Rockin’ the garden

In recent years, people who have driven past Albert Tanko’s home off Highway 5 and Zodiac Street between North Branch and Isanti have slowed down take in the view.

Some have even stopped, driven up to Tanko’s house and asked him for a tour of the property.

“I didn’t initially, but now I’m asking them to sign in if I give them a tour,” Tanko said.

The sight that’s been drawing so much attention is Tanko’s expansive rock garden that covers about 2 1/2 acres.

Over the course of less than three years, Tanko has built more than 200 rock towers, each about four feet high.

And he’s completed his garden with nothing more than some recycled materials, earth and muscle.

The building process

Tanko, a Romanian immigrant who came to the United States when he was 22 years old, said he got the gardening bug from his parents when he was young.

Like many gardeners, he used tracts of land on his property for gardens, with mixed results.

“I bought the best rototiller, hauled all types of cow manure, built the garden and I worked feverishly and all that, but then the weeds would take over and the rabbits and the deer would come — you name it,” he said of the challenges of maintaining a traditional garden. “I was always thinking, ‘Man, there’s got to be a better way.’”

So after some brainstorming, Tanko decided to utilize building materials to construct more efficient gardens that can be found just about everywhere: rocks, tires and wire fencing.

Tanko went to recycling centers in Isanti and procured tires from other locations.

“I hauled them home, six by six, in my van,” he said. “(The people at the recycling centers) thought I’d lost my mind. They asked, ‘You want more?’ I said, ‘More, more.’”

At first, Tanko said he didn’t know what he could use to cut the inside lips off the tires in order to make them better for holding soil, but he eventually found a Sawzall worked quite well.

So he cut and stacked the tires, filled them with soil and wrapped wire fencing he had left over from when he owned ostriches around the outside of the structures.

This part of the process was the least time consuming for Tanko. Finding the rocks to place between the tires and the fencing took more time, and brawn.

Procuring the rocks

Looking at Tanko’s rock garden, one might assume he’s driven miles and miles to procure the rocks needed to build over 200 individual gardens.

But that assertion would be incorrect; Tanko said he’s found all the rocks within about a 3-mile radius of his house.

The collecting started about three years ago when one of Tanko’s neighbors, a farmer, let him scour his fields for rocks, which are often a hazard for farm machinery.

“Farmers curse these rocks, they ruin their equipment,” Tanko said. “Several farmers noticed me, and they said, ‘Come to my place, I’ll pay you.’”

So Tanko made a little extra pocket change for his collecting, which he did primarily with the aid of his truck and sometimes a wheelbarrow.

He explained he’d drive his truck into the fields in the spring or late fall and collect from about a 40 to 50-yard radius, and then move onto the next area to pick up rocks.

“In 60 acres, I hauled 40 pickup loads of rocks,” he said.

A ‘little jungle’

Tanko calls his rock towers “little jungles” for plants.

He said common garden pests like rabbits, deer and gophers don’t bother his rock gardens, and the tires and rocks act like greenhouses for the soil.

“The black (of the tires) attracts heat, and so do the rocks,” he said. “Even at night, the rocks stay warm.”

Subsequently, Tanko usually has a bumper crop of raspberries, green beans, black currants — which he sells — cucumbers, zucchini, peas, lettuce, tomatoes and whatever else he decides to grow.

Tanko has only built one rock tower this year — a task which he says takes about a day when he has all the materials — but he’d like to build more on his property so there are rows of towers, rather than the rock garden fence he has now.

He said if he had someone to partner with, he wouldn’t mind building the towers in other locations.

“This could be done in parks, for that matter,” he said. “If we did this in a North Branch park someplace, could you imagine the attraction? And besides, it’s beautiful.”

For those who have questions about building rock gardens or purchasing black currants, Tanko can be reached at 763-444-5453.

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