By Starrla Cray
DELANO, MN The spectacular beauty of the gladiolus flower is a recipe for gladness for Delano couple Jim and Karen Otto.
“They are work, but they’re worth it,” Karen said.
The Ottos’ garden just outside of town is home to more than 1,000 gladiolus bulbs.
“Every year, Jim plants a couple hundred every couple weeks, so we’ll have some throughout the summer,” Karen said.
“They take 75 to 90 days to mature,” Jim added. Instead of keeping the long-stemmed blooms for themselves, the Ottos spread the “glad” tidings throughout the community.
They often bring bouquets to St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Delano and Delano United Methodist Church. Their gladioli (plural of gladiolus) also appear at the Delano Senior Center and at both local banks.
“The customers just flip,” Karen said.
Jim recently gave Lorraine Peterson of Peterson’s Produce a bouquet, because her gladioli crop didn’t fare well this year. Peterson was so thankful that she gave Jim a kiss on the lips.
“It made her day,” Karen said. “She was thrilled.”
The Ottos enjoy making others happy through their top-quality flowers.
“It’s a win-win for everybody,” Karen said, explaining that it would be a waste to have all the flowers just stay in the garden.
The Ottos have some of the finest flowers around, and they have the ribbons to prove it. This year alone, they received dozens of awards at the Carver and Wright county fairs, the Minnesota State Fair, the Minnesota State Gladiolus Show in New Ulm, and other shows.
“It was kind of a thrill,” Karen said. “Now, we know we have nice, quality flowers.”
A glad beginning
Jim and Karen’s fascination with gladioli began with Karen’s mother, Clara Merriman.
“I grew up with them,” Karen said. “My mom just loved glads.” In Clara’s later years, Jim helped plant and harvest the bulbs. Clara often brought bouquets to church, and when it became too much for her to carry the pails, Jim did that, as well.
“I just helped her out,” Jim said. Gradually, however, Clara’s passion for gladioli rubbed off on Jim. When Clara passed away in 2001, everyone who came to her funeral received a gladiolus bulb, and Jim inherited the remaining bulbs.
In the past decade, Jim and Karen have learned that there’s more to growing gladioli than one might think.
“You can make a show-stopper,” Jim said.
“They’re delicate,” Karen added, explaining that getting to know expert gladioli growers has been invaluable.
“About five years ago, Karen took me to a gladiolus show in Monticello,” Jim said. That experience sparked Jim’s interest in showing glads, and the Ottos joined the Minnesota Gladiolus Society. Growing a blue-ribbon glad takes dedicated effort, Jim said. It starts with purchasing high-quality bulbs from a nursery.
“When we first started, we’d buy the clearance ones from Home Depot or Menards,” Jim laughed.
“Well, that’s not the way to do it,” Karen added.After the bulbs are planted in rows about 6 inches deep and 4 inches apart they need to be sprayed throughout the summer for diseases and bugs.
“If you get bugs, you’re out,” Jim explained.
“We want good, healthy flowers,” Karen added. Young gladioli that look especially promising are often staked down, to keep them upright.
“I want them to stay perfectly straight,” Jim said. “If they bend, the blossoms could touch the dirt. They’re not show-quality then.”
The bulbs are dug in the fall, dried, and stored in mesh bags at 40 degrees.
“If they get too warm, they’ll sprout. If they freeze, you’re done,” Jim said.
Glads, which are native to South Africa, come in five sizes and multiple colors.
“We have to mark the varieties, and keep them separate both in the garden and in the bags,” Karen said.
“We plant about 35 varieties,” Jim added.
Each type has its own name, such as Lemon Meringue, American Beauty, Strawberry Shortcake, or Star Performer.
The Ottos select their prettiest flowers for competitions. They should have 14 buds, with no more than 50 percent bloomed.
Jim has had the opportunity to walk alongside judges at the contests, listening to their critiques.
“Some judges like bright colors and some like the white ones,” Jim said.
“But, it’s still by the rules,” Karen added.
The Ottos typically enter stems (spikes) into the decorative class, single spike class, or in identical three- or five-spike classes. Others have also been entered in the “old timer” class, which features heirloom bulbs.
In the future, Karen also hopes to become skilled at creating gladioli arrangements.
The Otto’s land was one of five stops on the Big Woods Garden Club tour in 2009. They worked tirelessly to make the garden a restful, nostalgic location for visitors.
“There wasn’t a weed in any of it,” Karen said.
In addition to the impressive gladioli assortment, the garden features dahlias, mums, and other flowers, as well as a variety of berries and vegetables.
“We can pickles and tomatoes, and make jam and horseradish,” Karen said. “We also raise birdhouse gourds which we sell for birdhouses, lots of pumpkins for Halloween, and Indian corn for decoration.”
The 20-acre plot is referred to by the Otto’s six children and 14 grandchildren as “The Hill.” It’s the perfect location for family picnics, snowmobiling, wienie roasts, and sledding.
The site is also home to many hummingbirds, which are attracted to the sweet nectar in the gladiolus flowers.
“The little ones, they have no fear,” Jim said, adding that some of the baby hummingbirds are so tiny, they virtually disappear when they are inside the flower.
For the Ottos, growing gladioli and other plants is a rewarding, passion-filled hobby.
“We’ve never sold a glad,” Karen said. “We just do it for fun. It’s been an adventure.”