A Restoration Story and Plea For Volunteers
By Jacob Blasczyk
This is a story of a restoration that if it is to continue needs your volunteer help. How to get involved is explained at the end. The story involves The South West Bike path running through my neighborhood and the access ramps at Prospect Street.
During the summer of 1986, I returned to Madison with my wife and 20-month old daughter to Keyes Avenue in a neighborhood, described by the realtor as “up and coming.” The Bike Path follows an old railroad track. When the Bike Path opened in 2000, some neighbors and my then teenage daughter, Emily, greatly missed the tracks and the long abandoned train. She wrote an essay for her senior high writing class, arguing that the bike path changed our neighborhood forever, and not for the good.
I felt otherwise, in part because I now had a daily route to work. Since I was interested in gardening, as I walked to work, the east area next to the steps caught my attention. It had potential as a garden.
The ground was also free of the riprap which covered most of the other areas. Rock, technically known as “riprap”, is used to prevent rainfall from eroding soil. Shortly after the Path opened, contractors—I learned, years later—mistakenly covered almost all exposed areas after some severe storm washouts. City engineers only intended riprap for three feet from the walls of the ramps. A city engineer came upon the contractors while they were working and stopped them from covering the area that I was interested in.
I approached a neighbor, Ernie Cooney, and asked if he would help me develop a plan for putting in prairie and perennial plants in the rock free areas. Ernie in his jovial manner let me know that he was not into plans. He thought that we should just scatter suitable seeds and transplant flowers from our gardens or what neighbors would give based on what seemed appropriate and what moved us. In fact, he had already scattered some seeds.
Becoming a Guerrilla Gardener
I followed his recommendation. Little did I know that I joined the worldwide movement of Guerrilla Gardening, as I learned from reading a book about the movement. A common practice among true Guerrilla Gardeners is filling Christmas tree ornaments with seeds and heaving them into abandoned lots . Ornaments shatter and the impact disperses seeds.
I remained in the Guerrilla mode for several years, but never tried the ornament toss. I did join Sandy Stark and her group to plant and work on the prairie at Glenway Street. Sandy chairs the Dudgeon-Monroe Neighborhood Association’s (DMNA) Bike Path Committee. She encouraged me to expand my efforts at Prospect and to contact Steve Arnold since he wanted something done at Prospect. Steve’s lot in the Regent Neighborhood borders the Bike Path and he chaired the Association’s Greenspace Conservation Committee.
I put off contacting Steve as other priorities of life continued to pop up. By pure chance, during late Summer 2009, Steve and I met at the Prospect site. I was just about to descend the steps on my way to work as I heard this man say to his walking partner: “Isn’t this awful; something needs to be done with this.” Many invasives overran all areas making riprap invisible in many places.
The project site at Prospect and the South West Bike Path, looking east, as the site appeared in March, 2010, before the community-based restoration work began. Photo by Sandy Stark.
I found myself calling out “I agree and do you want to do something about it?” We met at the bottom of the steps. After Steve introduced himself and his wife, I joyfully exclaimed that the “stars must be aligned right since Sandy Stark has wanted us two to meet for a long time and this is it.”
Discovering and Cultivating a Shared Neighborhood Interest
We shared our common interests about renovating the site. Steve mentioned possibly submitting a 2010 neighborhood grant through his neighborhood association and I agreed to help. We agreed to meet during mid-winter at Macha Tea House on Monroe Street. We met in November and as they say “the rest is history”, and my Guerrilla Gardening days were over.
Steve wrote the grant for the Regent Neighborhood Association and gained the support of the Dudgeon Monroe Neighborhood Association (DMNA) since the restoration would be a joint effort. The $800 grant was approved in March 2010 but with the condition that a landscape architect had to draw up a plan. Eventually DMNA matched the sum providing us with $1600 to fund our efforts.
Steve contacted Peter Nause, landscape architect and chair of the DMNA Parks Committee and owner of Second Nature Landscapes. Peter volunteered to develop the plan in cooperation with Archie Nicolette of the City’s Planning Department. The targeted area covered approximately 1500 square feet extending east and west along the Bike Path with most of the land between the two ramps.
The restoration began with removing weeds and invasive plants covering what Steve labeled a “moonscape of rocks.” A professional pesticide applicator applied herbicide to weeds in designated areas in late June 2010 and I began strategizing how to recruit volunteers. I passed out leaflets in the neighborhoods with an announcement and advertised the upcoming work sessions using the two Associations’ list servers.
To my great relief just over a dozen of neighbors from Regent and Dudgeon-Monroe showed up on July 19th for two work sessions in the afternoon and evening. Dead plants were pulled from the rocky steep slopes, hauled up the ramp on the South Prospect side and piled for the city to pick up. More weeds and invasives were dug from non-treated areas and using a stump puller small tree stumps were wrenched out. The result of our labors was a substantial pile of material and areas ready for planting.
Building A Head of Steam
On August 28th another dozen volunteers planted 32 shrubs purchased by Peter Nause in the area covered with riprap. According to Peter, the shrubs served as the backbone for the garden’s overall design. Many were native, like New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) which is a very attractive smaller flowering shrub which is a great magnet for pollinating insects; and shrub like perennial wild senna (Cassia herbecarpa).
During early fall, several neighbors donated prairie plants and perennials which were gladly accepted. A hosta garden was planted under the trees on the south side. A miniature lilac tree, New England asters, bergamot and liatris joined plants in the area I worked on during my Guerrilla Gardening days.
On November 6, 2010 about a dozen volunteers returned and created beds from the rocks and planted seeds from 11 different butterfly attracting prairie species, purchased by Second Nature Landscapes from Prairie Nursery. Using the master plan, Peter marked the locations of seed beds, as he did with the shrubs in August. Beds for columbine seeds from a neighboring prairie were also laid out.
When the plan was developed the riprap was viewed as an eyesore and we considered removing most of it after gaining the City of Madison’s approval. The labor was just too much. Ultimately the riprap was fully accepted and in fact embraced. Different shaped beds bordered with rocks made a pleasing design.
However, in August and November 2010 the riprap made planting difficult and back breaking. Beds for the seeds and holes for the shrubs had to be carved out of the rocks and while working on a steep slope.
After the shape of a bed was decided or the shrub placed, two volunteers working together removed the rocks by hand, a foot deep or more, before the thick weed control barrier was hit. This was cut and removed to make sure that some of the deep rooted prairie plants could survive. Next, new top soil was hauled and the opening filled. Seeds were then spread or shrubs lowered into the hole and then filled with dirt.
Spring 2011 revealed secrets as to what would thrive in the “moonscape of rocks”. The transplanted donated plants grew with vigor. The columbines thrived but did not bloom until spring of 2012. Two beds of lanceleaf correoposis seeds made it and bloomed. A few Black-eyed Susans and purple coneflowers also popped out. However, many seeds failed to germinate.
Donated purple coneflowers and Black-eyed Susans were planted to replace seeds that failed to germinate after neighbors pruned their gardens. Unwanted rain garden flowers were accepted and planted. Percy Mather, an avid Bike Path gardener, donated and planted what she believed were a species of tall Michigan Coreopsis, along the picket fence on the Regent Side. She was told that they were relatively rare only to find a patch already vigorously growing on the Dudgeon Monroe side.
Boy Scouts Get Pitch In to Help the Project
May 7, 2011 was another important day in the gardens’ history. During the prior Fall, I met several times with Graham Provence from the neighborhood and a Boy Scout working for his Eagle Badge. He had ideas about completing his community service requirement though a project involving the Prospect site. We eventually agreed that his project would involve expanding the Gardens to their current size.
Neighborhood volunteers are joined by the Blessed Sacrament Boy Scout Troop in a May, 2011 work party. Volunteers are clearing out the Regent Street side of the SW Bike Path. Photo by Jacob Blasczyk.
On the appointed day, Graham and his Blessed Sacrament-based Boy Scout Troop, their fathers and the Scout Master Chris Thorn descended on the site with their pickups full of shovels, rakes and wheel barrows. A chain saw was available but not used. Joining the Troop were some members of what I now call the Core Volunteers: Claudia Lipke, Peg Davis, Ken Dorn, Joyce Knutson and myself.
Landscape Architect Peter Nause gave a short talk during a break. He spoke with the Scouts about the purpose of landscape planning. He also shared examples of design documents created with old fashioned hand drafting and plans, like the one for the Prospect site, developed with new computer aided tools.
An area approximately sixty feet in length and six to twelve feet wide on the Regent side was cleared of invasives. Afterwards, donated raspberry stalks supplied by Percy Mather were planted. Along with help from the several Scouts, and under Peter Nause’s guidance, a dwarf cherry tree was transplanted from DMNA’s newly planted Wingra Park Orchard Garden. The DMNA’s donation was a welcomed addition. Annual oats were planted in a section as a temporary cover until decisions could be made about how to plant the very steep slope. Straw matting to manage erosion was laid before the raspberries were planted and the area was heavily mulched.
During May 2011 a mural covering a slab of concrete and the edges of the ramps was designed and completed. Dorrie Sundquist, a Dudgeon-Monroe neighbor, designed and painted the mural depicting a bike on the concrete slab and silhouettes of people who use the Path along the edges. A West High School student made the silhouettes.
Between May and September 2011 volunteers weeded and mulched. Nate Mahr, a Regent neighbor offered leftover grasses and prairie plants from planting prairies as an Oregon, WI teacher. On September 8, 2011 eleven volunteers installed the gifts replacing the dried oats and in other places on the Regent side of the Gardens. Mulch was applied to all areas. All areas now had some plants.
The 2012 season opened with great promise. Plants were thriving. During a May workday volunteers weeded and planted more prairie plants from the Arboretum sale. The Gardens were filling up. Gene Dewey’s award winning day lilies, donated by this neighbor and planted in late August 2011, were reaching for the sky.
Then the drought hit. Core Volunteers (Claudia Lipke, Peg Davis, Joyce Knutson, Steve Arnold, myself and my wife Ann joining us) spread out the hoses and watered. Mulching and weeding continued. Ken Doran and Laura Vanderploeg , two more Core Members, joined in on weeding. At the drought’s peak the Gardens were watered sometimes daily as the rock seemed to act as a heat retainer, drying the soil. Mercifully the rains arrived before the Core Group’s plan to cut back on watering.
The community-based restoration as it looked in July, 2012. It took a lot of water to keep it this green. Photo by Jacob Blasczyk.
Ernie and Jean Cooney from the Dudgeon-Monroe Neighborhood and Patricia and Jim Mapp, Regent Neighbors, generously donated water since the restoration started. We became concerned about high water bills from our benefactors, and I investigated gaining access to city water using the nearby fire hydrant. In late August, both neighbor associations agreed to split the cost of installing the connection and payment for city water used during the 2013 season.
Weeding continued in September. A protective cover arrived with the first snowstorm of December 2012.
High Hopes for Year Four
The 2013 season is now just about here. We have learned so much about restoration and gardening while having fun in collectively doing it. One lesson is the value of volunteers. Volunteers from both neighborhoods are critical and we always need more because of the size of the site. Joining us offers the pleasure to work collectively and to know individuals outside your immediate circle. In fact, your circle expands as result of volunteering.
How To Volunteer
Please consider volunteering regardless of which neighborhood you live in. The Path connects at least five different neighborhoods and benefits the entire metro region. Restoring and maintaining areas adds to the Path’s value while improving habitat for birds and insects. At the Prospect site gold finches now feed on the seeds of purple cone flowers. Monarch butterflies flutter across the gardens to alight on the Joe Pye weed. The lone rabbit is less welcomed since it loves eating Butterfly Weed.
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. There are several options including custom times that fit your schedule or being put on a list for a scheduled workday. These are scheduled well in advance and timed when the gardens need work. Workdays are usually on a Saturday with occasional weekdays. Tasks include planting, weeding, mulching and watering.
I hope to hear from you and look forward to sharing a community gardening experience with you.