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Greenhouse gardening makes the campus bloom

St. Kates super gardener Peter Nipp in the campus greenhouse.
St. Kates super gardener Peter Nipp in the campus greenhouse.
Tony Nelson

Editor’s note: This story is a condensed version of “18,000 annuals and counting,” featured in the St. Kate’s magazine. To read the story in its entirety, see SCAN, May 2008.

Gardener Peter Nipp, who has been at St. Kate’s since 2007, 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 May commencement ceremonies.

To do that, he takes up residence in the campus greenhouse at Mendel Hall when the cold season hits. He has started literally thousands of plants from seed in December.

In 2007, Nipp and his small student crew planted nearly 18,000 annuals — 14,000 of those were grown from seed in the greenhouse. The following year, they got 18,000 annuals in the ground, increasing the total he started himself to about 17,000. And over the years, Nipp has gotten more ambitious — and the campus more beautiful.

“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.

“I just can't write down what I'm going to do,” he says. “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 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.

“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."

His five-year plan for St. Kate’s 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 University’s entry gates; start a program to keep campus trees healthy; and redo part of the landscaping in front of Coeur de Catherine.

And if that’s not enough: He plans to add about 15 new planters — the University 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.

“It takes a lot of work to keep these gardens looking good…,” says Nipp. “It’s a lot like having a baby, really. You have to watch over everything constantly.”

For more on gardening at St. Kate’s, read “Campus gardeners: Turning over a new green leaf.

Oct. 19, 2010 by Meleah Maynard

See also: Students