Honoring Linda Neilson and the Ramsey County Master Gardeners

By Sage Passi


Linda Neilson receives the Citizen Engagement Award from Sage Passi at the Recognition Dinner.



The Citizen Engagement Award, presented to Linda Neilson, Ramsey County Master Gardener, at RWMWD’s 2016 Recognition Dinner in November, like many of our Watershed Excellence Awards given to incredible people, programs and entities, is long overdue. This award recognizes an individual or organization that effectively facilitates citizen participation efforts to improve and protect water quality. Since 2005, the Ramsey County Master Gardener program has engaged a large group of volunteers in supporting the watershed in a myriad of different water and habitat improvement, education and stewardship projects.


Master Gardeners Rose Cherlin, Cees Duijndam, Linda Neilson and
Mary Knuth-Kedrowski gear up for seed-planting season at Farnsworth.

Linda Neilson and Master Gardeners have a Decade of Partnership with the District

For over ten years, Linda Neilson and the Master Gardeners have played a pivotal role in helping to establish and build this partnership. Linda’s vision, dedication, knowledge, tenacity, attention to detail and commitment have helped shape this remarkable collaboration. She has gone far above being a typical volunteer by promoting and supporting watershed education, planning for and making projects happen, and helping train and engage a robust group of individuals. Her networking and teambuilding skills have resulted in increasing watershed awareness and the development of solid and growing volunteer and citizen involvement in the communities in the Watershed District.

Linda instructs Battle Creek Middle School science students
in sod removal at their residential rain garden project.

Linda and the dedicated efforts and commitment of her cohorts, school program coordinators, Ed Shinbach and Rochelle Robideau, and over sixty volunteers have helped this partnership become a dream-come-true for the Watershed District. Her participation, and that of her colleagues, has made it possible for the District to develop our classroom “greenhouse” operations and teach young people about the use of native plants in protecting water and improving habitats.

Nancy Nygaard helps students transplant seedlings.


Linda and other Master Gardeners have helped us design and install many demonstration residential, school and church rain gardens, implement native habitat projects and helped support our yearly public rain garden workshops.
Kris Baird, Rose Cherlin, Linda Neilson and Jodi Refsland-Wilson work on the design for Children’s Discovery Academy butterfly and native shade garden.

Linda and Master Gardeners have also supported our shoreline and habitat restorations at Lake Phalen, Keller Lake, Phalen Golf Course, Keller Creek, Battle Creek, Casey Lake and Southwood Nature Preserve. These projects have brought beauty, biodiversity and water quality improvement to our community. They have also raised the public’s awareness of how they too can increase biodiversity and improve water quality and pollinator habitats.

Laurie Holmberg assists students in planting along the Keller Lake shoreline.


Linda is extremely generous with her time and creative in finding resources

Each holiday season she brings bags of delicious homemade caramels for the staff and Citizen Advisory Commission members to enjoy. She has gifted us with a fancy new edger perfectly adapted to rain garden plantings and watering wands. Linda also brings us newspaper clippings, informational handouts and much more.


“How many shovels full of dirt do you need to remove in order to build a rain garden?”
– Linda Neilson

Linda is an Avid Nurturer and a Strategist

She has an eye on both the present and the future and able to see the connections between people and their community. She is good at grasping what people need to learn and understand, finding ways they can work together, expanding what they can accomplish, determining what it takes to involve them, and then developing plans to mobilize them and build on their capacity. Linda’s vision has become the way of doing business with the Master Gardener Program and we are eternally grateful for all their assistance!


Master Gardeners review how to assess rain garden sites
and do infiltration tests.

What began as a small operation has grown greatly over the years. With the help of Master Gardeners we have been able to provide assistance for both small and large-scale projects in the community.

Merlin Schlicting assists Weaver fifth graders in planting their Clean Water rain garden in one of our large-scale projects.

Linda’s Early Commitment to Water and Environmental Education

Linda began as a Master Gardener in 2005. Just one year after her internship was complete she signed up to be a school coordinator for the Ramsey County Master Gardener program. Together, Linda and other enthusiastic Master Gardener volunteers, including school co-coordinator Rochelle Robideau (right), teachers and students, working with the Watershed District were able to build momentum and start our first school yard habitat restoration project on American Indian Magnet’s school ground. At the time, this was a large-scale school undertaking for us. But it wasn’t long before Master Gardeners were signing up for our next projects.


School Coordinator Rochelle Robideau teamed up with Linda and
other Master Gardeners to help American Indian Magnet School
construct a large-scale prairie garden on their school grounds.

Soon after this first school yard habitat restoration project, others schools wanted to participate, including St. Peter Catholic and L’Etoile du Nord Schools.

Ed Shinbach helped mobilize students to build a rain garden
after the school completed this large-scale hillside restoration at L’Etoile du Nord.


Many habitat and rain garden projects were accomplished simultaneously with team support at schools in our District. We were learning together and building a growing enthusiasm and concern for water.

Learning to Teach Kids and Adults the Steps of Rain Garden Design and Construction 

Integral in that process were site assessments, exploring types of soil conditions and measuring infiltration rates. Rain gardens became king-of-the-hill in our public outreach. With no one around during the summer and so many school projects to maintain, we learned it was more practical to take our school rain garden operation offsite to residences where homeowners could take care of their own gardens.


Master Gardeners tour some of the smaller rain gardens built by
students and homeowners with Master Gardeners support.


These “practice rounds” ushered in an era of demonstration rain gardens at private residences around the District. Linda worked with us to develop a hands-on training process for both Master Gardeners and homeowners. From here we developed our rain garden training series, “Stopping Water Where it Drops”. These public workshops evolved into a partnership with Maplewood Nature Center and with sustained support by Master Gardener volunteers who helped homeowners start designs for their projects.

Linda Has Empowered Youth to Take on the Battle with Buckthorn

Another intensive project that Linda and Master Gardeners worked on with middle school students was buckthorn removal along Battle Creek. The buckthorn in the woods adjacent to Battle Creek School was out of control. What could they do about this tenacious problem? They focused on reducing the spread of this invasive species in targeted areas and then used the harvested buckthorn for a shoreline restoration project with the guidance of the Watershed District’s natural resources staff.


“The Master Gardener posse readies weapons for buckthorn destruction.”
– Linda Neilson


Buckthorn buster, Linda Neilson, on duty!
Planting through erosion fabric along Battle Creek requires serious concentration.

Master Gardeners Return to Engage with New and Ongoing Projects

Master Gardener interns try our projects early on and then often return to work with us when they are official Master Gardeners.

Over sixty volunteers have worked on projects designed to engage youth and residents in projects hat infiltrate rain water, stop erosion, remove invasive plants, restore habitats and shorelines, enhance pollinator habitats, enhance or create demonstration native plantings and gardens, educate citizens, increase the community’s awareness and openness to BMPs and provide education at WaterFest and other Watershed events.


Left: Jan House helps do setup for a school shoreline planting along Keller Creek.
Right: Nancy Nygaard checks to make sure plants are securely planted in the ground.


Linda has Expanded her Work to Become a Master Water Steward

In order to carry on with her advocacy and hands-on involvement in the community with watershed-related outreach and in-the-ground projects, Linda completed the Master Water Steward Training in 2016. She helped initiate and support an infiltration capstone project in the Bennett Lake Subwatershed in Roseville with another Master Water Steward, Hallie Finucane and hopes to continue engaging residents in that community. Linda remains very active on our Watershed District Citizen Advisory Commission. We look forward to continuing this collaboration!


Linda Neilson advises Roseville resident, Anne Haugan,
about plant choices as part of her Master Water Stewards’
capstone rain garden project.


Ramsey County Master Gardeners’ Achievements
in Partnership with RWMWD

* indicates projects Linda was involved in and/or took a leadership role.

Church Rain Garden Projects at Nine Sites

Design assistance and/or construction and education for church rain garden projects at First Covenant*, Cross Lutheran*, Our Redeemer Lutheran*, Hope Lutheran, First Hmong Assembly of God, Prince of Peace, Redeeming Love*, Lakeview Lutheran,* and Grace Lutheran*

Linda helped create the design for a large section of Cross Lutheran’s “mega”
rain garden in Maplewood that infiltrates parking lot runoff. Here she
measures and paints the zones for different plants that the congregation will install.

Formed a church rain garden advisory team in 2013 to assist with Legacy funded projects*
Roger Hintze divides sedges during Prince of Peace Church’s
rain garden installation. Roger played a pivotal role in engaging
his church in this Clean Water stewardship project.


Homeowner Education and Assistance

Developed a training process for Master Gardens for site assessments, rain garden design and construction with mentoring teams*

Provided consultation for residents at the District’s annual ‘Stopping Water Where It Drops’ rain garden training series*

Assisted Casey Lake residents in their Clean Water Grant rain garden projects in 2014*

Ed Shinbach and Barbara Le Tourneau, Ramsey County Master Gardeners, engaged with a team of  many Master Gardeners who helped Casey Lake neighborhood residents plant their curb-cut rain gardens.


Restoration and Rain Garden Projects Involving Students Since 2005

Assisted classes in the Phalen Shoreline Restoration in 2005-07*, the Casey Lake Restoration, the Battle Creek Shoreline Restoration*, the Keller Shoreline Restoration in 2012-13*, the Keller Golf Course Restoration in 2013-14 and in the Keller Creek restoration project in 2015-16*


Master Gardener Donna Andersen assists students with
the Keller Creek shoreline restoration project

Assisted students in the Southwood Nature Preserve Prairie Restoration in 2016 and the field day in 2015*


Master Gardener Joe Baltrukonis assists St. Peter fourth graders with a
native habitat planting at Southwood Nature Preserve in North St. Paul.

Master Gardeners helped students at seven schools grow over 1,200 plants for the project.

Worked with students to assist homeowners in conducting site assessments.*

Ok students … it’s time for some rain garden math.


Worked with homeowners to develop planting designs.*


Barbara Brockway consults with homeowners on their rain garden.

Built demonstration rain gardens at eleven neighborhood sites*

Here’s a rain garden a couple of years after its creation
by Battle Creek Middle School students and Master Gardeners.

Schoolyard Demonstration Projects

Master Gardeners engaged and helped educate classrooms at eighteen schools while working on watershed projects in the district for the past eleven years. Here are some of their accomplishments on school grounds.


Rochelle Robideau helping students plant seeds



Helped students plant and grow seedlings under the lights at eleven schools for watershed projects for the past eleven years*

Don Vegoe and Betsy McNulty assist Farnsworth
students in planting native shrubs next to their building.

Provided assistance in creating and maintaining schoolyard demonstration projects listed below:


  • Farnsworth Aerospace – Design and creation of native gardens at both campuses*
  • L’Etoile du Nord – Hillside restoration and rain garden*
  • Battle Creek Middle School – Battle Creek Shoreline Restoration and buckthorn removal and schoolyard gardens*
  • Mounds Park Academy – Wetland buffer, rain garden basins, buckthorn removal*
  • American Indian Magnet – Prairie garden design and planting*
  • Harding High – Courtyard garden*
  • Achieve Academy – Rain garden
  • St. Peter School – Design, planting and maintenance of large native garden*
  • Children’s Discovery Academy – Design and planting of butterfly and shade garden*
  • Willow Lane Elementary – Hillside project*
  • Level Up Academy – Demonstration native garden
  • Clean Water Legacy – Rain garden plantings at three schools in District 622; Maplewood Middle School, Weaver and Harmony Learning Center


Donna Andersen admires the completed rain garden at
Weaver Elementary with the fifth graders who helped plant it.

A special thanks to these key Ramsey County Master Gardeners

We especially want to thank and acknowledge three Ramsey County Master Gardeners who play key roles in the Watershed collaborations: Ed Shinbach, Rochelle Robideau and Jamie Aussendorf. 


Ed Shinbach is one of two school coordinators for the Master Gardener Program. Ed recruits and posts all of our volunteer opportunities on ‘Sign Up Genius’ and is in regular contact with the Watershed District regarding volunteer opportunities.


Rochelle Robideau is the other school coordinator. She has run the school “greenhouse operation” for many years. This operation runs from December to mid-April and includes seed stratification, planting and transplanting with classrooms, supervising and training volunteers, interacting with teachers and students, transporting materials, providing reports and staying in contact with the Watershed District in order to insure everything runs smoothly in twenty-five classrooms. 

Jamie Aussendorf is the Ramsey County Master Gardener Program Volunteer Coordinator who provides program support, communications and encouragement.

The Citizen Engagement Excellence Award is both an individual award for Linda and an appreciation and acknowledgment to the entire Ramsey County Master Gardener Program!

Thank you all! We couldn’t do this without all of you!