When Kim Pearson and her family moved into their Edina home on Minnehaha Creek, they struggled to cope with erosion on the steep slope behind their house.
They tiered the hill with a retaining wall and planted hosta that thrived in the damp, shaded area. Near the creek, they let weeds and grass grow in the hope that the roots would hold the soil.
“But the back yard is a little problematic,” Pearson said. “It floods.”
Now the edge of Pearson’s yard near the creek has been replanted with native plants that should cut down on erosion and improve water quality. And the work was done and paid for by the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District.
While the watershed district has done similar projects along the creek, this was the first that required the cooperation of homeowners rather than parks, cities or businesses.
The hurdle was high: convincing 56 homeowners on carefully landscaped lots between 54th Street and France Avenue to allow the watershed district to naturalize creek edges by adding vegetation that would provide more shade and shelter for fish and wildlife.
Many of the homes had lawns that were manicured right to the creek’s edge, creating a highway for fertilizer, pet waste and other pollutants to wash into the creek. Some residents immediately said no to the project, worried they would no longer be able to see the water. Others thought native plants would look weedy or sloppy.
In the end, 16 homeowners accepted the watershed district’s offer to replant the 10 to 20 feet of their property nearest the creek.
Residents were invited to be part of the process, meeting with landscapers to pick plants for their property. While the plants nearest the water were to be natives, as plantings made the transition toward lawns, people could pick perennials that are already recognized garden favorites: purple coneflower, black-eyed Susans, butterfly milkweed, Russian sage and even hostas.
If homeowners wanted, a border of brick was installed to make the transition from lawn to creek’s edge plantings clear and easier to maintain.
“Our main goal is to improve habitat and get the creek to a more naturalized state, hoping to spur interest among others to show it can look nice and have a landscape aesthetic,” said Becky Houdek, project manager for the watershed district.
Much of the three-quarter mile length of creek in the project is narrow and unshaded, and a study showed the water was too warm and shallow, with poor habitat for reptiles, amphibians and fish. Even modest plantings of native plants would improve habitat, the study said.
The 16 homeowners who participated tended to be people who were already interested in the creek and environment, but even they had landscaping that was creating problems for the creek.
At the project site, Houdek pointed across the water to a property that was infested with reed canary grass, a plant that looks wild but isn’t native. Houdek said it was removed at several of the properties that were replanted, because it is invasive and chokes out native plants.
Planting along the creek has finished except for a few spots where high water has delayed work. Design costs were $70,000; construction costs amounted to $168,000. That also covers three years of maintenance by the watershed district, including weeding, making sure plants are watered, and replacing plants that die.
After that, Houdek said, the plantings should be sustainable.
After the plantings grow for a year or so, the watershed district intends to hold a neighborhood party to show residents how it turned out. Photos of the project will be posted on the watershed district website, and explanatory signs will be added at the landing in Arden Park so canoeists understand what they’re seeing as they paddle by.
People who have moved into the neighborhood since the project began have expressed interest in being part of future projects, Houdek said. “If we get enough interest, we might do a second round,” she said.
Though the plantings are new, the seed hasn’t sprouted, and the plants that were planted from plugs are small, residents who took part in the project are thrilled.
“I think it’s fabulous,” said Susan Brown, whose creek edge includes a path from lawn to water for canoe access.
Though she had added native plants along the creek for years in an effort to create a more sustainable area near the water, the work done by the watershed district looks more professional and contains more interesting plants, she said.
Nearby, a solid retaining wall has been replaced with a stone wall that has plants between the rocks. “It looks so much more natural than it did,” she said.
Pearson, too, is pleased. A mulched path separates her landscaped yard from plantings along the creek, and she is excited to see the plants establish themselves in an area frequented by deer, fox and birds.
“It’s so attractive now. They really know what they’re doing,” she said. “As neighbors see the great work they’re doing, people will see this is really cool.”