There’s a streetside garden in south Minneapolis that stops traffic.
“People drive by, slow down, park, then get out and say, ‘Do you mind if we look?’ ” said Alex Ghebregzi, who tends two adjacent boulevards on Portland Avenue S.
On one of the busiest streets in the urban core, Ghebregzi has created a lush green oasis that frames both edges of the sidewalk with a dense tapestry of foliage and flowers. It’s one of six gardens chosen by a panel of judges from more than 175 submissions in last year’s Beautiful Gardens contest.
Ghebregzi named his sidewalk garden after the colorful flowers he plants in large urns. “When I stand here, the Hibiscus Walk is otherworldly,” he said. “You don’t feel like you’re in Minneapolis.”
He’s happy to give impromptu garden tours to passing motorists and pedestrians. “I bring ’em back and let them see everything,” he said, including the adjacent backyards connected by a meandering garden path that he laid using handmade concrete “rocks.”
“They ask, ‘Who’s the owner?’ They think I’m hired help.”
Nope. The University of Minnesota lecturer and teaching specialist owns both properties and does the work of tending them almost exclusively himself.
Before there was a garden there was a duplex. Ghebregzi bought it with his brother in the 1990s. The gardening bug didn’t bite right away. In fact, it was his brother who did most of the yard work. But a decade later, his brother sold his share of the duplex.
“As soon as I bought him out, something clicked,” Ghebregzi said. “Suddenly I just wanted to do it [gardening]. I wanted to come home to a place I could walk around and enjoy.”
So he started watching shows about gardening, visiting arboretums and buying plants.
“I made a lot of errors,” he said, including planting morning glories “all over,” not knowing that they can be invasive. “I didn’t realize they would take over.”
Morning glories weren’t the only thing that spread. Before long, Ghebregzi was creating a garden on his next door neighbors’ yard. The neighbors, an older couple, were willing to let him beautify their boulevard, creating a seamless expanse of plants. When the couple were ready to move to assisted living, Ghebregzi bought their house.
“I was sad to see them go, but it allowed me to extend the garden — a new slate, a clean canvas,” he said.
He rents out the second house on Airbnb, mostly on weekends, so he can generate income while still maintaining control of the yard. “I can pay the mortgage and not have people tampering with my garden,” he said.
Ghebregzi’s garden has different spaces, with different moods, some separated by gates.
“I like nice gates,” he said. “It’s like entering another room.” He had one gate custom-made in iron — with a bulldog head motif. “The gate is dedicated to all my bulldogs I used to have,” he said.
He draws inspiration during his travels, especially to Italy, where he grew up and often visits friends.
“I borrow ideas from Europe,” he said. “Every time I come back, I think ‘I’ll try what I saw.’ ”
The shaded backyard of his duplex, once covered with a spotty lawn, is now a hosta glen. There’s no grass — just a carpet of hostas of different sizes, shapes and shades. The focal point is a rock-covered Argentinian oven where he cooks, often for guests. “I entertain in the garden all the time,” he said.
His front yard includes a “butterfly corner” planted with milkweed. “On a good day, there’s a cloud of butterflies,” he said.
There’s also a vegetable plot — in a cage, to keep rabbits from nibbling his lettuce, Swiss chard, peppers, kale and broccoli.
And he has enough container gardens to stock a small garden center — 158 last year.
“If you put the same plant in different pots, it becomes a nice statement,” he said. Watering all those containers takes up to three hours a day. “I do it all manually. I love to do that,” he said. “During the hot spell I had to water twice a day to keep them looking lush and thriving.”
The backyard garden at the house next to his duplex remains a work in progress. “I want to get rid of some of the tired evergreens and plant an avalanche of zinnias,” he said. “Gardening is so humbling. No matter how much you do, there’s always more to do. I see the faults, the defects.”
Ghebregzi rises early to tend his gardens. “Between 5 and 9 a.m. I do a lot of my gardening,” he said. “Then I review my notes and head to the U.”
Three in a row
This summer, he’ll have even more garden to tend. He recently purchased the house on the other side of his duplex, with plans to extend the boulevard garden.
“When I started gardening the boulevard, it raised some eyebrows,” he said. “Some people said, ‘The boulevard is supposed to be uniform.’ ” But Ghebregzi forged ahead. “Trying to create a little oasis in the city is a blessing,” he said.
There are challenges to growing on the boulevard. Because the soil contains salt from the road, he has to amend it with gypsum. He also fortifies the soil with compost.
Surprisingly, with such a public garden in such a high-traffic spot, vandalism has not been an issue.
“I never have trouble with people,” he said. “One gentleman told me, ‘If you stage it nicely, people will respect the space.’ ” So far, they have. “If people pick a flower, I just smile.”
In fact, Ghebregzi said gardening in the heart of the city has its advantages.
“There are so many garden stores,” he said. Tangletown Gardens is a favorite destination and influence. “When the going gets tough, I get a coffee at Wise Acre [the restaurant across the street] and look at the hanging baskets. They’re so creative! I say, ‘Please don’t mind me, I’m just dreaming.’ ”
Every year, when the growing season ends, Ghebregzi is ready to take a break.
“People always ask, ‘What do you do in wintertime?’ I read, prepare for class, binge-watch shows. By the time fall comes, you’re tired,” he said. “But I wake up when spring comes — like Lazarus.”