Sometimes we country folks take for granted the right to grow vegetables and having enough space to do so. A recent trip to St. Paul, Minn., reminded me that not everyone can just plop a row of tomato plants in the ground.
Those ingenious Minnesotans, however, found ways to grow their own fresh veggies right smack in the middle of a big, bustling city. Surprisingly, they were not limited to growing vegetables in containers.
At first, as I strolled around the residential neighborhood near St. Catherine University, I didn’t realize what I was seeing. After all, we are so accustomed to only flowers and decorative greenery lining sidewalks that I almost missed noticing the zucchini and raspberries growing there.
On the 10-block walk to a wonderful used book store, I encountered enough incognito front-yard vegetable gardens to warrant going back to my daughter’s apartment for my camera. I saw squash of all sorts, a variety of greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, chard, rhubarb (which grows to positively monstrous sizes in the North Country), herbs, onions, peas, beans and beets. I suspect now that some of those sunflowers and nasturtium were doing more than beautifying lawns.
Illegal Gardens in the News
Not only were the undercover edibles rooted discreetly in pots and window boxes, they were openly growing in the grassy strip between the sidewalk and street. This is especially pleasing to us who have followed Mother Earth News’ shocking forbidden-food-growing stories. Here is a list of “illegal garden” news compiled by Mother Earth News staff.
In 2013, Mother Earth News assistant editor Kale Roberts wrote of two Des Moines, Iowa, residents complaining to the city council about separate front-yard vegetable gardens they considered less attractive than grass. Also, beginning in 2012, Roberts wrote of Jason and Jennifer Helvenston, an Orlando, Fla., couple facing fines of $500 per day for growing vegetables where grass “should have been.” In both instances, thanks in part to heavy public pressure, the issues were eventually dropped. The municipalities deemed it could be an invasion of property rights for a city to mandate what can be planted on lawns.
From Lawn to Food Production in St. Paul
As I wandered about St. Paul taking photos, I encountered one yard completely devoid of lawn. The entire front yard along busy Randolph Avenue is a perennial wildflower garden without a blade of grass to mow or water. Wildflowers are naturally more drought resistant than domesticated grasses.
At another front yard alive with all manner of vegetables, the homeowners were, of course, sitting on their front step. Where else? Before I even had a chance to tell them what I was up to with my camera, they waved me over for a chat. Nearly every square inch of their yard was filled with delicious-looking fruit and vegetables. Only one slim grassy path cuts across the front yard ? as a convenience for the mailman, they said.
“When you live in Minnesota, you don’t walk, but RUN outside and start planting in spring,” the woman of the house laughed.
When I asked how it all started, the friendly couple said they bought the house 10 years ago and nonchalantly planted a row of red raspberry bushes along one side. When no one complained about that, they kept adding more growing beds each year. Rather than protesting, their neighbors admire and frequently thank them for their lovely gardens.
The couple said they are unaware of city ordinances prohibiting front-yard vegetable gardens, but have not asked, “just in case.” Based on the number of up-front kitchen gardens I saw on my short walk, I guessed St. Paul encourages residents to plant “patriot gardens.” I was correct, later finding a Twin Cities Boulevard Gardening Guide prepared by Sustainable Resources Center’s Urban Lands Program that addresses how to properly plant along Minneapolis and St. Paul streets. So, not only does St. Paul invite front-yard planting, it promotes planting on the boulevard — that grass strip we always think of belonging to the city.
Even businesses got in on the movement. I found herbs growing outside a dentist office, yoga academy and therapeutic massage studio. Beside one apartment building, a resident planted peppers, squash and cucumbers in hay bales. Nearby, Swiss chard and kale grew in flower pots. All the plants were lively and producing fruit.
To learn more about growing food in the city, be sure to check out fellow Mother Earth News blogger Mike Lieberman’s article about his patio garden in Los Angeles that details how you can grow food in your city. For more pictures of St. Paul’s front-yard gardens, see our blog, Hooray for St. Paul, Minnesota Boulevard Gardens.
Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid with human power, and invented the WaterBuck Pump.