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Spring is in the air and gardeners are getting their gloves and shovels ready
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Gardening season is upon us and as the days warm and become sunnier many outdoor enthusiasts will soon be plotting their own green space.

With more people working from home and an increased desire to grow their own food, folks have turned to gardening during the pandemic. Seed companies saw impressive levels of demand this year from home gardeners and commercial growers alike. Nurseries are also reporting high levels of demand, according to NPR, and suppliers are having a difficult time keeping up.

“The word on the street is some seeds are very hard to find, some of these supply stores are sold out of particular seeds, and they are hard to get,” said Lorrie Rugg, Master Gardener program coordinator of Rice and Steele counties.

Rugg has also noticed an increase in gardening’s popularity over the last year, after the pandemic pushed people into the hobby. She reports elevated interest in the organization’s community garden, in fact about six new gardeners have reached out to her this year with a desire to get involved. All Owatonna community garden plots have already been reserved and there’s even a waiting list for next year, Rugg said.

Gardening can be a great way to pass the time, connect with nature, reduce stress and promote happiness, while growing your own fresh food. Now is a good time to plan how to approach gardening this year, if residents haven’t already begun to do so.

Considerations many gardeners may be making right now include what to plant, when to plant and what kind of conditions are needed for the plant to thrive. Those with a green thumb can find their local garden center by searching the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Nursery Stock Dealer Certificate holders on the department website. A gardening calendar helps guide growers on what to do in their garden and when. The guide can be found on the University of Minnesota Extension website under the Planting and growing guides tab.

The last frost date for the area is around mid-May, according to Rugg. While there are some cool season crops that can be planted, for example lettuce, broccoli, kale and spinach, the majority of plants enjoy warmer weather.

“Most bedding plants don’t like that cold weather,” Rugg said. “Pansies are one of the few that you can get and plant outside right now, because they can handle the cold, but other bedding plants really don’t like to be cold.”

While it’s a little early to be planting, there are still tasks to prepare for this year’s greenery.

Rugg describes herself as a big perennial gardener. She leaves the dead vegetation up through the winter and waits until the spring to cut her beds because the dead vegetation can provide winter shelter for beneficial insects. This weekend’s warm weather will have Rugg out in her garden to work on that pruning process.

“My perennials are all peeking through the mulch because I mulch my beds in the fall for winter protection,” Rugg said. “They are all peeking through so I need to get out there and work in my bed and now is the perfect time to do that.”

For those who don’t have a green thumb, Rugg suggests starting out by planting annual plants because they are generally easier to take care of. Vegetables are also a good option, like tomatoes, green peppers and squash. New gardeners should consider how much light their garden bed will receive and how much space they need for the type of plant, because some plants require more than others.

Owatonna Postmaster retires after 34 years of service

When the local Pamida in Owatonna closed its doors for good, Jan Guse started applying for any job opening she could find. The one-time employee of the now-defunct chain of department stores didn’t originally think much of it when she submitted her application at the local post office.

“At the time, hundreds of people would be applying to one post office job – it was a big deal to get hired there,” Guse said. Little did she know that the part-time clerk position she landed in 1987 at the Owatonna Post Office would flourish into a fulfilling career she loved.

After 34 years of working in a variety of southern Minnesota post offices and eventually finding her way back to her home base, Guse spent her last day as the postmaster of the Owatonna location on Friday. Between the many tears and even more hugs from her 55 employees, Guse said she is incredibly proud of everything her team has accomplished.

“This was an incredibly hard choice to make,” said Guse, who announced her retirement in the beginning of April. “I could have retired three years ago, but I love my job and I love helping people, but I also realize – when is the right time?”

Coming off a long year with the COVID-19 pandemic, Guse said she would have never expected to see anything like 2020 throughout her career. Regardless, the dedication her staff displayed every day left her bursting with pride.

“The post office never stopped – not one day – for COVID-19. People needed us more than ever and sometimes their mail carrier was the only person they would see for months,” an emotional Guse said as she held back tears. “I am so proud of my employees and how we made it through all of this together.”

While Guse is looking forward to retirement, especially to spend time with her husband Mike, their children and grandchildren, she admits it will be difficult not to be involved with the post office every day. She laughed that her district manager warned her that she would be going through withdrawals, but Guse hopes the joy of not have a clock tell her what to do every morning will be satisfying enough to make up for it.

“It’s really bittersweet because I loved helping people, that’s very rewarding,” Guse said. “But like I told my staff, you never have to work if you love your job – and I really truly loved my job.”

Though Guse put in more than three decades worth of hard work for the postal service, she stand firm that her staff in Owatonna is what she will cherish the most looking back on her career.

“Those carriers we have amaze me. They will be out in 95-degree weather with awful humidity and then out again when it’s 30 below,” Guse said. “They are out in the pouring rain delivering for their customers, and they do that because they care.”

Until a new postmaster is hired, Jenny Gollhofer will be stepping up as the interim postmaster. Gollhofer is currently one of two supervisors as the Owatonna Post Office.

Steele County leads southeastern Minnesota COVID-19 increase
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Steele County’s increase in COVID-19 cases in the past month may have reached its peak.

“We’ve had a spike in the southeast region and Steele County led that spike this last month, but I’m hoping we’re kinda on a downward slope now,” Steele County Public Health Director Amy Caron told the County Board Tuesday.

The latest spike in cases in Steele County is on par with the increase the county experienced during the winter, when cases were surging statewide. Steele’s increase in cases during the last month was due to several clusters of cases in workplaces and schools, Caron said.

On Wednesday, the county had 28 new COVID cases in the previous 48 hours and 158 residents in isolation who had tested positive for COVID, according to the county’s data. The county’s number for isolation doesn’t include people who were close contacts who are also isolating, she said. Thus far in the pandemic, the county has had 3,754 cases, or slightly more than 10% of its population has tested positive, and 14 deaths. The deaths range from residents in their 60s to 80s, according to Caron.

Caron said she is pleased with the progress Steele County is making with COVID vaccinations, but the county is starting to see a “dive” in the number of people seeking appointments for their first vaccine dose, similar to what surrounding counties are also experiencing.

As of Wednesday, 53% of Steele County residents older than 16 have received at least one vaccine dose and 39.5% have completed their vaccination series, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Eighty-one percent of Steele residents older than 65 have completed their vaccine series. Statewide, 57.4% of Minnesotans older than 16 have received at least one dose, according to MDH.

Caron called the county’s vaccine percent “really good” and when the county first began administering vaccines, she said she thought the county would be at about 25% vaccinated by now.

Mayo Clinic has been administering the Pfizer vaccine that has been OK’d for ages 16-17. Slightly fewer than 300 teenagers ages 16-17 in Steele County have received at least one dose, according to MDH. Steele County Public Health has been administering the Moderna vaccine, which is for 18 years old and older, at drive-thru clinics twice a week.

“Up until a week ago, we were having no issues filling all our first dose spots. Once we put it on the website, those spots would fill in about two hours. Last week, we were sitting with over 240 open spots that did not fill. This week, it’s looking about the same,” Caron said.

Residents from other counties and states have also been traveling to the Steele County Public Health’s clinics to receive their vaccine.

“For quite a while, we had quite a few metro people coming down because they were not able to find vaccines up in the metro area,” she said.

The open appointments means residents who really wanted the vaccine have received it and now the county is at the point where it needs to convince residents to receive it, she said. She noted that there are many reasons a person may be hesitant to receive the COVID vaccine.

Pfizer is currently testing whether the vaccine is safe for children. Caron said they’re considering setting up clinics at Steele County schools for students who want the vaccine if it is approved for children. However, they’ll first have to figure out if there’d be enough interest for a clinic at a school, she said.

Caron also recapped for the County Board Tuesday the work her staff has done throughout the past year to address the pandemic, from partnering with the health care facilities to helping long-term care facilities. The pandemic has also made clear that there are health disparities in Steele County. The pandemic has been “really rough” for people of color in Steele County and there’s more Public Health can do to address those disparities, she said.

County Administrator Scott Golberg read part of an email Caron sent to county employees on March 13, 2020, to provide information about a new respiratory illness called COVID-19. At that point, according to Caron’s email, the virus was detected in a growing number of states and Minnesota had 14 confirmed cases.

“Between that time and today, how could we know at that time what we would be going through?” Golberg said.

He lauded Caron’s leadership throughout the pandemic, saying she has been “outstanding” as the county’s incident commander for the pandemic for the past 13 months and had an “enduring amount of energy and exuberance” in her communication to the public about the pandemic.

Medford putting big investment into neglected city pool

It has been an expensive month at the Medford Pool, Mandy Mueller said at the city council meeting Monday night. Mueller, who serves as the park and pool commissioner for the city, said they have been giving the pool much needed attention beyond the annual paint job.

According to Mueller, the company they hired to sandblast the interior of the pool began their work recently, which the city had contracted them for $7,000. However, they instantly ran into a bit of a problem.

“When they started the work, they weren’t getting down to the concrete,” Mueller said. “When they finally did in the area they were working on, they said it would increase the cost to do the entire pool to $25,000-$30,000.”

Mueller said the crew will continue do “they best they can” with the original price they quoted, but this is only the beginning of the safety-related issues that will need to be addressed.

A crack that can be seen running down the center of the shallow end of the pool toward the deep end will cost roughly $1,800 to repair. Administrative Director of Operations Jed Petersen said someone will be coming in to begin work on that crack next week.

There are also a number of cracks along the deck, which Mueller said is a safety hazard with people walking around with bare feet. Petersen said addressing the cracks will add an additional $5,000 in repair costs.

The city public works staff will still paint the pool interior, as they do every year. With the specific type of paint that needs to be used on a pool, Petersen said that work will cost another $5,000.

Though these projects are costly, City Clerk Beth Jackson assured the council that they will not impact the city budget. Originally, $18,000 was placed in the pool budget to save for a new filter system in the future. Jackson said the current projects at the pool this year will pull from that fund and they will simply have to continue trying to save for the future replacement of the filter system.

“The tough part is these are not things we can just frivolously do,” Mueller said. “They are all safety issues.”

The edging that goes around the pool will also need to be addressed, but Mueller said that hopefully the city staff will be able to just screw it back down where it has beveled up and become a trip hazard.

According to Petersen, the last time the city pool had been sandblasted was sometime around 2008 and the deck was redone around 2015. Aside from being painted every year, Petersen does not believe a lot of work has been put into the public amenity throughout the years.

“Most city pools lose around $40,000 a year,” Petersen said. “it is absolutely there for the public and is not a source of revenue for the city.”

Petersen said the Medford Pool usually loses roughly $20,000 a year between labor costs and minimal maintenance. Donations from the public and organizations such as the Medford Fire Relief Association help keep the pool afloat and available for the public.

During the meeting, Mayor Danny Thomas directed Mueller and Petersen to work together to make an outline of what all needed to be done at the pool to get it “up to snuff.” Thomas said he believes it is important for Medford to continue to provide the community with the pool during the summer.

“We have to have something for our kids in this community and the pool is one of the main things we’ve got,” Thomas said.

Also during the Monday night meeting, the city council approved increasing the pool rates in a 4-1 vote with Councilor Chad Merritt voting in opposition. The rates for an all-day pass will increase by $1 while the rate for resident-family, resident-individual, non-resident family, non-resident individual, and individual weekly passes will all increase by $5. Jackson said the rates have not been increased for a number of years and with the increase, it will still be the cheapest pool in the area.

The pool is scheduled to open on June 12.