Blue Thumb Gardens Take the Stage

Volunteers and Master Gardeners are stationed at each of the gardens on the tour to answer questions.

Over the past nineteen years, the St. Croix Valley Garden Tour has gained a well-deserved reputation for showcasing some of the best residential gardens in the east metro area. The tour benefits FamilyMeans, a non-profit organization that provides services to help families learn, work and nurture healthy relationships during challenging times in their lives. Nearly 700 people attended last year’s tour, some from local communities, but others traveling from as far away as Austin, MN to see the blooms and foliage on display.

Undoubtedly, a large part of the tour’s appeal is the opportunity to see private gardens that one can normally glimpse only a peak of from the road. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has paused in front of a stranger’s home while out for a jog and craned my head to try to see the flowers and patio in the backyard. Many tour attendees also come in search of ideas for their own homes, however. Each year’s tour includes an array of different yards, from tiny city lots to sprawling rural estates. They run the gamut from sunny to wooded, some highly manicured and others wild and wooly. For the past two years, a distinctly blue trend has been emerging as well.

Last year’s tour included a home in Mahtomedi with a mix of native and non-native shade loving plants, a raingarden and porous paver driveway to collect runoff, and virtually no lawn at all. Dubbed a “Blue Thumb” yard, after the Blue Thumb – Planting for Clean Water program, the home is a perfect example of how people can use native plants and raingardens to create beautiful landscapes in their yards. This year, there will be two Blue Thumb yards on the 19th Annual St. Croix Valley Garden Tour. The first, in Stillwater, is perched atop a bluff overlooking the St. Croix River. Owner Tatjana Zemcuznikov contacted the Washington Conservation District in 2008 for advice on managing runoff and erosion on her property. Designer Rusty Schmidt put together a plan to install four raingardens and two large native plantings that would together capture virtually all of the runoff from the home’s rooftop and driveway. The project qualified for a cost-share grant from the Brown’s Creek Watershed District as well, since the raingardens and native plantings reduce runoff pollution to Brown’s Creek. In addition to the gardens, the yard features many interesting structural elements such as a rain chain and a dry creek bed to carry rainwater from the rooftop to the raingardens.

The second Blue Thumb yard, located in Lake Elmo, features three raingardens, a dry creek bed, and nearly 5000 square feet of restored prairie. Owners Dennis and Sandy Grabowski learned about Blue Thumb when their neighbor Bonnie Juran hosted a party in 2007. A Master Gardener with impressive plantings of her own, Juran had worked with the Washington Conservation District the previous year to build a raingarden in her backyard to protect Klawitter Pond. The Grabowski’s were excited about the possibility of doing something similar at their own home and worked with a designer from the Conservation District to put together a plan the next summer. With a cost-share grant from the Valley Branch Watershed District, they were able to build the raingardens and a dry creek bed and worked with Prairie Restorations to establish and maintain a small patch of prairie that contains a wide variety of tall mesic grasses and wildflowers.

Visit these and the six other gardens on display in Stillwater, Lake Elmo and Oakdale at this year’s St. Croix Valley Garden Tour, July 16 and 17 from 10am – 4pm each day. A $15 tax-deductible ticket grants you access to raingardens, water gardens, a butterfly garden, a garden designed for grandchildren, and gardens that feature plants for sun, shade, sand and moist shade beds, grasses, rare native plants and deer-resistant plants. Tickets are available at or on tour days at FamilyMeans, 1875 Northwestern Ave. South in Stillwater. Children ages 12 years and younger can tour the gardens for free.