In many ways, County State Aid Highway 7 is a typical northern Minnesota rural road. About 14 miles long, it winds east from the tiny town of Longville to meet State Highway 6, a few miles south of Remer.
On the way, it crosses the Boy River; skirts Inguadona, Wabedo, Laura, Little Bass and Thunder lakes, to name a few; passes rural homes, cabins and resorts; and cuts through miles of green fields and forests.
At about the 3.4 mile mark east of Longville, vivid splashes of color interrupt the uniformly green landscape.
Rose bushes flourish along the roadside. Peonies and dahlias jostle for position in flower beds. Close to 100 flower baskets hang from trellises, nestle on stands or sit on the ground. Pots of shocking red geraniums line porch and sidewalk.
Depending on the season, you’ll see rows and rows of multicolored gladiolas; bright beds of day lilies; marigolds of all heights and hues; and more petunias, pansies and phlox than you can shake a stick at. You almost don’t know where to look first.
Welcome to Sara Edwards’ and Doug Duval’s gardens. Where most people tend grass in their front yard, Sara and Doug tend flowers, laid out in more than 20 beds inside fences in front of their spacious home. And that’s in addition to raspberries, strawberries and various vegetables.
It’s a good thing CSAH 7 is lightly traveled, because the lush floral displays, which bloom from late May through fall, are literally traffic-stoppers; or at least, traffic-slowers.
Sara and Doug are often out working in the gardens and see motorists’ reactions, since gardening on this scale means eight to 10 hours or more spent planting, watering, weeding, fertilizing, cultivating at the height of the season.
In a way, this is what you’d expect from a couple who each grew up on a farm as part of a large family. Sara, the seventh of 13 kids, grew up on Inguadona Lake, down the road from where she and Doug now live. Her father, Roland Edwards, was one of Longville’s early settlers, having moved here from Ohio around World War I.
Doug is a “transplant” to the Longville area. He grew up with 11 siblings on a Wisconsin farm. The two met in 1975 on a blind date when Sara was working in the Twin Cities with Doug’s brother’s girlfriend. At the time, Doug worked in Wisconsin, constructing pole barns and shingling.
The couple hit it off. Maybe it was because Sara learned to help Doug shingle roofs and build pole barns; but in any case, the rest is history.
After bouncing back and forth between Minnesota and Wisconsin for a few years, Doug and Sara moved to Longville where Doug worked for a local contractor, building homes. After a few years he decided to branch out on his own. For about 30 years, until he retired in 2010, Doug built new homes, additions, remodeled, shingled, whatever the customer wanted.
“I never lacked for work, and I never put an ad in the paper,” he says quietly, with a note of pride in his voice.
In the fall of 1988, Sara was hired as cook at the Longville Elementary School, where she ran the kitchen, feeding and nurturing generations of Longville’s children for about 19 years until she retired in 2007.
Years earlier, the couple began gardening; they’ve been at it for over 30 years.
An aerial photo displayed in their house, which predates the front yard flower beds, shows rows of corn, potatoes, green beans and other vegetable crops, strawberry beds and raspberry patches spread out over several acres at the rear of the property; a truck garden of sorts. Doug kept farming vegetables almost until he retired from construction, when he scaled back the vegetable garden.
At the same time, Sara was expanding flower beds at the front. Shortly after moving to the area, their first attempt to grow gladiolas ended in disaster when torrential rains caused almost all the bulbs they’d brought from Wisconsin to rot in the ground, despite desperate efforts to channel off the water. Come fall, only two pails of bulbs could be salvaged.
Later, after reducing the size of the vegetable patch, Sara and Doug gave gladiolas another try. Gradually they grew more and more flowers, creating one flower bed; then another; and now, 20 or more in various shapes and sizes. Gladiolas stretch for row after row. Four beds are devoted to perennials; others have tulips and daffodils; and others are all annuals.
For awhile they didn’t plant many annuals because of the cost of seedlings. In 2007 they decided to raise their own. Doug built a removable lean-to greenhouse that attaches to the side of a shed, with lights and racks for seed trays.
After ordering seeds in early winter, planting begins at the end of February. That gives the tiny plants nearly three months to grow and flourish before being planted outdoors in late May.
“Every year we try a few different varieties, plus old favorites,” Sara explains. “Mike’s Garden Center in Hackensack has been very helpful; we get our potting soil and seed starter from him.”
So what do two people do with all the fruit, vegetables and flowers they grow?
“We sell quite a bit to passers-by, just by putting out a sign,” says Doug. “Sweet corn; pumpkins; squash; strawberries,” according to the season.
Their summer garage sales are another outlet for produce and flowers. Their locally grown sweet corn and strawberries are sold at Tabaka’s Grocery, Longville’s only grocery store.
What’s it take to be successful gardening in northern Minnesota?
“You gotta fertilize and be willing to work long days,” Doug stresses. “If you once get behind, you’re in trouble. It takes lots of time and patience. It’s seven days a week, just like farming.”
And when it comes to choosing plants, gardeners need to remember that this part of north central Minnesota is definitely Zone 3.
“Zone 3 roses will make it, but Zone 4 will not,” says Doug, citing personal experience. “I’ve lost a lot of [Zone 4] rose bushes.”
“This is not a cheap hobby either,” Sara adds.
After cleaning out flower beds in the fall, Sara and Doug have time to relax for a few weeks or months.
In mid-February, the flower beds and garden plots are still resting beneath thick blankets of snow. But by the end of the month, Doug will have the seed trays ready, and Sara will be busy, planting tiny seeds.
And the circle of life will begin again.