My first sight of the garden includes zebra grass, another green-and-white variegated maidengrass and petunias draped over a low retaining wall. A few black-eyed Susans peek from under the frays of the taller ornamental grasses, and recently transplanted irises promise blooms next spring. The color and the possibility of a little nature on the edge of an abyss of asphalt are enough to draw me up the sidewalk.
The garden is at the Community Health Facility, 200 Maine, but it is in the back of the building at the employee entrance. Once upon a time, I am told, large shrubs grew here but were removed for the safety of employees leaving at irregular hours. Two large, multi-stemmed river birch trees and an expanse of grass filled the void between the sidewalk and building when the shrubs were removed.
Multiple agencies work out of the facility, but it was the staff of Douglas County Visiting Nurses who decided to make the space more enjoyable. Judith Bellome, chief executive officer of Visiting Nurses, and staff member Mitzie Gimblet initiated a garden project to brighten the employee entryway three years ago. Gimblet enjoys gardening, and the rest of the staff knew she had an eye for design, so she was a natural fit to oversee the garden.
As I take in the sights and sounds, a ruby-throated hummingbird darts from bloom to bloom on stems of Lady in Red salvia. Multiple shades of ruffle-leaved sun coleus frame the salvia, and a nearby pink gaura flutters its whispy stems in the breeze.
Small trees, shrubs and perennials in the garden are often planted in memory of loved ones of employees at the health facility. Other plants are donated by staff members out of their own gardens, and several local garden centers donated plants to help get the garden growing. The city donates compost and mulch each year.
“It’s contagious. When you start something, people start chipping in,” Bellome says. “It inspired me.”
Gimblet says the small trees (a Japanese maple, a Dwarf Norway spruce and a weeping pussy willow) are her biggest challenges in the garden. The Japanese maple grows amongst a variety of hosta lilies, bright pink and salmon-colored impatiens, and annual begonias. The spruce and willow are on the sunny end of the garden with annual zinnias, verbena and sweet potato vines, and perennial yarrow, creeping jenny, creeping thyme and sea oats.
“I pick out what’s beautiful and bright,” Gimblet says. “I like different textures and different variegation, or I’ll pick up things like coleus because I know it gets big.”
Sarah Randolph, marketing and development manager of Visiting Nurses, says she loves the way the garden softens the building and makes it feel more welcoming.
“I like that you can hear life. Not just see it, but hear it,” Randolph says.
The life she refers to sounds like songbirds and tree frogs, and their music makes the city sounds fade into the background.
“It felt different walking in after the garden was here,” Randolph adds.
Gimblet says many of the annual flowers are dug up each fall and overwintered by employees to be re-planted the following spring. Multiple varieties of begonias and a shamrock plant are annuals that are commonly overwintered this way.
Each glance into the garden brings a different variety of perennial sedum or bugleweed or lambs-ear to my attention. The garden is full of colors and textures that please the eye.
Two additional components that greatly helped the garden’s success (but are easily overlooked) are the retaining wall at the north end and a rain barrel that provides water to the garden. Both were installed by Dale Seele, who does maintenance at the facility.
— Jennifer Smith is the Horticulture Extension Agent for K-State Research and Extension in Douglas County. Contact her or an Extension Master Gardener with your gardening questions at 843-7058.