Backyard farming

A pilot gardening program is giving novice green thumbs a chance to grow like the pros Backyard farming

As a pastry chef and cookbook author, Zoë François is a star in the kitchen.

Chocolate-ginger marbled cheesecake bars? No problem. Apple blossom blackberry tart? Simple.   

But in the garden, François freely admits she is challenged. So when she decided to get serious about growing ingredients in her Linden Hills backyard, she knew she couldn’t do it alone.  

“I’ve tried this several times and I’ve never been able to make as much as a salad out of my efforts,” she said.

Luckily, friend Barb Davis knew about a program that connected professional urban farmers with city residents who shared François’ interest. In its pilot year, the Permaculture Research Institute’s Backyard Harvest Project has attracted 14 participants, mostly from south Minneapolis.

For a little more than $1,000, they get an 80–120-square-foot garden, a variety of vegetables and flowers, a watering system, fence and a farmer to put it all together, maintain it and harvest it. And the best part —all the food is the participant’s to keep. It’s all about linking consumers directly to their food, building community and strengthening the Twin Cities’ food infrastructure.

“It was just perfect timing for me because I have one cookbook out and the next one is all about healthy breads and one of the chapters is about incorporating vegetables and things in it,” François said. “So I was so excited to have the ingredients for those things right in my own backyard.”

François signed up with Davis, who is sharing the harvest because she doesn’t have room for a garden of her own. Stefan Meyer is their pro gardener. He got started in April building a 100-square-foot garden in the yard and was planting with François by early May.

Participants in the program can choose from a variety of garden designs, but what’s in the garden is pretty much pre-determined.  

“This is designed to maximize as much produce in the space as possible,” said Meyer on a recent sunny Saturday morning as he looked over a garden blueprint spread out on a wooden dining table in François’ backyard. “You will probably be able to use everything in the garden and not buy too many vegetables on top of that.”

Spinach, carrots, leeks, peas, radishes, cabbage and cauliflower were among the vegetables planted that day. The crops were intermingled (in a planned way) to confuse pests and each seedling was planted in its own special way. Soil depth and plant proximity are just a couple factors important to the crops’ survival, Meyer said.  

He said he’d be at the house every couple days until the crops get going, then he’ll start checking in a couple times a week. He is one of three farmers involved in the program, so he’s assigned to several other gardens, but he’s on call at each of them.  

“If there’s a problem they can call me up and I’ll be right over,” Meyer said.     

Program participants don’t have to do anything to the garden themselves, but they can if they want and many do, Meyer said. François is one of those. She and her sons Charlie, 8, and Henri, 10, were getting their hands dirty with Meyer on that recent Saturday.   

She said she wants to be able to garden on her own in future years and she wants her kids to learn from the experience.

“I want my kids to have a connection to where all this stuff comes from,” she said.

François said she plans to use her fresh vegetables to prepare backyard community feasts. And if she masters the gardening thing, she’s got even bigger plans.

Up next: Chickens and a goat.

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or jweyer[email protected]