Twin Cities community gardens: A study in variety

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Some garden in the name of community building. Others do it for beauty’s sake. And then there are those who just like a good tomato. The Twin Cities are full of community gardeners. According to Gardening Matters, 50 new gardens broke ground in the Twin Cities since spring 2010, and some established spaces have seen waitlists so long that the lists had to be closed. On August 6, gardens opened their gates for Community Garden Day. We took a look at four participating gardens.
For more information on community gardens, see Gardening Matters website and other TC Daily Planet local food coverage.

Good Juju Garden
14th Avenue South and East 22nd Street, Minneapolis

A narrow path runs through the center of the Good Juju Garden in South Minneapolis. Throughout Saturday afternoon’s Community Garden Day barbecue, people walked through the garden – women in headscarves, a Spanish-speaking man on a bike, a young guy with his two kid nephews. Each time Christina Elías leaped up, yelling, “HEY! You wanna eat??” or “Are you on Ramadan? I won’t offer you food then!”

Two years ago, Elías just wanted to garden. Her friend Ernie Whiteman found out about the corner lot, owned by the American Indian Community Development Corporation, from a friend and got permission for Elías to plant. “I literally showed up on a bicycle with a little shovel,” she said. The community showed up on its own.

Residents of the neighboring house were so happy to see the garden in a space once occupied by dilapidated housing, that they sawed off their rain spout and put in a rain barrel. An elderly man began helping almost every morning. Two little girls call Juju their “garden school.” People often ask Whiteman why they don’t put up a fence. He says, “If they need it, they can take it.”

The space includes a three sisters garden and a medicine wheel, where sage and tobacco grow, but that’s not where the name comes from. Elías was working in the garden one day with a couple neighborhood boys. “They started scrapping. I said, ‘Hey! Only good juju in the garden!’” she said. The boys looked at her and began singing, “Only-good juju in the gar-den! Only-good juju in the gar-den!”

Alley Cat Garden
3606 ½ Van Buren Street Northeast, Minneapolis

If only all city streets were set on a perfect grid, with alphabetized street names and evenly numbered houses. But try as they might, the designers of Minneapolis’s roads could not avoid the occasional hill or odd body of water. The result is design hiccups like the land occupied by three-year old Alley Cat Gardens.

Alley Cat is a .15 acre triangular plot of county land tucked in the middle of a Northeast Minneapolis alley. “You pretty much have to know it’s here,” said Paul Bernhardt, a gardener and neighbor. So while other gardens were closing their wait lists last year, Alley Cat had trouble filling spots.

“No place to park, no water,” lists gardener Jo Bernhardt. It didn’t take long for word to get out, though. Now in its second year, Alley Cat is at capacity with 12 plots.

Getting water to an odd alley lot remains a challenge. For now, Peter Doughty and his wife Margo McCreary, who live on the alley and came up with the idea for Alley Cat, fill the gardens’ barrels with water from their hose and track how much is used. The ideal solution: a rain barrel system utilizing the alley’s rooftops. “If we were zero drain on city water, it would be a really cool thing to accomplish,” Paul Bernhardt said. For now, the Bernhardts are backyard beta-testing methods like low-pressure hoses, while the wet summer sky does the real work.

Harvest Gardens
Hazelwood Street and County Road C East, Maplewood

Xue Xiong’s mother’s corn in Laos had bright pink and yellow and green hair. “We didn’t really have dolls to play with,” she said. So they used corn. “We’d braid their hair in different styles.” Now Xiong prefers American corn. Although Hmong neighbors to her garden in the Harvest Gardens of Maplewood still grow the pink-haired Hmong corn she remembers, Xiong says, “My corn’s hair is just plain.”

Xiong is one of 495 gardeners working seven acres of land on Country Road C and Hazelwood Road. The land is owned by First Evangelical Free Church, a block away. Since the church shares facilities with Hmong Hope Community Church and was connected to the Burmese Karen refugee community through another church, 75 percent of the gardeners are Hmong, and 9 percent are Karen.

The space has expanded from one small garden in 2009 to 960 15-by-15 foot plots this year. Volunteers surveyed the land, laid the 4600 feet of irrigation, and staked the plots. Gardeners pay nothing. “We really want to just show the love of Christ through being a good neighbor and through visiting gardeners and offering what we have for people to benefit from,” said Tina Middlemiss, a First Free Church member and Harvest gardener.

Luckily, vegetables know no language barriers. Middlemiss said, “When I’m in the garden and standing up to my knees in tomatoes, and I see someone else who I don’t speak the same language as, I smile and wave and say, ‘Ooh nice.’”

Midway Green Spirit Garden
1271 West Taylor Avenue, St. Paul

A wide circle of fencing, 20 feet in diameter and six feet high, circles a small blue box. Bold black letters on a bright yellow sign read: “Warning Beehive.” But the padlocked gate will not keep these honeybees from pollinating Midway Green Spirit Garden’s 25 young fruit trees and bushes and 40 garden beds.

Steve Mitrione, the garden’s coordinator, just laughs, saying that in the three years the eight-year-old community garden has housed bees, no one besides the beekeeper has been stung – and that was her own fault. “I’ve even seen people pet them,” he claims.

Midway Green Spirit takes up half an acre of what used to be an empty city-owned lot just off Pierce Butler in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood. Now it’s filled with sunny garden plots and a shady community space, which Mitrione said the newly immigrated Somali family across the street uses to escape from their over-sunned yard. If they can get past the waiting list, gardeners pay $10 per season.

The bees and the one-year-old orchard of apples, pears, plums, pie cherries, currants, juneberries and raspberries are the garden’s newest additions. No fruit yet, but last year, the bees produced 40 pounds of honey, which Mitrione said is being stored away, still in its combs, until they bring in an extractor. But don’t worry, he said, “It keeps forever.”

Mitrione used to have to advertise the plots, “When I started this process a decade ago there was some outright resistance to community gardens,” he said. But a lot has changed since then. “We’ve gone from being kooks to visionaries."


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