Gardening in a gritty city with vicious winds off Lake Superior, winter temps to 40 below, and often dreary skies from October through April is tough enough. Building a garden of dreams on top of a concrete freeway tunnel raises the challenge. And doing it on volunteer gardeners’ goodwill makes it an even more otherworldly accomplishment. Yet Duluth’s Rose Garden is all this and more. It’s a piece of manicured perfection that rivals a proper English garden, with brick-lined paths, a stone fountain, and a marble gazebo. The city of Duluth had the vision, passion and commitment to spend vast sums on a rose garden over a freeway tunnel, making the Rose Garden a heroic feat of human ingenuity. And it all began from a European immigrant’s love of freedom.
The Rose Garden was designed in 1967 by Ausma Klints—an immigrant who settled in Duluth in 1951. Klints was born to a florist in Jekabpils, Latvia. Her 2007 obituary mentions her love for flowers and of freedom: “Escaping from a communist controlled country, she wanted to show her appreciation of her new freedom by starting a public rose garden for all to enjoy.” Her family credits her with “20 years of long hours of labor, so that we may all enjoy the present Rose Garden.”
Klints simultaneously formed the Duluth Rose Society, which raised $5,000 in donations to get the garden started. The society planted more than 2,000 rose bushes of over 70 varieties in the Rose Garden, which was designed in a series of perfect concentric circles, giving it the proper “English” style (Klints herself referred to it as “European”).
Disaster almost struck in the late 1980s, when the Rose Garden had to be temporarily removed to make way for the Interstate 35 extension into east Duluth. Again, volunteers came to the rescue: the Rose Garden was rebuilt in 1994 in its current home within Leif Erikson Park, perched atop 7 feet of soil resting on the Interstate tunnels, and the Lake Superior Rose Society was formed to care for it. This non-profit organization continues Klints’ spirit to this day, and the garden now boasts in excess of 2,500 roses and 12,000 non-rose plantings.
According to Carol Borich, treasurer of the Lake Superior Rose Society, its members are volunteer rosarians who help the city of Duluth maintain the Rose Garden by doing various seasonal tasks.
“Rose Society members assist the city park maintenance workers in “tipping” the tender roses in fall, and raising them from their winter protection in the spring,” says Borich. “During the summer, the members assist with properly pruning the spent blossoms to keep the roses in bloom, while teaching visitors and new volunteers the correct methods for this task.”
Borich adds that the vast majority of Rose Garden maintenance is done by highly skilled city staff tasked with caring for the Rose Garden.
But it’s not just roses that make the garden special—it’s the incredible view of endless Lake Superior from the garden’s open plateau. It’s the tooting of the North Shore Scenic Railroad trains as they bustle down the tracks below the garden. It’s the sailboats that ply the waters in view of the garden on Wednesday evenings in summer. It’s the runners, bicyclists, and skateboarders who glide along the Lakewalk within steps of the garden. This constant movement in all directions gives the Rose Garden its rhythm and energy.
These characteristics are captured by professional photographer Mary Rasch, who has framed the Rose Garden’s beauty in countless wedding, prom, and family photo shoots. She notes: “For me, the Rose Garden is like Alice in Wonderland—you have the roses, the benches with the swirl design, the scroll design at the top of the gazebo. It’s such a unique and well-manicured garden, it’s a draw for people.”
Rasch has her own personal story about the Rose Garden as well—she and her future husband had their first date there, their first kiss, and then (to keep the streak going) a marriage proposal, all from the same bench in the gazebo, surrounded by the luscious smells of over 250 varieties of roses.
The Rose Garden can be accessed from a free parking lot at London Road and South 13th Ave. East, and Rasch suggests the Rose Garden is a great starting point for a Duluth walking tour, without the Canal Park traffic.
So, could the Beatles have been singing about Duluth all along when they were “sitting in an English garden, waiting for the sun?” Go take a walk in Duluth’s Rose Garden and make the call yourself.