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Russett Road rain garden
Volunteers Monte Vognsen, left, and Shannon Harris work to create a rain garden in front of a Russett Road apartment building on Saturday, April 24, 2010. The front yards of seven buildings were planted with food crops and flowers as part of a neighborhood improvement project on Madison's West Side.

Ronald Wiggins stood on the front stoop of his West Side apartment Saturday morning. As he watched, volunteers dug up the front lawn at 5818 Russett Road to plant fruit trees and shrubs, vegetables, herbs and flowers.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” Wiggins said. “This is real nice — very, very nice. Young people doing something great today.”

That beautiful thing was the brainchild of Kim Neuschel, a public health nurse for the Madison-Dane County public health department who works at the nearby Meadowood Neighborhood Center.

About 70 volunteers worked from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday to transform the front yards of eight Russett Road apartment buildings into a community garden and beautification project. Members of the Madison Permaculture Guild created distinct designs for each building, whose owners agreed to turn over their front yards to the effort.

The Russett Road Garden Project was made possible by about $3,000 in grants, donated plants and dozens of volunteers, including students from UW-Madison and Edgewood College. It’s a small part of an overall anti-violence strategy, including establishment of the community center, a weekly farmers’ market and quarterly community suppers.

The goal of the Russett Road project is to fill stomachs and feed souls in a part of Madison that has grown uneasy about crime and neighborhood decay. Residents can take the food that grows there and take pride in their spiffed up street, said Edgewood College student Ann Goth, who organized the project along with fellow students Carly Reipe and Casey Zadoka.

Permaculture is relatively easy to maintain because it uses elements in the environment that work together, volunteer Math Heinzel said. For example, trees are surrounded by a “plant guild” of herbs and flowers that naturally support them by adding nitrogen or drawing pollinating insects, said Kate Heiber-Cobb, founder of the permaculture club.

“Instead of trying to eliminate anything, let the elements interact with each other, like they do in nature,” Heinzel said.

Resident Concha Thurow enthusiastically plunged a shovel into the moist soil to help dig a flower bed in front of 5738 Russett Road.

“I think we should do it in everybody’s yard,” she said.