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Zumbrota man gives green gift to town parking lot

July 2, 2017 GMT

ZUMBROTA — The parking lot was an embarrassment, and Bob Lucas felt bad taking his dog out to take care of business. Whatever the dog might do, that would have been an improvement.

“There was trash and broken glass everywhere,” said Lucas, trying to convince that the parking lot ever looked like anything but a garden with room for cars. The lot, located behind the shops on the west side of South Main Street between Third and Fourth streets, serves the apartments over the shops on Main Street and the shops themselves.

It’s a public parking lot, but there’s a whole lot of Lucas in it. Pine trees, lilies and sculptures made from cast-off items bring beauty to a utilitarian space.

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“It’s a considerable asset to have that back there,” said Dan King, Zumbrota’s community development director. “He’s doing a wonderful service to the community. It softens the area and adds quite a little bit of color.”

The garden all started with Lucas’ dog — his previous dog — which needed a place for a quick escape from Lucas’ apartment over the shops or his sculpture studio underneath the barber shop at the northwest corner. Lucas would wander out into the parking lot and do a little cleaning while the dog walked around and took care of business. It became a routine, and Lucas soon had the junk and broken glass to a manageable level.

So he tracked down the owners of the auto parts shop on West Avenue and asked if they minded whether he planted a few flowers and maybe collected rainwater off their roof. The response was an enthusiastic, “Anything!” Lucas said. “They said anything I could do was appreciated.”

Lucas set up a line of buckets to collect rain from the sloping roof — there are no faucets or hydrants around the parking lot, so he needed a water source — and set up a compost pile made of old plant matter and coffee grounds he collected from the Canadian Honker restaurant in Rochester.

On the small strip of dirt that borders the old parts store, he planted flowers and a Chinese pagoda tree to add a little shade. That was 10 years ago. Since then, Lucas has added more plants — small succulents and flowers, tall pines and weeping pines, wandering vines of wild grape — from one end of the parking lot to the other. Each year he moves some plants around, tries new ones and buys one big piece to add to the garden.

This year, it was golden bamboo. Lucas brought back a cutting from a friend’s house on the East Coast and planted it into an old trough-turned-planter so it doesn’t spread out and become a grove. He’s eager to see how it grows, but he’s more concerned with the pines. Those, he said, are his favorites, and they are one of the dominant features of the garden.

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Seven weeping Norway spruce are spread across the patches of garden that surround the parking lot, their tops bent over as if exhausted, boughs spread out like the limbs of a sprawled-out teenager. There’s a silveray Korean pine with its thick ornamental needles. And one tall, conical pine stands over them all.

The other dominant feature is the sculptures made of found and discarded items. As an artist, Lucas normally works in clay, but he loves taking what people have tossed out and finding new uses for them.

“He’s always changing the art installation,” said Sara Durhman, who owns Serendipity and The Guilty Goose bar in Zumbrota. “It’s neat to see the progression of it.”

Durhman, who also serves on Zumbrota’s city council, said she remembers when the parking lot was more trash than floral treasure. “It used to be just gross, a bleak nothing,” she said. “Now it’s beautiful. We get comments on it.”

For Lucas, gardening is living, and he’s glad to have an outlet that also makes his town — and his little corner of it — more beautiful, even as it remains, essentially, a parking lot.

“I bring the dog out and while she’s doing her thing, I’m pruning, digging or composting,” Lucas said. “It’s amazing what you can accomplish with 20 minutes, eight times a day.”

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