Little prairie in the big city

Hannah Schwecke with Hennepin Country Environmental Services pulls unwanted plants at the Eco-Yard Midtown.

Photo by Matt Mead

Eco-yard Midtown is a vibrant example of natural landscaping

Imagination is a big part of gardening. One must look beyond the plain, weedy pedestrian vista taking up space in the now and envision something with decided grandeur — or at least a yard not quite so ho-hum. If that future-landscape bliss could be a verdant paradise that took care of itself, so much the better.

If that is what you see — a beautiful garden space requiring hardly any watering, fertilizing, pesticides or time — then visit the Eco-Yard Midtown and let your imagination run wild.

Established by Hennepin County Environmental Services, the eco-yard is located at the southwest corner of South 28th Street and Hiawatha Avenue, adjacent to the Midtown Greenway bike and pedestrian trail. The garden stretches east and west across the northern end of the Green Institute’s parking lot, with split-rail fencing serving as a border between the bike trail and the northern edge of the garden.

This lush urban landscape project is both testimony and teacher in promoting sustainable landscaping and developing environmentally friendly home gardens, lawns and landscapes.

Not just railroad daisies

In 2005, the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority made available for the landscaping project a small tract of land, reserved for future transit use.

But for now, three acres of sumptuous and intriguing prairie goodness, including a bird and butterfly garden, a huge rain garden, a swale to handle water runoff, fescue lawns, native trees and shrubs, foot bridges made of recycled plastic, and a water-permeable “hardscape” make up the classroom that is this demonstration garden.

Minimal amounts of pesticides, fertilizers and water are required to maintain the vitality of gardens built taking nature into account. From wildflower species to hearty, drought-resistant grasses that send their roots deep into the ground, Mother Nature’s storehouse provide a wonderland of choices for sustainable plantings.

A on-site, self-guided tour takes you through the garden. Sections are marked with information posts describing each area and defining the plants. A four-page pamphlet available at the first post has a complete plant list.

A natural tour

Gregg Thompson, landscape architect and landscape restoration and urban conservation specialist with the Metropolitan Soil and Water Conservation District, selected the various perennial wildflowers, grasses, trees and shrubs on display in the often-windy, sun-rich eco-yard and supervised their planting by volunteers.

On July 14, Thompson gave a free, guided tour of the garden. About a dozen residents joined the naturalist as he showed off the different sections of the garden, ticking off plant names by heart and tossing out invaluable gardening tips along the way.

The large triangular-shaped brick paver plaza located at the northwest corner of the garden is a water-permeable surface, with 18 inches of crushed rock beneath the crisscrossed pavers. On the plaza’s south side is the bird and butterfly garden, where Thompson pointed out the purple prairie clover plants, with their deep roots and bee-enticing properties.

The cluster of knee-high neon orange butterfly weed plants attracts — wait for it — butterflies!, particularly monarchs. The eight prairie smoke plants, sadly, were past their bloom: “The flower head looks like a troll doll,” said Thompson.
The blazing star, a late-summer bloomer, sends roots down 14 feet and is “super drought-tolerant,” said Thompson.

In the native trees and shrubs area, dogwood and snowberry keep company with switch grass. The bushes give “nice winter interest,” said Thompson.

Tour-goers learned that goldenrod does not cause hay fever but does stand up all winter after showing off its big yellow umbrella flower clusters in August and September.

Pussytoes in the garden does not mean little kitties have run rampant, but rather that the garden has a planting of a silvery-leafed groundcover with flowers resembling the pads under a cat’s paws. Thompson said they’re a great choice for a boulevard planting in part to full sun. “You can step on it, and it’s fine,” he said.

Thompson expounded on the virtues of the bush honeysuckle, bragging on its viability and vigor in both sun and shade, even under a black walnut tree. He decried Kentucky bluegrass (“It’s not a patriotic grass at all!”) and advocated for the use of a five- to six-species fescue blend, planted in fall after a good raking so that the seed comes in contact with soil. “It does awesome in the shade,” he said. “I’ve never watered mine.”

The swale is filled with sacred sweet grass, also called vanilla grass; it has grown long and lain down like a carpet. “I don’t know how to describe (the smell when it’s dried), but it’s really neat,” Thompson said.

The rain garden at the southeast end of the eco-yard is brimming with cup plants and a diverse collection of floral species, including blue flag irises, fox sedge, bottlebrush grass and prairie dropseed. This biodiversity is good for wildlife, Thompson said, and gives the entire garden “increased resistance to the impacts of drought, flood, insects and disease.”

Scheduled tours are over until next summer, but if your group would like to book a guided tour with Thompson, call 612-348-9266.

Thompson recommended other resources: The Lake Phalen native plant guide (check it out on and the website for No-Mow lawn mix, wildflowers and native grasses.

last revised: August 25, 2008