Lake Elmo nature center installs rain gardens

Volunteers wrapped up a labor-heavy and time-consuming rain garden system installation after receiving a watershed district grant and material donations from the community (Amy Felegy/Review)

Carmen Johnson and Tony Manzara with the blueprint for the Sally Manzara Interpretive Nature Center’s new rain garden system that was installed this month. (Amy Felegy/Review)

What looks like an unassuming Minnesota garden at the Lake Elmo nature center has a mightier purpose. After just a little digging, visitors will find there’s much more to it than what meets the eye. 

The Sally Manzara Interpretive Nature Center’s front yard has a new mission: to keep pollutants and extra nutrients from running into lakes.

Nature center volunteers applied for a $500 grant through the Valley Branch Watershed District and the Washington Conservation District earlier this year. Months later, the nonprofit center installed its very own rain garden system by following plans laid out by project manager Tara Kline from the conservation district.

After much forethought, including a site assessment, landscape planning process, drainage assessments, slope calculations and adjustments, 248 plants were put in ground this month at the nature center, located off County Road 14 between Lake Elmo Avenue and the Jamaca Avenue North roundabout. 

Volunteer Carmen Johnson says the districts helped decide which plants to install in the rain garden system. Plants native to Minnesota were chosen for their large stems and heavy water capacity. 

“Some plants grow better in the wet area, and the upland area has a drier area” for other plants, Johnson says, adding rows of perennials also feed birds and pollinators.

But the planning process was only the beginning.

Johnson and nature center founder Tony Manzara say the new system wouldn’t exist without many hours and extra hands. 

“We had 10 people out here one day just tilling,” Johnson says, adding raking, mulching and planting took at least 100 hours of work.

Friends and supporters helped the nature center get its hands on leaf compost, mulch, shredded bark, rock and plants — all of which was far more expensive than the $500 grant. In the end, though, volunteers say it’s worth it.

“It has a huge environmental impact,” Johnson says. “All the beaches were closed this summer because of runoff, and we have so many streets and houses that the water just runs off into the sewer system. This is a way to mitigate that.”


‘A little gift’

The low-lying nature center, combined with the building’s metal roof, make for a perfect rain garden location. Manzara says for every inch of rain that falls, the garden will collect over 1,100 gallons of water — water that goes straight into the carefully planned garden instead of running off and feeding algal blooms in nearby lakes.

The garden has two separate parts: one larger garden to collect the initial rainfall and an overflow garden connected via a valve. Any water the second garden can’t absorb goes into the nearby grass. 

Even with the perennial garden system is in place, the work isn’t done.

The center will weed the garden and cut down its plants every spring. The old plant stalks will remain in the garden over the winter to provide food and shelter for birds.

If August seems like a late start to plant a garden, the volunteers couldn’t agree more. Each time they tried to get to work on the rain garden, ironically, wet grounds stopped them in their tracks.

“We haven”t been able to get into the rain garden with all of the rain,” Manzara says.

In the coming years the garden will continue to grow. Volunteers say they started with smaller plants but by the third year the space should be fully developed.

After everything — the grant application, funding and labor — both Manzara and Johnson wore big smiles the day after their boots and gloves came off.

“She would have really loved this,” Manzara says of his late wife, Sally, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2015. Manzara started the nature center in her memory in 2017. “She loved the park and the bird-watching and the colored leaves in the fall, so we put the money we saved for retirement into a nature center for the city.”

Manzara says he thinks Sally shows up in the beauty of the nature center. One hot summer afternoon, Johnson was the last volunteer working. Tools were strewn everywhere, the sun was blazing and the air was uncomfortably humid. 

“All of a sudden from over the roof — three monarchs. And they just floated right down onto the purple flowers,” Johnson says. “It was like a little gift ... It was wonderful.”

Homeowners and other properties can apply for rain garden grants through their counties. Both Washington and Ramsey counties participate and offer information on how to get started.


–Amy Felegy can be reached at or 651-748-7815.

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