Home gardening flourishes during the pandemic

David Nicholson plants bed in his backyard
David Nicholson stands barefoot next to a newly planted bed in his backyard on June 12. Photos by Becca Most

Stepping into David Nicholson’s small Kingfield backyard, you see a couple of overgrown raspberry bushes expanding toward the back fence. Instead of a traditionally mown green grass lawn, Nicholson is cultivating a sort of urban garden.

In the center of the lawn he sprouts radishes, collard greens, rhubarb and asparagus. A check- ered plastic trellis stands ready to support the vertical growth of melons and a large arctic kiwi bush hides a couple of former beehive boxes.

“There is something special about being able to go into your yard and pick something right off the vine and eat it right then because the flavor, the texture, is so much better,” he says, breaking off a piece of lemony sorrel and putting it in his mouth.

Nicholson has been gardening in Kingfield for about two decades, but he’s particularly grateful for this year’s growing season. With many working from home, gardening has taken off throughout the metro, resulting in more urban gardeners getting their hands dirty.

During the pandemic, food shortages in grocery stores have challenged a long-standing reliance on store-bought food. Much of that produce is grown internationally or shipped in from places like California. The satisfaction, self-reliance and therapeutic quality of growing fresh food has drawn many first-timers to gardening this season. This do-it-yourself movement has the potential to stick, and many gardening stores in Southwest Minneapolis have seen its effects.

Sunnyside Gardens in Linden Hills saw more sales of vegetables and herbs this growing season than ever before. Tomatoes and other easy-to-grow vegetables like cucumbers, broccoli and herbs are some of the top-sellers, said general manager Sarah Davis. Organic fertilizers and compost are selling in record numbers as well.

“I think people are enjoying their outdoor spaces,” Davis said. “They’re reaping the benefits of gardening, not just the visual and the edible part of it but for [their] mental health as well.”

For Lee Watkins, May marked the time to start working in the MLK Park Donation Garden.
As a Kingfield Master Gardner, Watkins said gardening has been a way for her to relieve stress and connect with those in her neighborhood.

Collard greens
Collard greens are among the dozens of vegetables Nicholson grows in his Kingfield backyard.

Spreading fertilizer and planting produce like bush beans, peppers, radishes and squash, Watkins says the MLK Park garden’s bounty is given to the Aliveness Project, which then distributes the fresh food to those living with HIV in the community.

During the pandemic, Watkins said, people are realizing the importance of fresh food more than ever. She noted that some garden centers were out of seedlings and cedar, which is often used to make raised garden beds.

“As you walk around, you see more people with gardens in their front yards,” she said. “Kind of like how everyone’s making sourdough bread, everyone’s starting to garden now because they have the time to do it.”

Navigating available sunlight, proper spacing of plants and avoiding pests and bugs have been on the forefront of many homeowners’ minds. The Master Gardeners program through the University of Minnesota has seen double or triple the usual number of people reaching out with questions. Some of the most common include logistics about planting, insect identification and lawn care.

“It seems to me that they were viewing the spring awakening of their garden and saw things they never noticed before,” Ellen Campbell, a Hennepin County Master Gardener, wrote in an email. “Especially weed infestations they hadn’t noticed for years and now they’re overwhelmed.”

For Sarah Woutat, the market manager of Neighborhood Roots — the organization that runs the Kingfield and Fulton farmers markets — gardening is not just a profession but a creative outlet.

A former farmer herself, Woutat recently moved to Kingfield and has adapted to growing produce in her extra-small back lawn. With a plethora of hanging baskets and a series of potted vegetables on her patio, creating something fresh and delicious from something as small as a seed comes with a feeling of pride and joy.

Faced with shortages of food in grocery stores during the pandemic, Woutat said COVID-19 has made more people aware of how reliant they are on the global supply chain. Growing some of your own food can not only be cheaper but fosters a sense of self-sufficiency, she said.

“When something like this happens that is completely and totally unforeseen and our systems aren’t set up to handle it, well, then you don’t have food,” she said.

Supporting local farmers markets and growing produce from scratch keeps dollars within the community and is a more sustainable food model to fall back on, Woutat said.

“I hope that once we’re back to normal — whatever that means — people will keep these ideas going,” she said. “Once they can get everything they need at the grocery store again, I hope they don’t give up that garden.”