Greenhouse gardening makes the campus bloom at commencement.
BY MELEAH MAYNARD
Normally, you don't see too many flowers in Minnesota in May. The threat of cold and bad weather keeps most gardeners from even planting anything until right around Memorial Day. But things are different for Pete Nipp, gardener at the College of St. Catherine.
Nipp, who has been at the College for about a year, doesn't have time to bow to the whims of Mother Nature. Among his many duties, one of the most pressing is the need to produce copious amounts of flowers to fill campus gardens in time for the College's May commencement ceremonies. To do that, he's nearly taken up residence in the Mendel Hall greenhouse since December. He has started literally thousands of plants from seed.
"This is going much better than last year because I took the job in February and couldn't start seeds until then," he recalls. "All I could do was get them planted and hope for the best. Luckily we had nice weather last spring."
While many of the College's established gardens contain perennials, shrubs and trees, colorful annuals are what really bring the campus landscape to life. Last year Nipp and his small student crew planted nearly 18,000 annuals; 14,000 of those were grown from seed in the campus greenhouse. This year, Nipp plans to get around 18,000 annuals in the ground, increasing the total he starts himself to about 17,000. "The savings is so great when you grow your own flowers," says Nipp, "and because we have steam heat here I can warm the greenhouse for a fraction of what it would cost to heat it otherwise."
Before adding annuals to beds or creating new annual displays, Nipp designs the look in his head, keeping in mind everything from complementary colors and flower height to bloom time. "Last year I was probably asked a hundred times for my designs, and I have to tell people I don't have any," he explains. "I just can't write down what I'm going to do. I have to get out there and walk the beds and picture where things should be and move things around until I get it right."
Nipp will soon be able to help, though, with the other question students, staff and visitors to the gardens frequently ask: "What's the name of that plant?" This year, he plans to install a new bed in front of Mendel Hall. "We'll have one of everything we use in our beds and each plant will be labeled," he says. "I think people will really like that."
A life in the garden
Nipp brings decades of experience to his job at St. Kate's. Growing up in Mahtomedi, Minnesota, he worked side by side in the garden with his parents, who were both master gardeners in Washington County. He says it was the science of plants that really intrigued him. Even then, he knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up. "It's funny because I've done all kinds of jobs in the horticulture field," he says. "But I've known since I was 12 years old that what I really wanted to be was a groundskeeper."
He studied greenhouse production at Century College in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, and later earned a certificate of horticulture and landscape technology at Hennepin Technical College in 1979. Over the years Nipp has tried to gain experience in all areas of the horticulture field by working in a wide array of positions, including landscape installer and designer, garden center manager and plant salesman. He also owned his own lawncare business for a time. In 2001, Nipp retired from his longtime job at the Minnesota Department of Corrections where he spent the bulk of his 17 years as a groundskeeper. He also worked a few years teaching horticulture to inmates. "It was time to leave," he says. "Prison life is too hard on your life, even when you just work there."
Though they were buried under snow when he arrived in winter 2007, the College's gardens, including a rose garden and an English garden on the west side of Whitby Hall, had a history of being beautiful and well-tended. In the coming years, Nipp intends to make them even better.
His five-year plan includes improving soil in garden beds; rejuvenating and pruning aging plants, shrubs and trees; and replacing old, overgrown hedging. He also plans to create new garden beds at several of the College's entry gates; start a program to keep campus trees healthy; and redo part of the landscaping in front of Coeur de Catherine. He plans to add about 15 new planters - the College already has nearly 40 - and look into whether it's possible to install benches along some campus sidewalks to give people a place to relax.
To help pull off his ambitious plans, Nipp is starting a new volunteer program, where alumnae who like to garden, or would like to learn, will take over responsibility for tending part or all of specific garden beds. "It takes a lot of work to keep these gardens looking good, and I'd be happy to teach people anything they want to learn," says Nipp. "It's a lot like having a baby, really. You have to watch over everything constantly."