Community gardens overflow with enthusiasm


The first crop of spring is already in at area community gardens: a bumper crop of applications, with waiting lists that are prompting local governments to get more space under cultivation.

Applicants to the St. Anthony Park Community Garden received an e-mail in March asking if they’d be willing to share their plots. Renee Lepreau, Community Council organizer, said there were only 11 plots left for newcomers after returning gardeners had staked their claims.

Falcon Heights, which gives priority to residents, will have all-resident gardeners for the first time since they started up three years ago.

Some of St. Paul’s 60-plus community gardens operate under Parks and Recreation, and the department’s arts and gardens coordinator, Mark Granlund, said residents can contact him at 632-2454 to propose a new site on parks property.

Other gardens are on non-park property, and the Public Works Department has identified eight such locations that might make good gardens. In March, the staff sent letters to district councils asking if they’d like to develop the gardens.

“Every single community garden in the city has a long waiting list,” Granlund said. “I get calls every month” requesting more space.

Although a few gardeners specialize in flowers, most opt for vegetables.

“The first year I did all tomatoes,” said Falcon Heights gardener Linda Goodspeed. “I heard on NPR that tomatoes are ‘the gateway vegetable.’ They are so right!”

She has branched out to broccoli, peppers and beets and added preservation to her list of skills. Last year she made beet pickles and tomato jam. “If you gave someone a blind taste test, they might not know it’s tomatoes,” she said, noting its cinnamon-spiced sweetness.

Among the choices organizers face are whether to allow gardeners to keep the same plot year to year, and whether to till the entire garden between growing seasons.

Falcon Heights started off assuming a fresh start each spring, each in a 10-by-12-foot plot, but gardeners say some are planting strawberries and asparagus and maintaining them from year to year.

St. Anthony Park has a row of extended-season plots at the back, closest to the railroad tracks, accounting for about a third of the space. The rest is divided into 15-by-20-foot seasonal plots, with a total of close to 100 plots. As in Falcon Heights, returning gardeners have priority and can request to keep the same plot, but St. Anthony Park tills the entire seasonal area at the beginning or end of the growing season.

Both gardens charge a rental fee of $25 or $30 per plot to cover water and other services associated with garden maintenance. St. Anthony Park requires gardeners to participate in a spring planning meeting and take on volunteer roles such as maintaining shared equipment or carting away brush and rocks.

Falcon Heights, which grew last year from 20 to 29 plots due to heavy demand, handles the challenges more informally.

“The gardeners organize themselves, but do have a set of regulations that they agree to before each year,” said City Manager Justin Miller. “We have a kickoff organizational meeting, and then an opening workday where general maintenance items are addressed.” 

Richard Olson, who lives across Robbins Street from the St. Anthony Park garden, says he’s been gardening there for close to 20 years and pitches in where he can. For the first five years or so, he said, he was an active organizer, taking home leaky hoses and other equipment to repair and return. Then they had two children and had to reprioritize, but they continue to enjoy their extended-season plot and sometimes bring lawn chairs over.

Olson said he’s noticed the increased demand. “Back in the day, plots went begging,” he said.

Falcon Heights gardener Patty Holmes said the community garden’s location is advantageous for families with children. It’s located along Cleveland Avenue in Community Park, with the playground and basketball court a short distance away.

Daughter Robyn, 13, likes to plant; son Kevin, 11, is more interested in the heavy digging, Holmes said. And their mother has found new friends.

“So often, with children, you tend to be connected with people whose children are the same age,” Holmes noted. “It’s a way to network with others.”

Holmes also said that as a novice gardener, she’s learned skills she’d never have learned working in her own backyard. She has long been committed to serving organic food to her family, she said, but didn’t know how to garden that way.

“What I really like about our garden is that from the beginning, the organizers decided we would all use organic methods,” she said.

The University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus also hosts some community gardens. There is a student cooperative, Cornercopia, at the southeast corner of Larpenteur and Cleveland avenues. Gardeners from both Falcon Heights and St. Anthony Park said they have bought plants from Cornercopia and traded tips with the students at farmers markets.

Cornercopia has received certification as an organic garden, an arduous process completed in 2008.

Community gardens have long been popular in St. Paul, said Heather Worthington, who served as director of the St. Anthony Park Community Council in 1998, when the council purchased land for the garden area that had previously been leased from Burlington Northern Railroad.

But St. Anthony Park is unique in that the District Council owns the land. Usually, said city gardens coordinator Granlund, the city makes an agreement with a nonprofit to manage the land but the city retains ownership.

Worthington said the land purchase was expensive and complicated and depended on some major gifts from individuals and businesses.

“I think we ended up raising over $100,000 for it,” she said. “We had some people in the community who felt it was important.”

The St. Anthony Park garden has depended on good leadership, from the negotiating skills of attorney Ferd Peters, who helped seal the deal with Burlington Northern, to the vigilant organizing of Sue Conners and Sherm Eagles, all of them supported by District Council staff.

Lois Braun, who now co-coordinates the garden with Conners, said she wasn’t sure this was where she wanted to live when her partner invited her here more than 10 years ago. A call to Conners helped make up her mind.

Braun said there are many members of the St. Anthony Park garden who live outside the neighborhood, and she hopes

St. Paul and other cities will quickly establish more gardens to relieve some of the demand.

Some have advocated for preference for residents, she said.

“If we’re talking about sustainability, we don’t want people expending gasoline to get to their community garden.”

But she said many of those commuters have moved away from the neighborhood after having made a substantial investment in the garden, and they shouldn’t just be pushed out. Nor does she want to see a lottery that might deprive established gardeners of their continuing involvement.

“I like the continuity,” she said. “People invest time and energy, for example in weed control.” She said they’d be less likely to do that if they couldn’t be sure of future participation.

For those stuck on waiting lists, Braun said, if they have shady yards they can grow a surprising amount of food.

“You can grow leafy things,” she said. “Greens are immensely good for you, and they don’t need a lot of sun.”

And those with no ground at all, or with garden space they don’t know what to do with, would do well to connect with Yards to Gardens (, she said, where they can register their need and get hooked up with a partner.

Despite the headaches, garden leaders find plenty to do on the lighter side. Both Falcon Heights and St. Anthony Park participate in garden tours, and they both celebrate toward the end of a season with potlucks featuring diverse preparations of popular vegetables.

Falcon Heights gardener Barbara O’Leary said the garden keeps her healthy with more than vegetables.

“I’m almost 70,” she said. “It’s good for me to get out of the house.”