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Cultivating your blue thumb

Amy and Andy Tix stand next to the rain garden they installed in 2010. Although dormant now, drought-resistant plants line the top edges where plants will get little water, while in the center where water pools, moisture-loving plants thrive. (Star Gazette photo by Katrina Styx)

Installing a rain garden hadn't been a priority for Hastings residents Andy and Amy Tix. In fact, they'd never really considered putting one in their yard until a friend of theirs, Mike Isensee of the Dakota County Soil and Water Conversation District, suggested they consider one in their landscaping project.

They attended the Blue Thumb - Planting for Clean Water program to learn more about it, and after attending a series of workshops, they got to sit down with a landscaper who helped draw up plans for their specific property based on aerial photos they brought with them. The Tixes were sent home with a book that explained step by step what to do, and they were ready to get to work.

They did all the work themselves, but they weren't left on their own. Periodically, landscapers from Blue Thumb would come by to check on their work and make sure the construction was being done properly. And if the Tixes needed help, the landscapers would dig in and lend a hand.

"It couldn't get any easier," Amy said.

The Blue Thumb program is a state-wide program that aims to help home owners improve water quality by installing rain gardens to reduce runoff from rooftops, streets, parking lots and other impervious surfaces. The gardens are placed on properties where runoff is likely to gather. In the Tix's yard, it was a corner of the house under a downspout from their roof. Water from the roof drains into the gutters and then down into the rain garden, which is sunken to collect the water. Rather than washing across the lawn and into the street, the roof runoff pools in the garden and filters through the ground before it can carry pollutants like sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus into local waterways. While the pollutants are bad for waterways - creating an imbalance in the natural system and adversely affecting wildlife - they act as food for garden plants. Essentially, a rain garden is a self watering, self fertilizing garden, Isensee said.

The Tixes installed their rain garden in 2010. This summer will be its third season. They often go up to an upstairs bedroom to view the garden in a storm, and from that vantage point they can clearly see how much runoff comes off just the one side of their roof.

"It's a lot of water," Andy said.

Isensee did the calculation, and the Tix rain garden can keep 800 gallons of runoff from going into the storm sewer during a rain event.

There are two things the Tixes love about their rain garden. One is that it's not just a rain garden. It's also a butterfly garden. One of the plants in their garden is milkweed, which is a breeding ground for monarch butterflies. Every summer they can go out and find 20 to 30 monarchs in the garden, Amy said. It's a huge hit with their children, and their children's friends.

"The butterflies are a big deal," Andy said.

The other thing they like is that the plants blooming in their garden are unique. They're mostly native Minnesota species, and few of their neighbors' landscapes have the same plants.

Between the butterflies and the native species, the Tix's rain garden has helped them become more sensitive to nature.

"It makes you slow down and appreciate nature more, because it's right there," Andy said.

Andy and Amy highly recommended the Blue Thumb program to other Hastings residents considering a landscaping project. On top of all the expertise and resources they got through the program, they also got about half their project paid for. Blue Thumb offers $250 grants to a limited number of Hastings residents who install rain gardens.

A free Blue Thumb workshop is scheduled in Hastings for March 20 at 6:15 p.m. at the Pleasant Hill Library, 1490 South Frontage Road. At the workshop participants will see examples of native gardens, rain gardens and native shoreline, and hear how to receive design assistance and one of the 50 $250 grants available. Anyone interested in participating can register online at or call 651-480-7777.