When bikers pass by Vera's Garden in south Minneapolis, they sometimes say thanks to the people working there or enjoy the spray of water coming from it. They don't always know it's a public garden, taken care of by volunteers and donations, said volunteer gardener Tom Evers of St. Louis Park.
The garden didn't always have so many volunteers maintaining its peonies, roses and other ornamental plants and trees, Evers said. That changed when Evers, a certified master gardener, brought forth a proposal in 2019 for the University of Minnesota Extension/Hennepin County Master Gardeners volunteer program to adopt it.
The master gardeners program provides research-based education throughout the state, with an emphasis on areas like horticulture skills, access to green spaces and sustainable food production.
Interns and certified master gardeners volunteer in different ways, such as through information booths at farmers markets or by providing guidance at community gardens. While that work is more hands-off, Vera's Garden has provided a place for master gardeners to get their hands dirty.
"So this really was kind of a new way for us to do things, because we can do education in the garden," said extension educator Terry Straub.
"We're the ones primarily working there."
The garden on the Midtown Greenway measures about three-tenths of an acre. It was developed in 2001 by Donovan Harmel of Minneapolis and several others after meeting at Vera's Cafe, formerly located on the 2900 block of S. Lyndale Avenue.
"There were several of us having coffee up at Vera's Cafe, trying to figure out what to do with leftover plants from our gardens at home and we looked out the window and this whole block was a weed patch," Harmel said.
It took about a year of working with the county to transform the spot into Vera's Garden. By its second year, the garden was receiving donations from nurseries through Minnesota Green, a Minnesota State Horticulture Society program. All plants, tools and other resources continue to be donated.
Evers, who grew up helping his grandmother in the garden and is an avid gardener, first saw Vera's Garden in 2004.
"I just thought, this is so spectacular. How is this here? Whose garden is this? And I found out more and I met Donovan … and I just started showing up to help," Evers said.
Things began to change for the garden in 2008 when The Murals of LynLake apartment complex was built along the garden's property line, eliminating an easement and the section of garden it included.
"The garden eventually recovered. But my sense is that people's perceptions changed," Evers said.
Part of the county's agreement with the complex meant the building would provide the garden with free city of Minneapolis water, and the eliminated easement could make it easier to manage a garden of its size, Evers said.
But it also seemed unclear to passersby that the garden was a public space and not maintained by the apartment complex.
By 2019, with volunteer numbers down and Evers busy with Master Gardeners, the garden was beginning to become more wild.
"It's very labor intensive," Evers said. "When the plants are donated, you have to go get them. That takes a lot of time."
By 2019, Evers said, the garden "just got to be too much work with too few people."
That's when Evers proposed that the Master Gardeners program adopt Vera's Garden; the proposal passed in May 2020.
Volunteers must complete a requisite number of hours each year and can work toward that number by helping in the garden on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
"I have my home garden also, but there's a certain amount of camaraderie in getting to know the folks that work out here," said master gardener volunteer Karen Beadie.
The garden has also been a part of the program's educational work, hosting elementary school students, in partnership with the nearby Soo Line Community Garden, to teach them about composting and gardening.
"It's stuff like that you feel like, yeah, out of that group, maybe I've kindled five people that will grow up and become master gardeners, or at least have an interest in gardening," said master gardener volunteer Bob Russell.
The garden adds to a sometimes empty area, said Minneapolis resident Kelsey Stokkeland, who often bikes past the garden on her way to work.
"It's great to see people down here working, because so much of this stretch is just emptiness or graffiti," Stokkeland said. "So it's just something that catches your eye on the way by."
The garden has had visitors from around the world. Volunteers are making paths wider, adding benches and brainstorming a rain garden to manage rainwater runoff. Time together also gives volunteers a chance to share their knowledge with each other.
Evers is yet to be stumped by questions on the names of various plants in the garden, Beadie said.
"That's one thing that's really important to me is recognizing that a garden like Vera's, it really needs a whole group of people, it has to be a group effort," Evers said.
"And ever since I joined the Master Gardeners program, I have been so impressed with the organization. And I think they do their best work when they partner with people."
Imani Cruzen is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer who contributes regularly to Inspired.