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Yellow flowers lining a pathway.

Yellow lilies welcome visitors near the gate at Eastcliff, a 1920s Colonial Revival home on the National Register of Historic Places.

Gardens of Eastcliff

Friends get gardening tips at the historic home of the U president

By Gayla Marty

June 29, 2007

Cascading pink roses, lilies in bright yellow and orange, fat white hydrangeas, beds of shiny red raspberries...the gardens are glorious at Eastcliff, the home of University of Minnesota presidents--currently Robert Bruininks and his wife, Susan Hagstrum.

Last Sunday, ladies' hats stole the show from the flowers and fruit. Wide-brimmed straw hats in colors from red to black-and-white, vintage hats with veils, dressy silk hats, and simply tasteful hats dotted the lawn under the blazing sun. Several men sported hats, too: regent and Friends of Eastcliff chair Dallas Bohnsack's Panama hat, with a maroon ribbon and maroon-and-gold feather, was clearly the sharpest.

The occasion was the annual Friends of Eastcliff garden party. The group's dues serve to support, preserve, and maintain Eastcliff, roughly two acres donated to the University in 1958, now on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, Eastcliff is not only the home of the president, but a venue for meetings and events used by thousands of visitors each year--commencement receptions, business and arts community meetings, faculty and staff events, youth visits, and historic home tours...Bruininks and Hagstrum have welcomed them all.

"These events are important because they give more people the opportunity to see and fall in love with this exceptional gathering place, as we have," Hagstrum says. "The garden party has become a favorite."

Nearly 200 Friends of Eastcliff roamed the grounds above the east bank of the Mississippi River, exploring the public treasure they support. To the easy sounds of the Hip-Pocket Jazz Quartet on the terrace, they enjoyed refreshments, explored the oval sculpture garden in the southeast corner, found the grave markers of beloved family dogs near the raspberry patch on the south lawn, rounded the house to gaze across the front lawn toward the river and Minneapolis skyline, and sought shady spots to sit and talk with new and long-time members.

'A most unusual year'

Minnesota celebrity horticulturist Deb Brown was the featured speaker of the day. Brown, who retired from the U two years ago, still actively advises gardeners of all kinds. Under a white and yellow striped tent, she talked about the unusual 2007 growing season. Early, compressed bloom times followed a mild winter and early warm-up. Some plants, such as bulbs, were damaged by a freeze after the warm-up, but other species bolted ahead.

A woman dressed in white with white earrings and a straw hat decorated with a band of green leaves and purple, pink, and yellow flowers, and a smiling silver-haired man in a flowered shirt sit together, listening.
Friends of Eastcliff Carol and Walt Wedin enjoyed gardening tips from featured speaker and longtime U horticulturist Deb Brown.

"This is a lesson in mulching, mulching, mulching, that I've tried to teach for many years," Brown said. "Mulching not only protects tender plants from cold but from early heat--it keeps them from coming up too early."

After the cold snap came a hot June. Lack of moisture in many areas is now making parts of Minnesota look more like August, Brown said. Among her watering tips: It's not true that plants will be harmed by watering in full sun, though that's not the most efficient time to water. She recommended watering long enough to soak the soil four to five inches deep. How long depends on the type of soil.

Eastcliff grounds keeper Jim Bernier was in the crowd, listening closely to the watering tips. Bernier, dressed for the day in immaculate black and white to serve refreshments to guests, spends most of his growing-season days caring for Eastcliff's dozens of species of flowers, trees, shrubs, and grass, along with several other staff members.

Stewards of a Minnesota treasure

A little more than 10 years ago, Eastcliff had no gardens--only a ten-foot wall of lilacs along the road. Former regent Peggy Craig, former Crookston campus chancellor and regent Stanley Sahlstrom, and Minnesota Landscape Arboretum professor and director Peter Olin are among those who had founded the Friends of Eastcliff in the 1980s to give the community a way to get involved and support the historic home. The Eastcliff Technical Advisory Committee (ETAC) also formed to give professional expertise on issues from tuck-pointing and historic preservation to handicap accessibility.

Beauties at Eastcliff
Volunteer guides can point out to visitors these and other garden highlights.

Rosa 66*, limelight hydrangea, paniculata hydrangea, astilbe, cleome, day lilies, ditura, heucher (coral bells), hypoestes, nicotiana, water hyacinth

Trees and shrubs
Australian pine, barberry (pigmy burgundy), blue beech, copper birch, Japanese yew, juniper, Kentucky Coffee Stately Manor*, arborvitae, azalea, boxwood (emerald green and Korean), bridal wreath, pachysandra, rhododendron

Grasses and other plants
Castor beans, hosta (several varieties), Mexican heather, North American hops, purple fountain grass, water lettuce

*Minnesota Landscape Arboretum cultivar

"I first got involved when the house was much further along than the grounds," says ETAC member Bob Gunderson, a landscape architect and adjunct assistant professor in the College of Design. Events could be held inside the house but, he said, "you couldn't have people outside, tripping on uneven surfaces."

Today, the grounds have become a network of paths and plantings that include U of M cultivars, such as cold-hardy Rosa 66 in the cutting garden and Kentucky Coffee Stately Manor trees, commonly found along the Mississippi River Valley. Space was configured to accommodate a tent for special occasions. The terrace's brick herringbone pattern was chosen to honor Eastcliff's original architect, Clarence Johnston, who also designed most of the buildings on Northrop Mall.

Landscape architect Damon Farber, who developed the master plan for the Eastcliff grounds, was among those in the gardens on Sunday. What's he most proud of?

"That the space is being used and it's so flexible," he says, "and it's handicap accessible."

At least one wheelchair navigated Sunday's party. Friends of Eastcliff founding member Peggy Craig--adorned in one of the day's truly lovely hats--surveyed the sea of guests with a twinkle in her eye.

"I guess we really started something, didn't we?" she said with a smile.

Anyone can join the Friends of Eastcliff to help support, preserve, and maintain the historic home. Individual membership is $100. Learn more at Friends of Eastcliff: Continuing the legacy.
This story was revised July 5, 2007.