Robin Russell planted her first garden at age 7, carrying crocus bulbs gifted by her mother into the alley behind their south Minneapolis home.
Russell's latest garden is easier to spot, and it's also a gift. "It's not a fancy neighborhood," Russell said of this corner of northeast Minneapolis. "There are not a lot of amenities around here. It's something that's a little special for them."
What's most special is how this tiny triangle of beauty at NE. Washington Street and 6th Avenue emerged from such harsh terrain. Most of the perennials blooming here were rescued by Russell from nearby homes in foreclosure -- including her own.
Russell wryly calls this soothing spot "Foreclosure Park."
Earlier this week, Foreclosure Park was awash with color -- poppies, irises, coral bells, lilies, allium and roses. "There is always something different blooming," said Russell, a self-employed gardener who voluntarily tends this triangle four to six hours a week.
She brings her own hoses, hooking them up to a nearby fire hydrant. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board pays for the water permit.
An orange car drives by, slams on its brakes. "It's beautiful!" a young woman shouts in gratitude out her open window.
"That happens constantly," Russell said.
Russell's garden remained largely off the grid until last week, when David Smith wrote about Russell on his blog, www. minneapolisparkhistory.com.
Smith, author of "City of Parks: The Story of Minneapolis Parks," was exploring the smallest parks in the city.
"Three triangles were less than .01 acres," Smith said. One was in Prospect Park, another in Bryn Mawr. And then there was Russell's spot, known by many as Sibley Triangle. Through Minneapolis Parks volunteer coordinator, Michelle Kellogg, Smith tracked down Russell and wrote about her.
"The other people deserve credit, too, for taking care of their gardens," Smith said. "But this one struck me because, here was a woman who fell on hard times and turned it into something cool."
Actually, returned it to something cool. Located across the street from public housing, which was once Our Lady of Lourdes parochial school, Sibley Triangle was tended in the 1990s by a gardening club. The club built the raised bed, stone pathways and a retaining wall. Water was provided by a neighbor across the street.
After the garden club disbanded, it became a bed of weeds.
Russell was doing nonprofit work until she lost her job in 2004. She started her own gardening business. In 2007, she lost her home, about six blocks away. She didn't want to leave her perennials behind, so she cleared out the weeds and planted her flowers here. After another home in the neighborhood burned down, Russell rushed over to salvage that home's daylilies.
'This is a rescue'
As her garden grew, Russell requested the city's list of homes to be demolished, then drove over (joking that she was often one inch ahead of the bulldozers) to recover remaining plants.
"This is a rescue," she said, pointing to a thriving thyme plant. "That was a really nice house," she said. "You could see that people really cared about it." Her red roses were rescued, too.
In all, Russell has recovered plants from seven foreclosed homes. Neighbors walk by to compliment and thank her, and to make suggestions:
"You don't have any echinacea?" they ask. "How about this? How about that?" She hunts, sometimes buying plants with her own money. She spent three years tracking down salvia, finding it at a nursery in Hastings.
Sarah Beggs and her 7-year-old son, Rory, ride up on their bikes in the hot sun. They live nearby and cherish this space. "It's all Robin," Beggs said. "Everything had to be nursed back to life."
The sudden attention is a mixed bag for Russell. She confesses that she isn't much for sentimentality. Friends, she said, might be surprised to hear that she is doing something like this. But, with word getting out, she feels more inspired to keep the garden looking nice.
"This is for the community. It stays in the community," she said. It's also for Russell.
"To the extent that, in other major areas of my life, I have a lot of uncertainty, this is something I can plan around, build, create," she said. "Having that kind of positive, constructive intent, I guess, is therapy."
She laughs. "It's also a lot of work."