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'No deer, no rabbits': Duluth community program touts 'secret' garden on city rooftop

Tony Mancuso of Duluth, director of property management for St. Louis County, adjusts a sculpture he created in his garden on the roof of the St. Louis County garage recently. A large part of the building now holds various types of sedum, which can grow on a small layer of soil and soak up a lot of rain. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 8
A green roof on top of the St. Louis County garage in downtown Duluth has become a community garden for residents of the area who do not have green space. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com 2 / 8
Flowers grow in the garden plot. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 8
A ripe strawberry grows in the garden plot. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com4 / 8
Flowers grow in one of the garden plots on the roof of the St. Louis County garage. The green roof cools and heats the garage, resolving condensation problems inside as well. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com5 / 8
This decorated rock marks lavender plants growing in one of the garden plots on the roof of the St. Louis County garage. One key for the gardens, because the soil depth is limited, is watering. Mancuso said he tries to water twice a week. Mulching helps. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com 6 / 8
Sedum plants cover part of a green roof on top of the St. Louis County garage in downtown Duluth that has also become a community garden for residents of the area who do not have green space. Photos by Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com7 / 8
Tony Mancuso of Duluth, director of property management for St. Louis County, pulls weeds from his garden on the roof of the St. Louis County garage recently. “No deer, no rabbits,” Mancuso said. “It’s a good place to garden.” 8 / 8

Block by block, Tony Mancuso is getting St. Louis County off the grid. He’s also getting people dirty. The director of property management for the county pointed to two parking areas from the rooftop of the county garage on Second Street behind City Hall.

A small farm of solar arrays has sprouted. The nearby parking ramp once commanded a $1,200-a-month electricity bill. Now, the county pays only $500 a year. The parking lot at Fourth Avenue West and Third Street is completely off the grid. The solar power captured is running the lights.

The county garage has solar panels as well. They are used to heat water for washing vehicles inside the garage. The rain that falls on the roof is collected, with some of it being used for a first in the Duluth Community Garden Program: a rooftop garden.

It’s been a treat for people who work or live downtown, an option for those with limited green space at home.

Mancuso talked about the evolution of what once were parking stalls on top of the garage. As he spoke, he weeded his own plot on the roof.

“These are our little experimental grounds,” he said. 

Engineers “decommissioned” the roof for vehicles in 2007. It could no longer hold the weight. So Mancuso, who admits he’d rather “seek forgiveness than ask permission” when it comes to greening up county properties, worked with the Minnesota Coastal Program in an effort to control runoff from the building.

That’s by a large part of the building now holds various types of sedum, which can grow on a small layer of soil and soak up a lot of rain. Mancuso said the plant can take up to an inch of rain before water runs into the collector.

The green roof cools and heats the garage, resolving condensation problems inside as well. 

Heating costs have been cut by two-thirds, Mancuso said.

On a typical 90-degree day, the roof would get up to 145 degrees, he said. “Now it’s whatever the temperature is outside.”

Two years after the sedum was planted, Mancuso worked with the University of Minnesota Extension Service to see if the roof could support raised beds. 

“No deer, no rabbits,” Mancuso said. “It’s a good place to garden.” 

He said he can’t get enough fresh beans in the summer and only in early July, ran out of the onions he grew last year. His third crop — he keeps things simple —is tomatoes.

Thousands of bees occupy the roof, attracted by the alpine sedum. Dragonflies hover. Mancuso weeds.

“It’s a fun place to garden,” he said.

Megan Brant, who is working with the garden program through the Minnesota Green Corps, said the rooftop was in high demand this year.

‘Fun and convenient’

This past winter, Sara Duke heard about the garden from two people with plots there. She signed up for a spot and was third on the waiting list. So, she was surprised when she got a call about an opening.

“It’s been fun and convenient,” Duke said. She lives downtown. Some plotters are county or city workers who can garden over a lunch hour, Mancuso said.

Duke said the spot has some obviously experienced roof-toppers given the vibrant gardens there. She was thrilled to see her own plants “more than double” in growth in one week. It seems it’s always sunny, or at least warmer, on the roof.

One key for the gardens, because the soil depth is limited, is watering. Mancuso said he tries to water twice a week. Mulching helps.

Duke, who has already harvested lettuce from her plot, said using the recycled rain water is another bonus to the rooftop.

Mancuso said the roof project has been an inspiration for other county efforts to go green.

“In the end, people see the benefits,” he said.

About the gardens

Today’s Duluth Community Garden Program — which consists of 17 sites and more than 200 plots used by 140 urban gardeners — started as a loose group of enthusiasts in 1977. The group secured neighborhood lots to grow vegetables. In 1981, the program was made official by incorporating as a nonprofit. The DCGP mission is to “strengthen community and foster self-sufficiency among the people of the Duluth area by providing access for all to food production and preservation resources and promoting sustainable gardening practices.” DCGP also organizes food classes, a seed bank and other sustainability-related programs. The community garden area off Arrowhead Road is the largest space in the program. Gardens have been popping up across the city on vacant lots, and in 2009 the program launched its first rooftop garden above the St. Louis County Garage in downtown Duluth. The program also works with schools on setting up gardens for children. All community garden locations are within Duluth city limits. Each garden plot is about 20-feet-by-20-feet and is leased to an individual, family or group. Fees range from $15 to $75, depending on incomes. The program provides tilling, information, encouragement, access to a vegetable gardening library, a tool- loaning system and compost when money is available. The garden program holds a seed and transplant sale every spring with varieties suited to northern climates. People also can use community space to grow food for the hungry. Current gardeners are given a renewal letter over the winter asking if they want their plot for the next season. If not, people who sign up for a plot and are on a waiting list are shuffled in. People who want a space should contact the garden program at (218) 722-4583. For more information, visit online at duluthcommunitygarden.org. The program’s office is at 206 W. Fourth St.

Save those seeds

Jahn Hibbs, executive director of the Duluth Community Garden Program will host a seedcleaning workshop Thursday as part of the Duluth Seed Library. The free, do-it-yourself workshop begins at 6 p.m. in the Green Room at the Duluth Public Library in downtown Duluth, 520 W. Superior St. Participants will learn how to make quality framed screens to use for cleaning seeds. Each person will leave with a finished set of two screens, including a scalper and a sieve. Scalpers are used to catch large debris while allowing the seed to fall through, and sieves retain the seeds while allowing dust and smaller particles to fall through. Registration is required. Call (218) 730-4236 or sign up online at duluthlibrary.org.

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