about her garden, her work with the kids at Century High School and a wealth of other things in between. At the end of the conversation Doris invited me over to see her garden later in the week and I enthusiastically accepted. Now, I’ve seen beautiful gardens before. My mom is a gardener, and I’ve certainly toured gardens and appreciated them, but I had no idea what I was in for. Pictures don’t do it justice; it’s so beautiful it’s distracting. Many times I’ve been at her house and watched people nearly cause accidents by slowing down to gawk.
Doris grew up a middle child on a dairy farm in Cochrane, Wisconsin, just across the Mississippi from Minnesota. She was born in a restored log home, the first one built in Buffalo County, in the midst of one of the most horrific blizzards of all time—the Armistice Day storm of 1940 which dropped 27 inches of snow across the region in 24 hours.
Her parents told her they were impacted less by the war rationing that went on in the early 1940s because they grew everything they needed. Doris learned how to garden using manure, mulching and other natural practices, never chemicals, from her grandmother and mother. She raised strawberries and flowers to sell in town, hand-picked potato bugs and cabbage worms off the produce they grew and learned to repurpose everything.
Although she now lives in a lovely house on Bear Creek in the Slatterly Park neighborhood of Rochester, she still keeps with the values and good stewardship practices she learned from her parents on the farm. In her cottage garden, she: uses pine needles, sand or coffee grounds to deter slugs; uses boiling water to kill the weeds that grow up through the concrete; keeps a small, unfertilized lawn; applies leaf mulch to beds; captures rain in rain barrels or drainage directly to her flower beds; and still applies a lot of good old fashioned elbow grease—hand-picking bugs off the plants and digging weeds.
What’s unique about Doris, and what I love so much about her, is how generous she is with her time and her talents. Although originally trained as a nurse, she is now a special education paraprofessional at Century High School, where she has also become a valuable assistant to the science department’s plant based science classes. She is the current adviser for a group of students who have initiated their own on-campus garden, and she invites groups of students to take ‘field trips’ to her garden on her own time, passing along her wisdom and experience to a new generation of potential gardeners. She generously offers scissors to curious kids and passersby to prevent destructive ‘picking,’ and I’ve rarely left her house without a cutting or plant, bouquet, quilt or some thoughtful gift of her own making.
Doris also gives back to the community as a whole. She contributed significant time, energy and plants to Mayowood Mansion while being a member of the Rochester garden club; for years she also planted and cared for a rose garden at the Plummer House. Five large perennial flower beds in the median of Riverside Elementary School were planned and planted with plants from her garden, and she’s an outspoken advocate for better, chemical-free ways of maintaining parks and public spaces around town for the benefit of kids and animals alike. She participates in her local church, Zumbro Valley Audubon, Shades of Green Hosta Society, the Slatterly Park Association, and, of course, Conservation Minnesota. She’s donated thousands of perennials over the past 35 years as fundraisers for church, neighborhood, garden and hosta clubs, and she has been a promoter of boulevard gardens to add “curb appeal” to her neighborhood. It has really blossomed and the city now issues permits for all homeowners to do so. And last, but certainly not least, her garden is always open to anyone with an interest.
There is a common misconception that caring about conservation is a partisan thing, a liberal thing. But, as Doris and I discussed early on, the root of ‘conservation’ and ‘conservative’ is the same: conserve. In Doris’ own words, “It’s the right thing to do.” Her upbringing taught her the value of good stewardship, the practical sense of repurposing, the sustainability of soil and water, and I believe the care and concern she puts into her garden is apparent to anyone who sees it. In fact, her appreciation for nature is even evident in her accomplished collection of quilts (her winter hobby). Doris cultivates friendships as easily as she does plants and there is no one else I know who walks the walk so well. I’m grateful she answered the phone that day two years ago and I can’t encourage you enough to visit her garden if you’re ever in Rochester—it, like she, is one of a kind.