There may not be a grocery store in the area, but on a city-owned lot on the corner of Stryker Avenue and Elizabeth Street in St. Paul, West Side residents are growing their own food at Stryker Community Garden. Started in 2011 on a former gas station site, the garden includes raised beds of varying sizes that can be rented for the season for a small fee, as well as communal plots that people care for together.
While many of the raised-bed plots have traditional wood sides, a growing number are made of durable polypropylene fabric. All are donated to the garden through the Minnesota State Horticultural Society’s (MSHS) Garden-in-a-Box program. Funded by a variety of grants and donors, the program has provided more than 1,200 garden boxes over the last six years to nonprofit and community organizations, schools, and childcare centers in the Twin Cities and outstate Minnesota. Each 3- by 4-foot box is durable enough to last several planting seasons and comes with soil, compost, plants, seeds, fertilizer, and some basic gardening lessons.
The goal is to help low-income families and individuals learn to grow some healthy foods to supplement their diets affordably, says Garden-in-a-Box program coordinator Jackie Baum, explaining that the program reflects how MSHS has evolved since its inception. “We’re celebrating our 150th anniversary this year, and what started out as a bunch of fruit growers bonding over Minnesota apples has become an organization that’s focused on growing gardeners and supporting healthy eating and living.”
While there is no paid staff at the Stryker Community Garden, Carol Harder has served as volunteer coordinator for the past four years. A longtime gardener with an obvious passion for plants and people, Harder loves the way that weeding, planting, and harvesting brings everyone at Stryker together, regardless of language or other barriers. One of her favorite memories is of the Palestinian grandfather with experience growing grapes who helped her string up struggling grapevines sprawling along one end of the garden. “We didn’t speak the same language, but we worked together so easily, and I wouldn’t have known what to do without him,” she says.
Working side by side in the dirt, she and the other gardeners, many of them new immigrants, have learned a lot from each other. “Mexican families have taught us how to cook with purslane, and a gardener from Japan says burdock root is delicious if you pickle it,” she recalls. Most of the kids who help in the garden are partial to fruits like strawberries and raspberries, but they also like to trade the vegetables and seeds to create their own mix of crops. “Tomatoes are always popular, but one four-year-old boy, Sage, likes carrots, so he traded and traded until his whole box was planted with just carrots,” Harder says. “It’s exciting to see the way the kids’ eyes light up when they’re in the garden. They always want to help.”
Gardeners come and go every year, but many stay on and help newcomers, some of whom Harder recruits from the bus stop at one end of the garden. “Everybody just comes together and we garden. We look at each other as people, and our focus is on food.”
And that, Baum says, is what the Garden-in-a-Box program is all about. “Stryker Garden nourishes the lives of people in the neighborhood by providing fresh food today while teaching gardening skills that can benefit those gardeners for a lifetime.”
To support the Minnesota State Horticultural Society’s 2016 Garden-in-a-Box program, go to northerngardener.org/join-mshs/contribute.
By Meleah Maynard
Photos by Meleah Maynard