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Meet the caretaker
Oct. 6, 2014

By Gabe Licht

DELANO, MN – When asked what a greenhouse manager does, one might think of planting, watering and caring for flowers. For one Delano man, the job description goes far beyond that.

Paul Aarestad’s job as the greenhouse manager at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis combines two of his biggest passions: horticulture and history.

“My first passion is growing flowers,” Aarestad said. “My second passion is history.”

After studying horticulture at Anoka-Hennepin Technical College, Aarestad began working at Lakewood as a seasonal worker. Now he’s worked 31 years at the cemetery, with 29 years in his current position.

Over the years, he has learned the history of Lakewood and heard plenty of stories.

“This place isn’t dead,” Aarestad said. “These aren’t just headstones; they’re stories of people’s lives.”

Some of those stories are about the people buried at Lakewood, such as Hubert Humphrey, Carl Pohlad, Paul Wellstone, Frank Mars, John Pillsbury and Thomas B. Walker. But, Aarestad also likes giving tours and sharing the history of the cemetery itself.

Looking back at Lakewood
Founded in 1872, Lakewood was a part of the garden cemetery movement that had begun on the East Coast and spread west. It was known for its six greenhouses, with between 73,000 and 100,000 square feet of growing space, compared to today’s typical greenhouse space of 15,000 square feet.

“Prior to World War II, Lakewood was the largest flower wholesaler west of Chicago,” Aarestad said.

Like many businesses, Lakewood was not immune to the shortages of labor and materials during the war, which cut greenhouse operations nearly in half.

Furthermore, local florists had taken exception to Lakewood’s floral business, considering the tax exemptions the nonprofit received. The facility’s wholesale and retail florist services came to a halt after a successful lawsuit, trial and subsequent injunction.

Lakewood was also impacted by the energy crisis of the 1970s, which caused the greenhouses to be more efficient.

Before and after that point, the cemetery was known as a destination garden.

“Coming to the cemetery on a Sunday afternoon for a picnic was the norm,” Aarestad said. “As cemeteries grew, it became more of a place to be.”

For those who had loved ones buried in the cemetery, visiting their final resting place and maintaining the flora and fauna around it was a weekly occurance. As society has changed, so, too, has that tradition.

Maintaining the grounds
Now, the task of maintaining the cemetery and its gardens falls to Aarestad and his staff of 15 seasonal workers, some of whom work 10 months out of the year.

That process has its roots in the 15,000 square-foot greenhouse on the grounds. In the fall, much of the focus is on taking cuttings of plants for the next growing season and taking plants and features such as the garden temple and the knot bed into the greenhouse. Some of those plants have been grown for decades.

“We have canna lily plants that are more than 100 years old,” Aarestad said.

Those lilies adorn the entrance every summer.

In total, Lakewood plants more than 95,000 flowers for the cemetery’s 250 acres each season, making it one of the largest cemetery greenhouse operations in the United States. Lakewood is also the leading buyer of bulbs in Minnesota, planting 30,000 annually.

Planting tulips has become a longstanding tradition.

“We spend $6,000 every year purchasing, planting and covering tulips,” Aarestad said. “Then, we pull them all up and plant new bulbs in the fall. That guarantees uniformity in size and bloom.”

In addition, the colors of most flower beds remain unchanged.

“If I change the color of a flower bed, people let me know,” Aarestad said. “They have a personal connection with Lakewood. We respect that.”

Another duty for staff is planting and maintaining about 1,500 cast-iron urns adorning lots throughout the cemetery.

In order to maintain the grounds that have grown over the past 142, 20 percent of every lot fee goes into a permanent care fund.

Link to Delano
Even before Aarestad began caring for the grounds at Lakewood, there was a connection to Delano.

Mike Price preceded Aarestad as greenhouse manager and Jim Ostvig served as grounds superintendent for more than 40 years.

When Aarestad began commuting from Delano to Lakewood, he carpooled with several workers from the area.

“There were a lot of employees from Delano that worked at Lakewood after Granite Works closed,” Aarestad said.

Those workers included Jerry Lanue, Don Huttler and Denzel Hickman, all of whom retired from Lakewood with at least 20 years of experience.

For many people from Delano, working at Lakewood has been their first job.

Not only has Delano provided workers for Lakewood, but also flowers during the energy crisis of the ‘70s.

A lot of things have changed since then. Lakewood is back to growing its flowers and Aarestad is a carpool of one.

Not that he minds.

“I get to do something I love every day,” Aarestad said. “I love working with plants and I love history. I’m constantly hearing stories and learning more.”

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