Vegetable Revolution in Minneapolis

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The curiosity of my landlord upon the delivery of the cedar enclosure; the neighbors’ hundred questions; their kids’ eyes opening wide upon the filling of the reservoirs; nosy passers-by (and squirrels) taking an extra beat; in fact no honest person could have denied interest. “So, you don’t have to water it for a month? What happens then? Where did you get it? How much did it cost? Is it heavy?” I answered them all the same way: “Madam or sir, I am very important, and I simply do not have time to…I mean, The Vegetable Revolution, my dear neighbor, The Vegetable Revolution!!” 

But I am jumping ahead. Let me orient you first. Here in my Minneapolis neighborhood, or, more precisely, within 100 feet of my duplex in the heart of Whittier, more chickens live than people. (In my opinion, not the most communicative or intuitive of animals, the urban chicken, but there is a certain cachet…) At any rate, just as my nearest neighbors are apparently not content to live without fresh eggs, I myself am not content to live without fresh greens, herbs, and vegetables within arm’s reach of my back door. So naturally, I wanted a garden. But I am a renter. I can’t till my landlord’s tiny lawn. Besides, the rabbits and squirrels in Whittier border on the vampiric. (I can only imagine what the snails and slugs are like.) What to do? The answer was simple. I joined The Vegetable Revolution.

The Vegetable Revolution

On a corner in Northeast Minneapolis, in a warehouse still known to most natives as the Land-o-Nod building, feats of carpentry and radical gardening arise. Dick Larsen, a.k.a. “The Rev,” is the sole proprietor of The Vegetable Revolution and the inventor and manufacturer of The Cabbage Patch Garden. Larsen’s non-conforming demeanor, modded ’40s delivery vehicle, and radical company logo all suggest a latter-day Johnny Appleseed (who, in fact, did not “spread” seeds, but created tree nurseries). In the interest of full disclosure, Larsen is also a friend, and in exchange for work on his website and Facebook page, I received the garden in question, delivered with an assortment of veggies and greens ready to grow. It was a fair trade.

Larsen’s idea for a sub-irrigated, pre-seeded and delivered garden—a tiny, modular oasis of urban green—is based on a S.I.P., or sub-irrigated planter. A S.I.P. has internal water chambers that wick moisture to the soil above for a period of–in the case of Larsen’s design–up to a month (depending on weather conditions).

Internal reservoirs

Larsen incorporated that idea into a modular, delivered garden. The ultimate idea behind the service is to provide anyone, anywhere with a means to grow fresh foods, regardless of mobility, time, space, or gardening knowledge. Furthermore, Larsen emphasizes teaching gardening to kids who might not otherwise have the opportunity. He works to place his gardens in schools, community centers, churches and with families in financial need.

Sub-irrigated gardens in general are nothing new. The process works in any climate, and is very well-suited to dry climates. Sub-irrigation is of particular benefit to anyone who travels frequently, cannot carry water, or cannot provide regular watering. It also saves water versus traditional watering methods. Other “raised bed” garden designs have been around in one form or another for ages. The efficiency of raised bed gardening over traditional “row” gardening is well-known, and its space-saving benefits are ideal for the urban environment. The nutrient-dense, compost-rich soil used produces stunningly high yields. The soil in raised beds never gets compacted by feet or vehicles and therefore is easy to work and weed, as well as being ideal for root growth. Because the plants are grown more densely, as the foliage matures a “micro-climate” develops which further increases the efficiency of the sub-irrigation. And, in general, not tilling land for farming helps prevent erosion and fosters native plant and wildlife growth. 

The Cabbage Patch Garden

Veg Rev customer Laura Bonicelli, owner of the fresh meal delivery service Solo by Bonicelli, heard about The Vegetable Revolution on Twitter, and ordered two gardens for her 10×15 patio space. I visited Bonicelli at her home studio in Northeast Minneapolis and witnessed her two gardens already overflowing with growth by late May. For Bonicelli, fresh ingredients are central to her cooking business, instructional videos, and personal lifestyle. She appreciates that she can leave town or simply forget to water for long periods. “I can kill anything,” she jokes. “With these gardens, I don’t have to worry.” Over in St. Paul, Carolyn Sparks and Leslie Stewart have been growing cherry tomatoes, cucumber, zucchini, Brussels sprouts, watermelon, Swiss chard, and leaf lettuce via The Vegetable Revolution. “Everything is growing fast,” Carolyn said by email. “The self-watering is what convinced us to try these, along with the raised beds which make it possible for us to weed.” I asked Carolyn about her experience having a complete garden delivered in one fell swoop. “Delivery was a pleasure,” she remarked. “Dick is interesting to talk with, easy going and excited about learning more about gardening. The excitement is contagious…what more could we ask?”

Cabbage Patch Garden

Larsen knows his idea is just one way to meet the pressing need for fresh foods in urban environments. Ultimately, Larsen envisions urban crops growing in window boxes, balconies, old swimming pools, in the cracks in sidewalks, in coffee cans, in parking lots, on the tops of buses, at train stops, everywhere. But he states his primary goal as “getting people interested in growing their own food, with an emphasis on getting kids excited about gardening.” Pretty simple.

Dick Larsen, owner of The Vegetable Revolution

From the Victory Gardens of the World Wars to Michelle Obama’s “Kitchen Garden” on the White House lawn, there has long been interest in urban gardening in general. And the benefits extend well beyond the healthfulness of fresh foods. When considering the oil-spill culture we currently live in, any food that is grown close to home moves us one step further from an oil-based economy and closer to a sustainable one. Still, Larsen, who comes from a family with farms near Hudson and Stillwater, doesn’t want to play politics. He knows the revolution in food will happen with or without him, and he attends to his business with an ample degree of humility. To enter his modest Northeast Minneapolis studio (a simple, windowed rectangle stocked with the tools of his carpentry trade) is to bear witness to a successful and sustainable plan for simple, joyful living. Indeed, there is a certain comfort in embracing necessity. And besides, isn’t that the mother of invention?