Growing healthy futures at Nicollet Square

Youth in apartment complex have big plans for a new garden


KINGFIELD — Formerly homeless young adults are planting their futures at Nicollet Square housing development.

Residents of the low-rent apartment complex in Kingfield were all previously homeless or in foster care before moving into Nicollet Square, where they get assistance in finding local jobs and adjust to living independently. Now, the residents are putting these lessons to use in a new backyard garden.

Dozens of young adults from Nicollet Square teamed up with volunteers from building owner Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative and St. Paul’s Eco Education, an educational nonprofit with an environmental focus. The project also received financial assistance from a Wells Fargo grant program and garden design and garden technical support from Harvest Moon Backyard Farmers.

The group is working to construct what they’re calling the Nic Square Community Garden. It’s intended to be scenic and relaxing space for residents, but many at Nicollet Square are confident that the garden will help them in accomplishing their future dreams, too.

Chris Dykes is one such resident. Dykes is a talented young chef and has ambitions to one day own a restaurant. For him, Nic Square offers essential experiences to accomplish future goals.

“I want to have a garden for my own restaurant eventually, because if you have one by your business, it makes everything cheaper and fresher to cook.” he said.

Dykes described big plans for the restaurant he hopes to own.

“I want it to be very diverse as far as food, so I plan on traveling to different countries and learning different techniques,” he said. “I’ll get a bunch of different recipes because I don’t want it to be just one certain type of food. I want to attract many different races and many different cultures.”

Dykes said he has always appreciated cooking and is very invested in accomplishing his future dream.

“I love to cook and I like to invent my own stuff,” Dykes said. “I learned a little bit from my mom when I was really young, and then my dad kind of taught me, too.”

In 2011, Dykes was on a team of students at his Richfield high school who won First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Recipes for Healthy Kids Contest” for their original Turkey Porcupine Sliders.

“There’s no porcupine in it, though,” Dykes said, laughing.

From the contest he won a full-ride scholarship and will begin culinary studies at The Art Institute International this fall. The winning recipe is now being served at The Good Earth in Edina.

Dykes is excited to take part in the production of Nic Square garden and mentor other residents. He will lead at least two cooking classes in the garden this summer for his neighbors in the apartment complex.
“People come [to Nicollet Square] and it’s their first apartment, so they don’t really know a lot of nutritional values with foods,” he said. “It will be nice to have a garden to go back to and pick some stuff out to use it in their own recipes or just try some new things.”

Dykes is not the only Nicollet Square resident who will use the garden as a stepping stone toward his future. Several other occupants are practicing their talents in the park development.

Eco Education volunteers Micaela Mathre and Elise Griffin, the project manager, are impressed by the by ambition of these young adults.

“There’s a lot of really talented artists in the building — spoken word, dance, poetry, writers,” Griffen said. “We want to figure out how to incorporate their artistic talents into the garden.”

Building residents had in June begun planning a mural and creating the official sign for the park.

“All of the designs are awesome,” Mathre said. “Initially, we thought we would have just one sign, but now we think we should use maybe three or four signs.”

Nicollet Square tenants have been involved in virtually every aspect of the garden, from brainstorming to construction. Starting this winter, residents began planning the content of the garden, suggesting vegetables, herbs and structures like a fire pit and fountain.

“They thought of so many things,” Griffin said. “Almost every plant that we bought was suggested by the residents.”

The Eco Education volunteers were hopeful the enthusiasm from residents would persist and that the project would continue to inspire leadership within Nicollet Square.

“We believe that if people get to decide what they want and take leadership with it then the garden will be well cared for and be put to better use,” Griffin said. “It’d be great to have people connect to the garden and really feel like they’re helping it.”

Said Mathre: “If people are eating healthy food, then I’d say that the goal is met. We really want this to be a comfortable and relaxing place for everyone who lives here, so hopefully more and more people will become involved as time goes on.”

Kris Berggren of Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, the nonprofit that owns the building, said she was confident in the project’s success.

“I hope that people who live here would feel some ownership of the garden and would see it as a learning opportunity to get their hands into the ground,” Berggren said. “I think it is healing and it is a great way to connect with others in this community.”

Those at Nicollet Square have countless future plans for the garden. Residents are now planning s’mores and movie nights, gardening classes, open-mic events and a cold frame for winter gardening.

“Everything can always be improved,” said Dykes. “So maybe this year we’ll grow some plants, but next year we’ll switch it up and grow something different. Everything is always experimental.

“This garden is for everyone.”

CORRECTION: This story originally misstated the role of Harvest Moon Backyard Farmers in the Nicollet Square garden project. The organization contributed design and technical support, but was not a financial donor.