Taking it to the boulevards

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Leave the spray paint at home and take your rebellious urge for coloring the urban landscape to the boulevards. Grab a handful of seeds and bomb some neglected, orphaned land, especially that strip of soil between the sidewalk and the street. 

We’ve come a long way since the green, grassy conformity of days gone by. Whereas some of us are content to drag out the lawn mower and plow down the crabgrass on a regular basis, others are tagging the boulevard with salad greens, orange carrots and red tomatoes.

It’s not really as rebellious as it all sounds. In St. Paul, that tract of 14 feet or so from the curb to the sidewalk belongs to the property owner. The city is a partner in boulevard management, taking responsibility for tree planting and maintaining a right to dig the area up when necessary to get at the sewer pipes and cables underground. Residents are also responsible for following city ordinances pertaining to boulevard planting.

Among the undeterred, and one of the hardest working guerilla gardeners in St. Anthony Park, is Lois Braun. She lives in an apartment building notable for the bright clusters of yellow daffodils and pink tulips that dot the front lawn. Behind the building’s urbane façade is a corridor of buckthorn-choked terrain that abuts the BNSF railroad tracks. It’s here that Braun has hacked and dug and composted nearly a dozen food-producing beds.

Why? Braun credits her upbringing as a missionary kid in West Africa.

“Food security is a big deal to me,” she says.

Despite the fact that she’s not a homeowner, between her community garden space and the plots near the tracks, she managed to bring in a crop last year that fed her household, the occasional neighbor and then some: 250 pounds of produce that she donated to a food shelf. Out of soil that was packed hard as rock, neglected and depleted, she managed to grow beans, sorghum, squash, potatoes and lettuces. She also has a raspberry patch, a couple of apple trees and hazelnut bushes.

For others, the boulevard in front of the house is the only alternative to backyards overshadowed by houses, garages and mature trees. Along Chelmsford Avenue in St. Anthony Park, Nick Jordan has turned the length of the boulevard, including an agreeable neighbor’s portion, into a rich bed of greens and hardy root vegetables. Sunny as it is, the plot still only gets about five out of the ideal six hours of sun daily.

“I’m a huge advocate of greens,” he says. He claims that greens, in all their verdant shades and various textures, are suited to less sunny conditions and are “a complete convenience food, delicious fried up in the skillet with olive oil – and immensely good for you.”

Faced with hard packed, salt-sprayed, “difficult” boulevard soil, Jordan recommends a method called “sheet mulching,” whereby soil is rebuilt through layering organic materials on top of the ground. It requires less tilling and recycles materials such as newspaper, grass clippings and kitchen compost.

Jordan believes that “urban food production is an interesting and beautiful thing.” He doesn’t mind sharing thoughts or even the occasional sugar snap pea with a passing neighbor. It leads to conversations, and he especially loves it when people with children stop at the garden to point out vegetables.

“There’s a lot of social capital in front-yard gardening,” he says.

Jordan’s garden has spread seeds throughout the neighborhood. Marty Neus, Beth Breidel and family on Raymond Avenue say that their inspiration came in part from walking by the boulevard garden on Chelmsford. Neus, who grew up on a 200-acre farm in southern Minnesota, also wanted his daughters, Lydia (13) and Emma (11), to experience growing food. When a wind shear took out the 75-foot maple tree on the boulevard, the family cleared the branches and squeezed in a garden plot that keeps them in tomatoes and basil for Caprese salads all summer long.

Making gardening a family affair is part of the fun for St Anthony Park resident Anika Ledlow (17) and her grandfather, Michael Russelle. Together, they’ve created boulevard gardens on two sides of their corner property.

Their first crop, when they started a few years ago, was garlic. Ledlow prepared the soil with advice from her grandfather, a soil scientist at the University of Minnesota. She added a lot of manure and compost, plus a little sand to keep the soil friable.

Planted in November, shoots of bright green garlic are one of the first signs of garden life in April. Ledlow also tends a strawberry patch and this year is planning to have beans intermingle with the morning glory that climbs the arched pole her grandfather erected.