Barb Balcom may be responsible for more distracted drivers over the past 28 years than anyone in Southwest Minneapolis.
Any driver was who has traversed the stretch of Lyndale Avenue a few blocks north of Minnehaha Creek has spotted the two silent sentinels standing guard over her garden at 46th Street. At first glance, they seem lifelike.
Their garb changes with the season, warm clothes for winter and lighter for summer. When there’s construction nearby, they may sport safety vests and ear protection.
Although they’re now a landmark, they started in 1989 with a more utilitarian purpose — to scare foraging birds away from Balcom’s garden on the southwest corner of the intersection.
Her first figure sported a head crafted from Styrofoam chips stuffed into old pantyhose and initially wore only a shirt over his stick frame. She sliced potpie tins for fingers. Juice can lids served as eyes. After a short time, she added a second figure, a woman to keep the man company.
After a few years, and they got more upgrades. A passerby donated a Styrofoam head. She added a wig and hats. For a time, the man sported a pipe, but they kept disappearing, and her daughter Katie chided her, saying pipes set a poor example.
As scarecrows, the pair has been something of a bust at intimidating varmints. One year, a family of rabbits nested at the base. One day, she showed up and found that an entire crop of peas — her favorite vegetable — had vanished. She resorted to a chicken wire fence.
But despite what they lacked in frightfulness, the figures redeemed themselves by capturing the hearts of passersby. Some dropped off clothes to replace those faded by the weather; Balcom always adds new layers over the worn ones, so the figures have taken on bulk as they age. Another family brought their preschoolers by to shake hands with the scarecrows, whom they had given names. Still another area family took their Christmas photo with the figures.
The area adopted Balcom too. Some folks offered her pickle recipes when her cucumbers came in. One neighbor brought by some homemade blackberry brandy to share in Dixie cups, telling Balcom she was working too hard and needed a break.
Balcom, her figures and the garden have become such a fixture at 46th & Lyndale it may come as a surprise that she doesn’t own the corner. Long ago, the YMCA’s men’s club sold Christmas trees there. Then the neighboring Ulrich family bought the vacant lot to have room for their five children to play.
But those kids had grown and left by the time a desperate Balcom knocked on Margaret Ulrich’s door in 1989. Although Balcom lives not far away, her yard is plagued by slugs. She’d gardened for several years in a community plot in Uptown, but the adjoining company that owned it had served notice that it was reclaiming the parcel.
To understand how important having a space for flowers and produce is to Balcom, consider her childhood. Although her family lived in various states where her father worked, her touchstone was the fifth-generation farm her maternal grandparents owned in western New York.
It’s there she learned the hard work that raising food requires. Many gardeners plant seeds or seedlings but fall short on following up with the harder tasks of weeding and watering. On the farm, Balcom discovered the wondrous tastes of fresh peas and corn but also discovered that neither arrived at the table without the work of shelling or husking.
“It was sort of in my blood,” she recalled.
After canvassing the neighborhood for potential gardening sites, Balcom couldn’t have picked a better first door to knock on than Ulrich’s. Her new landlord’s requirements were simple: Just leave some place in the middle of the lot for neighborhood kids to play.
“I offered to pay, but she wouldn’t hear of it,” Balcom said of the handshake deal.
She dug up the grass that fall with her farm-raised mother and grubbed out volunteer trees and shrubs than had enmeshed themselves in the fence around the lot. Balcom recalled Katie, then 8, tugging mightily on an elm seedling: “She said, ‘You are tough, but I am stronger.’”
Eventually, she carved out two 15-by-25-foot plots, plus a smaller one for raspberries. Besides tending vegetable and perennial plants, she raked and shredded leaves each fall for mulch. Her husband Tom, a now-retired state worker and a historian of the area, contributed muscle for the seasonal heavy work.
Meanwhile, her relationship with Ulrich deepened.
“She was the sweetest and most trusting woman, or like I like to believe, a judge of good character,” Balcom said. “She was a social worker, and I think she could tell.”
Balcom has hung onto the notes that Ulrich wrote to her, telling her tenant how much the garden meant to her. Ulrich also passed on notes from neighbors who told her what the landscaped plots meant to them. The garden also garnered Blooming Boulevard awards.
All went well until Ulrich died. Besides losing a friend, Balcom said, “I thought, well, there goes the garden.” But the Ulrich family made sure the new owner, Paul Dunleavy, knew that the garden came with the house. His mother knew that the neighborhood cherished the garden.
“She said, ‘You have to let the gardens stay,’” Balcom recalled.
So with her tenancy informally renewed, Balcom kept gardening. Dunleavy eventually married and expanded the house. Initially, the contractor was able to pile dirt to spare the plants that yielded her three types of berries, asparagus and cherries. But the city mandated that piled dirt be piled farther from the excavation, for worker safety, and with short notice, Balcom lost some plants.
The garden has diminished in size due to the construction and the workload on the retiree, who also maintains a hosta-dominated garden at home and a flower garden at her church. But she still marvels that the Dunleavys allow a relative stranger to invade their yard all growing season.
Of course, the return on that is a landscaped corner brimming with the splashes of color of poppy, peony, New England aster, bellflower, spiderwort, iris, bee balm and zinnia, to select a few. And there’s produce from tomatoes, cucumbers, sugar snap peas, beans, beets and kale. She’s never had an issue with them disappearing, a tribute to the neighborhood.
At 70, she looks back with satisfaction: “It’s given me a lot of pleasure and I don’t think I can imagine a life without it.”