A garden oasis on the Midtown Greenway

Lyn-Lake resident Donovan Harmel is a founding member of the Vera’s Garden Club, which created the garden back in 2001. Credit: Photo by Margie O’Loughlin

Donovan Harmel comes from farming stock. Wiry and strong, he volunteers as many as 25 hours a week planting, weeding and watering the flowers and shrubs at Vera’s Garden just below Lyndale Avenue on the Midtown Greenway.

He’s a hard worker and, at the age of 69, still moves around the garden in easy strides. As the sole remaining member of Vera’s Garden Club, Harmel explained how the garden came to be.

“Several patrons of Vera’s Café, which closed in 2009, were gardeners in this neighborhood,” he said. “We all had extra plants and had run out of friends to give them to, until someone suggested planting a garden on the Greenway. Vera’s Garden Club was born, and we envisioned a modest garden about 20′ square to start.”

A plan was submitted in 2001 and a year later, it was approved by the Whittier Community, the Midtown Greenway Coalition and the Hennepin County Rail Road Authority. The intended hillside, in view of Vera’s Cafe, was neglected and the soil was almost unworkable. Tree Trust, a local youth-development organization, delivered 50-plus cubic yards of compost and wood chips. Progress Valley, an addiction treatment facility in the neighborhood, brought a van full of youth who dug the compost in — breaking up the hard garden soil with a pick ax in places. The Rail Road Authority provided a gate in the fence on the opposite side, so weeds could be disposed of easily and inconspicuously.

After 13 years of faithful work, Vera’s Garden has really come into its own. Harmel, along with current  volunteers Tom Evers and Laura Kossan, has created a crazy-quilt of color and joy for passersby to enjoy. The mission of providing a peaceful place of beauty on the Greenway has been met. There are several winding paths, a wisteria-covered swing, a shady birch grove and countless flowers blooming from early spring til late fall. Anyone is welcome to come and sit a spell.

As the garden grew larger through a series of expansions, Harmel has used a program called Minnesota Green to keep it well-stocked and bountiful. Under the umbrella of The Minnesota Horticultural Society, this program has provided plant materials to volunteer community gardeners at nominal cost for almost 30 years. Minnesota Green promotes community building by helping people connect with plants as part of everyday living.

For a $55 annual fee, community gardeners may receive significant donations from growers, garden centers, seed companies and individuals. Plant materials range from bare root trees and shrubs to hardy perennials and flats of colorful annuals. Visit northerngardener.org to learn more.

Other significant donors have included the Macy’s Spring Show (donating more than 500 bulbs each year) and Hennepin County Technical College’s Horticulture Department.

Over the years, Harmel has been surprised by the many donations people in the neighborhood have made.  One of the garden’s crown jewels, a tall, pink-edged  Peegee Hydrangea, was  left by an anonymous giver five years ago. Several trees and shrubs have also been dedicated as memorials to loved ones, such as the Ann Tulip Magnolia at the back of the garden, which blooms throughout the season.

Harmel is a native of Rugby, N.D., a town recognized as being at the geographic center of North America. It takes a certain amount of “centeredness” to manage a garden project on this scale, and Harmel seems relatively undaunted by it.

“I just like to garden, and the rest of it will take care of itself,” he said.


Get involved … 

Volunteers are invited to stop by any time they see Harmel at the garden, and Saturday mornings are probably the best bet. Enthusiasm is more important than experience. “Anyone can pull weeds,” he explained, “and this is a great way to learn about how to keep a garden.” Email [email protected] to confirm a time for volunteering or to ask further questions.

There are 13 garden sites in addition to Vera’s Garden along the 5.6 mile-length of the Midtown Greenway.  Harmel has made a point of designing his garden for viewing at an average of 12 mph from the seat of a bicycle. “When bikers fly by,” he said, “I’d like for them to be able to see patches of color, even if they can’t see individual flowers.”

Vera’s Garden welcomes on-going donations of plants, boulders, field stone, flagstone and other gardening supplies. An effort is also underway to raise money to buy bike racks for the garden, so bikers can sit and relax knowing that their bikes are safe. If you wish to contribute a few dollars, that address is www.gofundme.com/4c6eabk8k.