The gardners of Lyndale Park

The three men who keep Southwest's roses, perennials and peace garden blooming

When Mary Maguire Lerman was hired to coordinate horticulture programs for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board in 1976, one of her goals was to restore Lyndale Park to its original glory. According to Lerman, they are almost there.

The park, on land donated by Col. William S. King and the Lakewood Cemetery Association in the 1890s, sits on the northeast side of Lake Harriet along Roseway Road between East Lake Harriet Parkway and King's Highway. Lerman calls it the jewel of the Minneapolis park system.

Its gardens contain enough flora artistry to please the most ardent horticulturalist and are the work of three full-time gardeners: Paul Sotak, Tim Rosener and Omotayo Ajayi, plus their crew and volunteers. Though these men have very different backgrounds, they share an obvious love of their jobs.

Excluding the Roberts Bird Sanctuary (17 acres of wooded habitat adjoining the site), Lyndale Park is over 50 acres of open space and includes the Peace Garden, the Rose Garden, the Perennial Garden, plus fountains, sculpture, broad green meadows and trees. On weekends, it is known for its sunbathers, picnics and wedding parties.

Peace Garden

Paul Sotak has been in charge of the Peace Garden for four years. A horticulture graduate of Purdue University, he's the first full-time gardener the alpine plot has ever had.

Sotak tends to over 1,000 plants. Many are from rocky, high-mountain areas in Asia and Europe with similarly varying temperatures as Minneapolis; varieties include sedum, dianthus, the European Pasque flower, saxifraga and sempervivum.

The rocks come from the Mississippi River Valley near Diamond Bluff, Wis. and were brought here in the 1920s. The dolomitic lime stone rocks have pockmarks in which plants often take root.

The garden fell into neglect during the Depression and World War II. An oak forest overtook it, and fallen debris and organic matter covered the rocks.

On June 14, 1981, a tornado touched down at Lake Harriet. Lerman said it was one of those storms that hit without warning; the sirens didn't even go off until after the tornado had run through the area. The forest hiding the rock garden was leveled. When the debris was removed, the rocks were rediscovered and a concerted restoration effort was made.

The current design was done by a Minnesotan named Betty Ann Addison, an alpine rock garden aficionado who fashioned it after one in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Said Sotak, "One of the tricks of rock gardening is to get plants growing near each other that have compatible growth characteristics so they balance each other out. Some alpine plants are tiny and slow-growing, and if you have something next to it that is robust and fast-growing, it can overshadow it."

Lately, when not weeding and transplanting, he has planted annuals such as Swan River daisies and baby's breath, which clamber over the rocks.

The garden's most distinctive feature is a cascade, built in 1992, that empties into a basin beside a leaning red cedar.

Once a week, Sotak drains it and washes off the algae. Sometimes he'll put little bleach in the water, but is careful to consider the birds -- Baltimore orioles, killdeer, humming birds, goldfinches and warblers -- that fly over for a quick bath from the bird sanctuary, and the frogs that congregate there when summer drought dries up their habitat.

The Peace Bridge, nestled under a weeping willow tree, was built to span a dry stream. During rainy weeks, Sotak pumps out the water so it doesn't attract mosquito larvae. Some people mistakenly refer to the place as the Japanese rock garden because the stone placed on one side of it is from Hiroshima, Japan.

Rose Garden

Tim Rosener has been in charge of Lyndale's Rose Garden, the second-oldest municipal rose garden in the United States, since 1978. His domain is also one of 50 national test sites for the All-American Rose Selection, a nonprofit association of rose growers who promote colorful, fragrant disease-resistant rose bushes. The garden is its northernmost test area.

Among the 2,400 rose bushes (which begin blooming in June), there are over 300 varieties in 85 beds. They have names such as the Bob Hope Rose, the Rosie O'Donnell, Mr. Lincoln, the Betty Boop and Crimson Bouquet.

"Roses can beat you up -- it is the most labor-intensive of the three gardens," Rosener said. "It's a lot like landscaping requiring shoveling and edging."

Spring and fall are his busiest times. When winter approaches, Rosener covers the bushes to protect them from cold temperatures. Dirt is the first level of protection, about five shovelfuls per plant. They are then covered with mulch from Lakewood Cemetery leaves.

Said Rosener, "It is mutually beneficial since it protects our roses and saves Lakewood money from having to haul their leaves out to Shakopee and paying $70 a load."

When spring comes, he carefully uncovers the plants and prunes them.

During summer, he weeds the flowerbeds and deadheads the bushes. Though he throws out the faded roses, he says many people retrieve the fragrant petals and use it for potpourri.

Rosener, a Minneapolis native, also stands guard against waves of attack by army worms, Japanese Beetles, spider mites, aphids and the rose midge, eradicating them with a variety of methods but being careful lest any toxic bug spray harm the nearby lake.

Perennial Garden

Omotayo Ajayi, a Nigerian immigrant, has worked on the Perennial Gardens for the past three years. Starting in spring, his goal is to always have a portion of his 300 perennials and annuals in bloom until the first frost. While spring tulips have died off, the irises and the peonies reign. His garden season culminates with Autumn Joy sedum, his latest bloomer.

Ajayi pays special attention to height, color and timing of each flowerbed. He makes sure that the plants stay within their boundaries, that they are tiered in such a way that the taller ones are in the back and the shorter ones are in front so all receive the necessary sunlight.

Ajayi is also conscious of color combinations. While he always has something to show flowers fans, he makes sure that the reds, purples, whites, pinks, yellows and oranges are not concentrated in any given spot.

"The most fragile flowers are the asters," Ajayi said. "Sometimes I have to transplant them into a new location that has a bit more shade or sun, depending on the plant. The goat's beard [a dandelion-like flower] is the most hardy."

There are two fountains -- one of turtles, the other of Greek muses -- and seven peace cairns created by Greg Ingraham and Teri Kwant. Located around the Peace Garden, the cairns were dedicated in June 2003, a joint project of the East Harriet Farmstead Neighborhood Association and the Minneapolis Arts Commission.

"The Rose and Perennial Garden are both very formal gardens," Lerman said. "Then across the street you have a totally different world at the Peace Garden. You get to experience all sorts of different ways to landscape when you come to Lyndale Park."

Free tours are offered but require two weeks' notice. Call 313-7726.