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PRAIRIE GARDENER: Cottage Grove, Minn., Cedarhurst mansion grounds bloom from spring through fall

COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. - What better place to hold a wedding reception or similar gathering than in a 26-room mansion, surrounded by green, lush lawns and blooming flower gardens? Cedarhurst mansion will host from 150 to 200 visitors during the bus...

COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. - What better place to hold a wedding reception or similar gathering than in a 26-room mansion, surrounded by green, lush lawns and blooming flower gardens? Cedarhurst mansion will host from 150 to 200 visitors during the busy summer weekends, said True Thao, mansion owner.

"We try to have something in bloom from late May until early autumn, including annuals and perennials. Some of the flower gardens date back to the 1800s," Thao said. "After two very dry summers, we did have to put in an irrigation system to keep the lawn at least green."

Thao and his brothers are refugees from war-torn Laos, who moved to the United States in the mid-1970s, after their homeland fell to Communist rule. They were among the people who had supported the Americans in combating the Communist takeover and had to flee for their lives.

In 2001, the Thao family moved to St. Paul. A relative told them about a country estate, consisting of 13 acres with seven buildings. They purchased the estate for $900,000. To offset renovation costs, they have hosted various events, such as a recent tour by Red River Valley residents which included the Prairie Gardener. The trip, which included two Twin Cities theater productions and other tourist sites, was offered by Judy's Leisure Tours of Fargo.

Mansion dates to 1867

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Initial construction on the 26-room mansion began in 1867 as a farm house. The site is one of rolling farmland south of St. Paul in Washington County. The mansion, with two white-columned verandahs was built in four sections. In 1886, Cordenio Severance was looking for a summer home. He amassed a fortune as an attorney for Great Northern Railway magnate James J. Hill, and already had a home on St. Paul's Summit Avenue. Among the architects for the Cottage Grove residence was Cass Gilbert, who designed the Minnesota state capitol and the Supreme Court building in Washington D.C.

The mansion was impressive enough to host four American presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt, and Queen Marie of Romania who traveled about the United States in the 1920s. The Severances died without heirs and Cedarhurst began its long decline.

Former owners in the 1960s encouraged neighbors to remove pieces of the beautiful outdoor trellis in the garden. A graceful metal archway that had spanned the driveway also was dismantled. The formal gardens fell into disrepair.

Much of the original farmland had been sold, leaving just a small acreage. The booming St. Paul suburb of Cottage Grove was encroaching ever closer. Without the Thaos, the historic mansion would probably have been torn down and the land sub-divided for a sprawling Cottage Grove.

Neighbors assist

Growing up in the jungles of Laos, the Thao family had to learn about northern gardening in hurry. Neighbors instructed them on which plants were weeds and which were flowers. Some perennials had survived, more had to be planted. Annuals were then planted to fill in the blank spaces. Raised beds are also used to add height to the formal gardens.

"We have to pay close attention to keep something in bloom for every summer event. We have spring plants, such as tulips and iris, followed by flowering shrubs, then peonies and so on, wrapping up with mums," Thao said.

The mansion renovation continues as the Red River Valley residents discovered on their recent visit. While it was too dark to tour the gardens on our April tour, there might be a future visit for an up-close view. Work continues and the gardens may some day rival those of the early 1900s. What's the most frequently asked question? Thao said many visitors ask if there are ghosts in the old mansion, and the answer is, "no."

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Fresh produce

Once we get into May, we instinctively crave fresh produce. It might be asparagus or rhubarb we find in our gardens. Some gather dandelion greens or morel mushrooms. Or, if we have a warm spot in our garden, we may have planted spinach, lettuce or radishes, which thrive in the cool, moist conditions. Oftentimes, you can find asparagus growing wild on abandoned farmsteads. Some gardeners may have winter onions or chives. The tops of both can be added to a variety of dishes, giving them a touch of spring.

Tasty morels

Once the May flowers (another term for white, pink or light blue hepatica) are out in the forests, it's time to think about picking morel mushrooms. The morel is Minnesota's state mushroom. The Prairie Gardener picked them in his youth in Minnesota's Otter Tail County. Camouflaged on the forest floor by their textured and earthy shades, they were difficult to spot. It is a slow and careful process, and one might spend an hour or longer staring at the ground and having nothing to show for it. Morel patches usually disappear after two or three years, so it behooves the hunter to visit both the old familiar hunting grounds and to seek new places. Good places to find morels are where there are dead elm trees.

Once home, we would carefully check our mushroom booty, making sure not were poisonous. After a soaking in salt water to removed insects, we would slice them and fry them in butter. In big city markets, morel mushrooms sell for about $70 per pound. So with a little effort, you also can eat like a king.

Garden tidbits

n The North Dakota State Horticulture Society's 85th annual meeting and conference will be Aug. 7-9 in Minot. The event will begin Thursday night with an open house at Lowe's Garden Center. Don Vitko will showcase his cacti and succulent collection. Seminars are planned for both Friday and Saturday with afternoon yard and garden tours. More information will be forthcoming.

n The spring flower show is now underway at the Marjorie McNeeley Conservatory, 1225 Estabrook Drive in St. Paul. This year's show features a sea of tulips, as well as hydrangeas, hyacinths, daffodils and lilies in a color palette of salmon pink, yellow, purple, blue and white. It's open each day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The conservatory is located adjacent to the Como Park Zoo, which is a great venue for children. There also are formal gardens surrounding the glassed conservatory. Information: (651) 487-8200 or visit Como ZooConservatory.org.

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n Grand Forks Horticulture Society, after its recent Gardening Saturday event, will be wrapping up the season May 17 with a plant exchange at University Park. Members also will check out the Japanese garden on site and do some weeding. Looking ahead, the 24th annual garden tour will be from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 28. The tour is earlier than normal and will be only for one day. There also will be the traditional plant sale and the second annual Gardeners garage sale. Zona Pearson, East Grand Forks, has once again selected the gardens for the tour. The gardens are close to one another.

n Crabgrass preventer should be applied when the soil temperature is between 52 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Use a soil thermometer to find the proper time to apply. Lawn areas close to sidewalks and curbs warm faster than the center of the lawn.

n Pansies, violas and dusty miller are among the hardy annual bedding plants that can be placed in gardens in early May. For a detailed list of the best times to plant various annuals, contact your county extension agent or garden center.

Koehler is the Herald's garden columnist. His column is published every other Saturday. Send garden questions to him in care of the Grand Forks Herald, Box 6008, Grand Forks ND 58206-6008. Tune in the weekly garden show airing at 4:10 p.m. most Thursdays on KNOX Radio 1310 (A.M.).

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