Digging Into History at Minnesota’s Glensheen Mansion
By her own admission, Emily Ford was an unlikely pick to be head gardener at Glensheen Mansion in Minnesota. But she is thriving—and so are the acres of vegetables and blooms she nurtures.
Everyone talks about dream jobs. But what do you call a position so tailor-fit to your interests, you didn't even know to fantasize about it? When Emily Ford moved to Duluth, Minnesota, on a whim after graduating from college with a degree in geology, she stumbled into an interview to be the head gardener at Glensheen Mansion. Although her grandparents owned a tree farm and she grew up tending vegetables, Ford hadn't put gardening on her long list of career possibilities, which spanned doctor, cowgirl, engineer and adventure-seeker. She considered growing flowers and food something you just did for yourself. But she was bright, hardworking and curious. "Knowledge will get you far, but passion will get you a hair further," she says wryly. The job—with its 12 acres and 46 garden beds—was hers.
In 1908, iron mogul Chester Congdon completed Glensheen Mansion on Lake Superior's rugged North Shore. (Ships laden with ore still chug past today, headed for Duluth's harbor and iconic Aerial Lift Bridge.) The property was bequeathed to the University of Minnesota in 1968, and a handful of students from UMN Duluth make up Ford's crew. Together, they do it all: mowing, pruning, designing, planting, harvesting and watering. (Irrigation system? "You're looking at her," Ford jokes.) They also pick rocks from the sloping lawn after storms, when the Big Lake literally throws stones at the stately home—an irony not lost on the lapsed geologist. But the location has its benefits. Superior creates a microclimate of warmer air, stretching out fall so long that Ford often gleans tomatoes into November.
As the keeper of a historic estate, Ford has a mission to stay true to the original plantings from Chester Congdon's time. She pores over archived plant lists, photos, maps and letters, and studies the handwritten notes of gardeners past. In one thrilling full-circle moment, she discovered a jam recipe of Congdon's wife, Clara, calling for fruit still grown in the kitchen garden. Surviving plants are few, though. Mostly Ford is in the business of re-creation. She relies on documented old-fashioned favorites like peonies, delphiniums, irises and hollyhocks in the formal beds; when she can't identify other historical plants, she tries to replicate the colors and textures to set the tone.
In the vegetable garden, Ford plants a mix of modern hybrids and occasional heirlooms. On a warm late-summer day, she points through deer fencing at a patch spotted with ripening pumpkins, noting their individual quirks like a shepherd tending a familiar flock. She's pleased with the extra-tall, staked tomatoes, expressly pruned this year to a single stem, revealing a rainbow of fruits as they climb upward. Always striving to improve the garden, she has ideas to better their wind-resistance next year. "Your greatest tool as a gardener," she says, "is the power of observation." Ford happily concedes she's learning as she goes. But the best gardeners always are. That's one thing as true today as 100 years ago.
Open daily for tours, Glensheen Mansion was built at the turn of the 20th century.
A monarch alights on a zinnia near the fountain pool.
Lake Superior twinkles behind the mansion. (Emily Ford and her crew sometimes take a dip on hot days.)
Last year, Ford planted 15 varieties of tomato.
Zulu, a Catahoula mix, is Ford's constant companion and even attends all staff meetings.
Lessons from Glensheen
Emily Ford may have a larger plot than most of us, but her rules of (green) thumb apply to any space.
FEED THE SOIL Even lovely mansions have stubborn clay soil. Ford regularly amends hers with compost and peat moss, then tills it in. She does a soil test from time to time to check on nutrient levels.
FIX YOUR FOCUS In the darkest months of Minnesota winters, ordering seeds is a treat. To avoid over-indulging, Ford forces herself to stick to one catalog (often Johnny's Selected Seeds). Otherwise, she jokes, "I'd go berserk."
SAVE THE BEST To maintain plant collections and cut costs, the staff saves seeds and tubers. The impressive four-square planting of zinnias in shades of rosy pink, for example, is self-sustaining: Seed heads harvested at season's end are sown again the following spring.
KEEP LEARNING Ford encourages people to find mentors. She has one for peonies, another for vegetables and still another for pruning boxwoods. She sources people with deep knowledge then "skims the cream off the top" to learn what she needs to do her job. She also watches videos online and goes to conferences. Right now, she's reading everything she can about cut-flower gardens.
SHARE THE BOUNTY If you've done it all right, you may have too much—so share! Ford and her crew get first pick of the produce. They donate the rest to local restaurants, such as worker-owned Positively 3rd Street Bakery, vegan food truck Mama Roots and ice cream shop Love Creamery.
Glensheen's Vegetable Harvest
1 'BOLERO' An orange carrot prized for its uniformity and sweet flavor; good for storage.
2 RHUBARB An old-fashioned staple—Emily Ford guesses Glensheen's plants are at least 100 years old!
3 'YUKON GOLD' Smooth, thin-skin potato with delicately flavored yellow flesh. 'DESIREE' A red-skin, late-season variety potato that delivers high yields.
4 'WINTERBOR' An attractive and cold-hardy kale with a long harvest window.
5 SWEET CORN A secret trial variety that Ford planted for the University of Minnesota.
6 'WALLA WALLA SWEET' A popular onion with a juicy, mild flavor. 'CLEAR DAWN' A sweet onion that remains firm for extended storage.
7 'DEEP PURPLE' A tasty juicing carrot with a yellow core.
8 'PINK BERKELEY TIE-DYE' A striking rose-color tomato with bronze stripes and a deep, sweet-smoky flavor.