Loving each other and the environment

A couple celebrates their anniversary with rain gardens for the whole block

LYNNHURST — It was a little mysterious, the note Tom and Marcia Garton received several months ago.

All of the Gartons’ neighbors on the 5100 block of James Avenue South got the same letter, a vaguely worded invitation from Bob and Deborah Wolk, who have lived at 5109 for the past 12 years. And almost all of them — 11 households in all — showed up at the Wolks’ in late March to find out just what was going on.

Marcia Garton said neighbors guessing at the surprise suggested, “jokingly, that Debbie was pregnant.”

“Or,” her husband added, “that Bob had sold the whole block to Ziggy Wilf and they were going to build the stadium here.”

“But it turned out even better,” he said.

That night, the Wolks presented their offer to the neighborhood. In celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary, they planned to buy everyone on their block a rain garden.

“We thought maybe we’d get six [to agree] and we’d be delighted — we would be a big splash,” Bob Wolk recalled. “They were all so intrigued by the concept of rain gardens. All of them said, ‘Yes.’”

The plan set in motion that night came to fruition on the last day of May, a Sunday, when the Wolks, their neighbors, a team of master gardeners and about 150 guests planted 11 rain gardens with a variety of native species. Including the one the Wolks planted several years ago, there are now a dozen rain gardens on the block — one in every front yard.

Deborah Wolk is a master gardener and her husband serves on the board of directors for Metro Blooms, a Minneapolis nonprofit that promotes rain gardens as a way to protect local watersheds. For them, the project was a public way to express their commitment to protecting the urban environment.

It was also the best way they could think of to express their commitment to each other after five decades of marriage.

“I would much rather spend the money on something like this … than if I hired a hall and a caterer and I fed people and then they went away,” Bob Wolk said. “What’s left [then], other than compost?”

The urban environment

The 5100 block of James Avenue South is on the side of a small hill. From the intersection with West 52nd Street, the avenue slopes down to Minnehaha Creek.

“When it rains, the rain just pours down the street, the gutters and the sidewalks, and there’s nothing, really, to capture the rain and keep it out of the sewer,” Bob Wolk said.

It’s not just a problem on that one block, said Julie Westerlund, communications director for the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District. The urban environment is filled with impermeable surfaces like streets, driveways and rooftops that prevent rainfall from soaking into the ground.

“We’re shunting the water off of the land and down into the creek through the storm drain system,” Westerlund said. “It goes in there very rapidly and it’s carrying a bunch of pollution with it.”

The pollutants are only part of the problem. The volume of water entering the creek all at once increases stream bank erosion, which leads to a loss of habitat for native plants and wildlife.

“It’s causing large-scale degradation of the water environment,” Westerlund said.

That’s where rain gardens come in.

Rain gardens slow the flow of water, allowing rainfall to soak into the ground. Native plants have deep root systems that gradually loosen the soil, increasing its ability to absorb and filter rainwater.

No silver bullet

Despite all their benefits, rain gardens are not the silver bullet for water pollution.

Metro Blooms Executive Director Becky Rice said a rain garden was more like a “silver BB” — most effective when planted in large numbers by many people.

Still, some barriers remain to the widespread planting of rain gardens.

Cost is one, even though Rice said a small rain garden could be planted for around $100. There’s also the effort involved with digging and planting any garden.

Rain gardens, though, are different from the typical flower garden.

The native species that work best to sequester rainwater may be unfamiliar even to green thumbs. And, of course, homeowners want a garden that looks good, especially if it’s going in the front yard.

“You’re planting native plants that have really deep roots, and you want to get it right,” Rice said.

Those concerns add up.

Every spring, Metro Blooms hosts rain garden workshops at various locations across the Twin Cities. About 80 to 90 percent of attendees leave the workshops with plans to install a rain garden, but follow-up surveys indicate only about one-third of attendees ever act on those plans, Rice said.

To overcome those barriers, Metro Blooms recently began working with entire neighborhoods on rain garden projects. Thirty rain gardens were planted in the Victory and Cleveland neighborhoods through a Metro Blooms pilot project, and the organization plans to install 150 gardens in the Powderhorn Park area over the next three years.

A new garden

It was the Wolks’ enthusiasm for the project that won over neighbors like Joan and Larry Christenson.

“We are not gardeners; we don’t know anything about plants,” Larry Christenson said.

“Most of what grows in our yard is hardy, like raspberries,” Joan Christenson said. “I managed to kill lilies of the valley. People say you can’t kill them.”

The couple watched from the boulevard as a master gardener placed the final plant in the rain garden at the base of their steeply sloped lawn.

“There’s smooth aster and bee balm, which is supposed to get butterflies,” Joan Christenson said, reading off a list. “There’s pale purple coneflower and liatris — that’s blazing star.”

The Christensons took some comfort knowing that, should they have any garden questions, the Wolks’ door was just two houses down the street.

Joan Christenson looked over her new garden, remarking, “Now, we just have to hope we keep it watered and it grows.”