A garden's beauty is always ephemeral. But as Jim Smith's flowers and foliage fade for the winter this year, it's especially poignant because Smith knows it's for the last time. Next spring, the Environmental Protection Agency plans to dig up his landscape and replace his arsenic-laced soil.
Most homeowners wouldn't have mixed feelings about having a health hazard removed from their property. But most homeowners don't have a garden like Jim Smith's.
His bloom-filled back yard is "a slice of paradise," said his friend Terry Engfer, who nominated it for the Star Tribune's Beautiful Gardens contest. But beneath the beauty lurks a toxic threat: arsenic, the residue from a long-closed pesticide plant.
Smith didn't know the soil was contaminated when he bought his south Minneapolis home in 2004. The plant site was several blocks away and had been cleaned and capped years earlier. Concern about possible contamination in nearby yards was just emerging, and few had actually been tested.
Smith was a first-time home buyer. He had no experience with gardening but he knew he wanted to start. The deep back yard and its potential were what sealed the deal for him, he recalled. "The Realtor and I were upstairs, and I looked out the window. It was March, and there was nothing going on -- snow on the ground -- but that was the moment when I said, 'This is the place.'"
There was a garden in the back yard, but it wasn't the garden of his dreams. It included some blooming plants, but it was angular and mostly functional: square vegetable plots with a straight sidewalk running down the middle, and a retaining wall. "I had a vision of a more whimsical, flowing, softer look," Smith said. So, with the help of friends, he dug up the yard, removed the concrete, then hired a landscaper to install a curving brick walkway and design a garden plan.
To fill his garden, Smith took a thrifty approach. He kept and relocated some of the previous owner's plants, including boxwood, peonies and wisteria. Then he hosted a party. "I provided the food, and I said, 'Bring one or two perennials.' That's how I started."
Relatives and friends, Engfer included, dug up and divided plants from their own yards to share with Smith. Some of the plants had special meaning, such as the hostas that his sister brought from their deceased parents' garden.
The random assortment of plants he received meshed with Smith's vision for his garden. "I wanted wild exuberance, more of a cottage style," he said. He wasn't concerned about staying within a particular color palette. "I'm not good at matching colors. It's enough work already." And he's also open to serendipity and plants that appear on their own. "That's why I love morning glories. I like being surprised by how they pop up among the yellow lilies."
To educate himself about horticulture, he did a lot of reading and soaked up information from people he knew. "I have three friends who are gardeners, and they've shared a lot of wisdom," he said.
In just a few short growing seasons, Smith, with lots of help from friends, has transformed his small urban back yard into an oasis that includes multiple patios, an arbor and a fire pit. It's become a sanctuary for him, his family and friends -- and local wildlife. The garden attracts many birds. And while it isn't plagued by rabbits ("there are a lot of cats in this neighborhood," he said), Smith does struggle with squirrels. "They're my worst problem. I can get angry at the squirrels, but they don't know I own this. And in the end, I don't."
Gardening is part of a deeper calling for Smith, who makes his living as a spiritual retreat director. "We are on this Earth to create a little beauty," he said. "One of my passions is inviting and inspiring people to be fully present, to discover the beauty and goodness that already exist. Gardening, for me, is a natural extension of this. It calls me right to the present -- right here, right now. It's become a spiritual exercise for me. I am so in love with this garden."
Words of warning
But his beloved garden wasn't as benign as it appeared. In 2005, he started hearing that some yards in his neighborhood might have been contaminated by wind-blown arsenic. (Apparently the plant, which operated from 1938 to 1963, stored pesticide in open rail cars.) In 2006, Smith's soil was tested, and the following year, he was notified that his arsenic level, although elevated, was below the threshold for cleanup. "I breathed a big sigh of relief," he said.
But last year, he was notified that the threshold had been lowered, and that his back yard was targeted for cleanup, though his front yard was not. Smith started reading up on arsenic poisoning and eventually had his blood tested. After an initial scare, the test came back normal, but Smith started to take precautions when he gardened. "I almost always wear gloves. And when it's dry out, I'll wear a mask."
He still ate his raspberries, which he'd been told is safe. "I'm trusting that's true. I love it [my garden] too much to let it scare me."
And his garden continued to thrive. "My soil is pretty good -- must be the arsenic," he said with a laugh. "It kills people but it helps plants grow."
The EPA plans to dig up Smith's back yard and replace his contaminated soil with clean soil in the spring, said Tim Prindiville, remedial project manager. The government will replace his perennials.
"That will be a sad day," Smith said. "It will be a baby garden again."
Smith hopes to salvage as many of his plants as he can.
"I'm trying to see it as an opportunity to start fresh," he said. "Maybe my spirit will be calmed down, and I'll want more space between plants -- less exuberant and chaotic."