The rise of Southwest’s blue thumbs

A primer on building your own rain garden

Backyard puddles and basement flooding used to be the norm when it rained at Kathleen Davies’ Linden Hills home.

"Now I don¹t have either," she said. "And I don’t have to mow."

These days, wetland plants in Davies’ backyard rain garden drink the water that used to gather in pools on her lawn or drain into her basement. The master gardener for the University of Minnesota Extension Service also planted a rain garden in her front yard to prevent water from running into the street and ending up in Lake Calhoun.

Though Davies has an experienced green thumb and has taught rain garden workshops in Southwest, you don¹t have to be a master gardener to plant a rain garden, which is a shallow depression planted with native wetland plants, flowers and grasses. More and more Minneapolis residents are planting the gardens and a huge amount of resources are available for those who do.

The city’s Water Resources Department estimates that there are more than 750 rain gardens throughout Minneapolis, said the department¹s administrator Lois Eberhart. Southwest and South Minneapolis have been leaders in rain garden development, she said.

Rain gardens have a number of benefits: they direct rainwater back into the ground instead of allowing it to run through lawns and streets where it can collect pollutants that wind up in lakes and rivers, they provide habitat for birds and insects, they can add a little natural beauty to a property, and they can save residents money on their utility bill.

On the flip side, some Southwest residents have complained about the gardens looking too wild and unkempt, but that hasn¹t stunted their popularity.

Neighborhoods throughout Southwest, including Fulton, Kingfield, East Harriet and Lyndale have promoted the gardens in recent years.

"We’ve been excited to see how it’s caught on and all the education involved," said Rhea Sullivan, coordinator of the Fulton Neighborhood Association (FNA). "We’re glad to be a leader."

Fulton has offered rain garden and stormwater management education and consultation for years through a partnership with the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and conservation development company Applied Ecological Services, based in Brodhead, Wis.

Neighborhood resident Theresa Punyko was one of the first to take advantage of the partnership, which resulted in a large award-winning rain garden on her property at 49th Street and Chowen Avenue. She also replaced a section of concrete patio in her backyard with a garden and a "dry creek" to prevent water from seeping into her home.

The main rain garden was planted to make her expanse of grass more attractive, she said. The garden, planted with a variety of plants and flowers such as milkweed, bottlebrush sedge, black-eyed Susans and meadow phlox gets plenty of attention during the summer, she said.

³I get pleasure out of people walking by and asking questions,² Punyko said.

The Kingfield Neighborhood Association plans to start a rain garden and storm water management program similar to Fulton’s this June. In collaboration with the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization and area research and design firms, the organization is working with selected residential and commercial property owners to construct rain gardens and utilize a variety of other stormwater treatment techniques.

One of the properties involved in the program is Victor’s 1959 Café at 38th Street and Grand Avenue, where a large portion of asphalt parking lot will be replaced with a rain garden and a patio that incorporates pervious surfacing.

Niki Stavrou, owner of the restaurant, hopes the redevelopment will beautify the street corner and save her some money on her utility bill. Anyone using effective storm water management practices can apply for a reduction in their monthly stormwater utility payment, Eberhart said.

The East Harriet Neighborhood Association has taken a different approach to rain garden promotion. The organization received financing from the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization and Minnehaha Creek Watershed District to support a water quality and management curriculum for seventh and eighth grade students at Barton School at 43rd Street and Bryant Avenue. The program has been going on for several years.

The Lyndale Neighborhood Association has also encouraged rain garden development. The group offered numerous grants to residents for rain garden construction and spearheaded the development of a community rain garden at 102 W. 32nd St.

Davies, who taught a rain garden workshop in CARAG earlier this month, said she isn¹t surprised by the popularity such practices in Southwest.

"Southwest is very active about environmental issues in general," she said. "And everything’s connected. It¹s not just rain gardens. It’s quality of life issues."

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected]

Helpful resources

The Blue Thumb­Planting for Clean Water program helps Minnesotans plan, purchase and plant native gardens. Check out www.bluethumb.org.

Metro Blooms/Minneapolis Blooms is a nonprofit educational organization made up of metro-area gardeners and volunteers aimed at improving and restoring the urban landscape and its lakes, rivers and streams. Visit www.minneapolisblooms.org or call 673-3014.

Applied Ecological Services is an ecological consulting, contracting and restoration firm with offices in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas and Pennsylvania. The company’s website is www.appliedeco.com. The Minnesota office can be reached at 952-447-1919.

The Mississippi Watershed Management Organization manages the section of the Mississippi River that runs through Minneapolis and the land that drains into the river. Go to www.mwmo.org or call 651-287-0948.

The Minnehaha Creek Watershed District manages Lake Calhoun, Lake Harriet, Minnehaha Creek and other bodies of water west of Minneapolis, as well as nearby land that drains into the water. Visit www.minnehahacreek.org or call 952-471-0590.

How to make a rain garden

Creating a rain garden can involve researching plot size, soil type, location, plant species and water direction among other factors, said Douglas Mensing, a senior ecologist with Applied Ecological Services’ Prior Lake, Minn. office, but you don¹t have to be a pro to build one.

Mensing has helped design roughly 15 rain gardens in Fulton since 2002 and though his company charges roughly $10­-$12 per-square foot for installation, all of the work can be done by a willing property owner, who is then only left with the cost of plants.

³If folks have the time, anyone can do this,² he said.

Here are some rain garden basics from Applied Ecological Services:

– Dig a shallow depression, as large as you’d like the garden to be.

– Direct your downspouts or sump pump outlets to the depression, either by digging a shallow swale or by piping the runoff through a buried 4-inch plastic drain tile.

– Plant native plants such as sneezeweed, New England aster, marsh phlox, stiff golden rod or others. A large selection of native plants is available to choose from, but not all grow in the same soil type. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources offers a list of native plant suppliers at www.dnr.state.mn.us/gardens/nativeplants/suppliers.html. Suppliers should be able to help you determine what plant is best for your soil.

– Water your garden every other day for about the first two weeks or until plants look like they are growing and well established. Once they are established, no additional watering or fertilizer is necessary. Only minimal weeding is needed once the garden is growing.