Summer Tour of Gardens from Rain Gardens to Backyard Ponds & Waterfalls

One of the best parts of summer is the colorful flowers that bloom throughout the months, and creative gardens with water features and pathways to ‘ooh and ahh’ over.

This summer, the two local chapters of P.E.O. (Philanthropic Educational Organization) are bringing back their area garden tour fundraiser for the 7th year, and four area gardens will be featured.

The tours take place every two years, and Garden Chair Vicki Johnson said it takes that long to plan the next one.

“It’s a big undertaking,” she said.

This year, featured gardens belong to Dr. Lowell Wenberg, near Lake Melissa, the Lodge on Lake Detroit, Jonathan Danielson, at his Detroit Lakes salon, Jonathan’s, and Sheila McLaughlin, who also lives near Lake Melissa.

The tours are held in conjunction with a Tea, held July 24 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Tickets for the Tea and Garden Tour can be purchased from any P.E.O. member for $25. There will also be tickets available to only view the gardens as well, for $2.

Building beauty from a storm

Dr. Lowell Wenberg’s home near Lake Melissa is known by neighbors as “that house with massive gardens.”

They’re right. Wenberg’s gardens take up the majority of his front yard, extending within inches of the road, and the backyard is a sanctuary of ponds, waterfalls, earthen pathways and flowers, all of which he has constructed himself.

The retired dentist started working on his garden in 1992.

He had put in his first big pond, about five feet deep, but the rest of the levels and waterfalls came after a bad storm in the early 90’s took out a big tree in his backyard.

The stump sat there for a few years, but the roots were all a mess, he said, so eventually he decided to take out the stump.

The giant hole it left behind became the beginning of the four to five different levels of ponds throughout his backyard, all interspersed with one another with waterfalls and little brooks.

“I’m virtually done now,” he said. “But every one of these rocks was laid by my two hands; Thousands of rocks stacked one by one in circles to make those ponds.”

He said he’s been gardening his whole life. His mother had extensive flower and vegetable gardens, and his brother is also very involved in gardening.

“It’s just something to do,” he said. “I just enjoy it. It’s not a lot of expense, just my time from morning until night.”

He started the garden while he was still working full time as a dentist, but said the garden didn’t become fully developed until he retired and had more time on his hands.

“There just wouldn’t have been time,” he said. “It’s almost an every day job.”

His three daughters all do a little gardening, too, but “they’re all raising families right now, too.” Wenberg said they’ll likely do more gardening as they get older and have more free time.

He said the biggest maintenance projects on his garden have been keeping the ponds clear and the weeds out.

The flowers are a mix of perennials and annuals, including tulips, calla lilies, irises and water lilies. White daisies and tiny purple pansies are scattered throughout and ferns grow in the shade.

In the front, there are two poppy variations, and a “gas plant” with a “pungent lemony odor.” The original plant came from his mother’s garden, so some of the roots are over 75 years old.

Along much of the path in the backyard are patches of Japanese irises, which he said he got from his brother. Wenberg said he only planted the bulbs three years ago, but they have already spread along the entire edge of the garden.

Someone had called P.E.O. and nominated his garden for the tour, he said.

“I said ‘oh, well that’d be fine,'” Wenberg remembered. “I was not and am not familiar with the tour other than it exists. But, I enjoy showing people my garden.”

‘What it looked like 100 years ago’

A few years ago, co-owner of the Lodge on Lake Detroit Scott Mehlhaff decided he wanted to do something different with the settling ponds that were on the property.

He wanted to turn them into “rain gardens,” something even the engineer for their property had never heard of.

The difference between a rain garden and a settling pond, Mehlhaff said, is that a settling pond holds water from drainage all over the property for a long amount of time, whereas a rain garden is meant to let the water seep back into the ground, feeding the native grasses and flowers that grow in the garden.

Now in their third summer season, Mehlhaff’s two rain gardens will only hold rainwater for a day, providing an earth-friendly alternative to the typical settling ponds.

His rain gardens are full of plants native to Becker County, which is important because they are already adapted to the climate and conditions of the area.

The Mehlhaffs received a grant from the Department of Natural Resources, partially to give the rain gardens a try, and also to restore their shoreline.

“To restore the shoreline, we basically needed to create a buffer zone between the lawn and the lake,” he said. “We want it to be what it would have looked like 100 years ago.”

He said using the native plants can be difficult, mostly because some of them can look like weeds.

“We find ourselves asking, ‘Did we plant this? Or is this a weed?'” Mehlhaff said, adding that sometimes they have to call their friends at the DNR to help them figure out the identity of a plant. “Some people do think it looks like just a bunch of weeds.”

The rain gardens already have a few honeysuckle blooming, but come the end of July, Mehlhaff said there would be more color throughout the property.

Mehlhaff said he’s always been interested in gardening and grew up on a farm – his sister is also on the environmental bandwagon, as an organic farmer.

“My family has always been concerned about the environment,” Mehlhaff said. “We want to be stewards of the land and environment. It’s a nice feeling to know you’re doing what you can to get back to the natural landscape.”

With the gardens at the Lodge, Mehlhaff said he wants to stress that people can have their beautiful, manicured lawns and still do something good for the land by adding rain gardens.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” he said.

He is working on getting signage before the tour so visitors can read more about the plants in the garden and understand how it functions.

“People need to know what’s out there and what can be done,” he said. “People can come and see what this looks like.”

Educating visitors is one of the main reasons Johnson wanted to include the Lodge in the garden tour.

“The Lodge is really working hard to go green with their lake property and being environmentally friendly,” she said. “I think it’s great that they want to educate in addition to the aesthetic purposes of the garden and being a steward. I’ve been concerned about lakeshore for a while.”

Visitors should keep in mind though, that it typically takes a couple years for rain gardens to look “pretty.”

“That first year, I was like, ‘Ugh, this doesn’t look very nice,’ but for lack of a better term, the soil was constipated,” Mehlhaff explained. “Once things started to loosen up, it grew better and the root systems started to spread and look better.”

Overall, Mehlhaff said he is excited to share his gardens with the public, come July 24.

Other gardens on the tour include Sheila McLaughlin and Jonathan Danielson.

Danielson’s garden is at his salon on Washington Street in Detroit Lakes, and McLaughlin’s is at her home near Lake Melissa.

Johnson said Danielson’s garden is “full of lots of creativity,” and McLaughlin’s is “like a fairytale garden.”

“From the road, you’d have no idea that it’s that beautiful,” Johnson said.

About Holland Lodging

The Lodge on Lake Detroit is independently owned & operated by Holland Motel, Inc., now in its third generation of providing excellence in hospitality. Husband and wife owners Scott Mehlhaff & Chris Holland-Mehlhaff also own & operate Best Western Plus Holland House in Detroit Lakes, MN and Best Western Superior Inn & Suites in Grand Marais, MN.