North Minneapolis garden grows community as well as vegetables


Harriet Oyera knew someone had been stealing from the community garden she started in North Minneapolis. When other participants in the Redeemer Community Garden wanted to call the police, she resisted. Instead she did something remarkable.

“We are looking at the solution rather than a problem,” Harriet said.  Together, she and others picked fresh food from the garden and delivered it to the home of the thief. Harriet said she told the remorseful woman that, though she didn’t take the food in the right way, the truth was she needed the food. Then Harriet invited her to get more food by joining them in the garden next year.

Harriet’s garden fed a lot of people this year through community cookouts held every Thursday. Harriet said someone counted 117 people at one gathering. Many were neighbors she didn’t know before coordinating the garden, people who came out of their houses to see what she was doing.

Young people were also among the curious. Their interest led to a whole area planted and maintained by 10 to 17-year-olds. Younger children drew pictures and made all the signs that identify what is being grown in different parts of the garden. Harriet said one of her goals is to pass the knowledge she has gained on to the next generation, because “they should know where they eat from.”

Harriet also said that she would not have succeeded without the help of Twin Cities’ non-profit group, Gardening Matters.

When she expressed interest in starting a garden, they offered her a scholarship to the Gardening Matters leadership workshop. Then helped her find compost and make connections to other gardeners who introduced her to when and what to plant here in Minnesota. Even after she was up and running, they answered all her calls and helped her to find resources for every need she encountered.

“People think of gardening as a hobby,” said Gardening Matters Executive Director Kirsten Saylor. “I think of it as a cultural right.” She described Harriet’s success as, “a great example of how one person and an organization can take a piece of land and build nutrition and community in just one short summer.”   

Gardening Matters emerged in the summer of 2008 from GardenWorks, a partnership between the Green Institute, Minnesota State Horticultural Society and Farm in the City. Their work primarily focuses on community organizing and fostering good leaders, like Harriet, who Saylor said make gardens into enduring neighborhood anchors in good and bad times.

They are serious about meeting the needs of those who really want to be part of a community garden. The staff of three have received hundreds of phone calls and emails this year from people looking to start gardens or join them. They answer all inquiries and try to hook up new gardeners with more established ones that have similar goals or locations.

Some of the 230-plus community gardens that Gardening Matters works with can be found in the Garden Directory on their website. They are color coded to show whether they are primarily for flowers or food or youth, displayed on a Google map of the Twin Cities, and have details on how to get in touch with each garden’s separate leadership.

The website offers a ton of useful gardening information and links to many other sources. It also has a connection to COMGAR, a listserv where current community gardeners post questions, answers and invitations ranging from what to do with squirrels in the compost to raising a hoop house and a weekend green tomato cookout.

But Gardening Matters offers more than just words of advice for community gardeners. Recently, Program Director Ila Duntemann picked up gardening items like shovels, wheelbarrows and hoses donated from neighborhood clean-up efforts of St. Paul District Councils 10, 11, 12 and 13. She hopes to receive many more items from the District 14 clean-up on October 10 and District 2 on October 24. These items get warehoused for the winter and then passed out to needy gardens by a lottery in the spring.

In the future, Gardening Matters hopes to take their support for community gardeners one step farther.

In September they sponsored a film series at Riverview Theater in South Minneapolis about the importance of local food and community spaces. They used the opportunity to start a mailing list. The purpose of which is to be able to call on people to help save community gardens, like Harriet’s, if they become threatened.

Sometimes the land they’re on gets sold, or the owners decide to re-purpose it. Gardening Matters sees community gardens as assets to neighborhoods worth saving. “People don’t realize the political power they do have,” said Saylor, adding that making a real difference, “takes a lot less than you think.”

Next year Gardening Matters plans to have monthly networking meetings for community gardeners, a six-Saturday leadership series and other workshops on a variety of topics. Their resource fair will be held in March and the Parade of Community Gardens is every August. Check their website and newsletter for more details.

10/9/09 Correction: name of the garden is Redeemer Community Garden.