On a romantic May weekend in Rochester, Kristina and I found a dead grape plant that has changed our lives. Looking for something to do in Rochester we took a trip to the Home Depot so we could walk hand in hand down the aisles. It was to enjoy the freedom of not having the kids with us; it’s what we happily refer to as being “kid-less!” We came across a grape plant in the garden center. We were thrilled because we didn’t know you could grow grapes in Minnesota. We picked up two and went to ask a team member about buying them. She told us the two sticks poking out of the soil were dead and brought us to the live plants. We grabbed two beautiful plants that had two foot green vines and large leafs. By the time we came across a Honeycrisp apple tree there was no stopping us. We grabbed a tree and a dozen packets of seeds. We paid for our magical plants that grew fruit and took them out to the parking lot not knowing how we were going to get a tree back up to St. Paul. We were able to jam the tree in the van and take it home safely.
I will explain the 99’ Ford Windstar. We paid $2000 a few years ago to get it off a couple of good friend’s hands. We don’t have a truck so the van does all the hauling for us. We have taken that thing to the nursery and packed it with trees, plants and our kids. I took it to the country and found a REAL farmer and loaded it up with straw.
A few years ago we drove city kids to church events in the van. That’s the nice way of putting it. Everyone else that volunteered to drive kids to our church events were single, had cars and said they could take no more than one or two kids to the events every week. We were more easygoing and took all the kids that needed to go. So we would drive to the homeless shelter downtown Minneapolis, load up a dozen inner-city kids, have half of the kids had to sit on someone’s lap- including our kids. We would drive through North Minneapolis hoping we would not get pulled over.
The van got vandalized one night and got all the hub caps stolen, it was broke down in our back yard for six months, I rolled on a flat down Lake Street stuffing my face with Popeye’s chicken, it lost a wheel while I was driving down the road, it got stuck in our garden…We lovingly refer to it as: Ghetto. Ass. Piece of Shit, Van.
At the time we found the grape plant and Honeycrisp apple tree I was parking my work truck straight in our backyard, redneck style. I was planning on making it into an official parking spot, but it turned into a perfect garden space.
We knew very little about gardening. We tried to buy a dead grape plant! We bought a few books and decided to make a 12” deep vegetable bed. So I dug it out by hand, it took a few days. We planted corn, peas, pumpkins and lettuce; your typical Burpee vegetable seed mix. Our lives were consumed by gardening. Not no ornamental garden either. We were gonna we live off our land. If we could grow it in our zone, I wanted to buy it. We went to Home Depot every other day just to look at plants and buy whatever else we could pack into your yard.
Kristina had this crazy idea. She told me I couldn’t go “overboard.” She thinks when I get into something I’m 110%. She wanted the garden to save us money on our grocery bill. Yeah… that didn’t happen. I went to Wal-Mart and found a pear tree I couldn’t pass up for $18. We found out that you need to have a fruit tree to pollinate another fruit tree. So we had to go out and buy another apple tree and a pear tree. We went to the real nursery where they had older fruit trees for $60. By that time we had 5 grape plants, 4 fruit trees, dozens of strawberry plants, 6 raspberry plants, and 3 dozen packs of seeds… That first year we had 60 different types of edible plants growing in our yard. Overboard my ass!
In St. Paul we have a lot of Hmong immigrants. They are authentic. They know very little English, dress funny, walk around the neighborhood talking to themselves, pick weeds in other people’s yards, forage for dinner on the side of the road, squat in open lots to build community gardens, making real basic garden fences with dead sticks and snow barrier mesh; real, rural Asians.
We have several Hmong families on our block. One of these families has kids our kid’s age. The kid’s parents are my age and the kids grandparents live with the family too. We call the grandparents, Grandma and Grandpa. Grandma is cool, her real name is June. She doesn’t know too much English and she used to farm for a living in Thailand. She has several well kept garden beds in her yard. She butchers whole pigs in her kitchen and makes a super good egg roll.
When we planted our garden we walked down and got Grandma to ask her for advice. She walked down to our yard not knowing what we were talking about; she saw our garden then understood us. I felt very American and white. I feel like I have two strikes against me being a white American. It may be because I grew up in a prejudice town or because people from two different cultures don’t always live well side by side.
Grandma looked at out under kept yard and told us to put a fence around the garden. Her beds are totally enclosed. At that time we just had tilled soil. I was sort-of let down. I was hoping for some good Asian gardening secrets and a fence is all she told us. Grandma walked back up the alley and I told Kristina I was gonna put up a Hmong fence. I went out and got mesh snow netting. I almost bought the neon orange one but decided it was best to get the green. I put up the fence. Made a gate for the fence and a grape arbor by hand. It was my way of showing respect and support to the Hmong community in St. Paul.
Our yard was changing. Just to the east of us we had a neighbor whose house was in the same family for decades. In the past the North End neighborhood of St. Paul was a European- American working class neighborhood. Our neighbors were good people but had a harder time dealing with the diversifying of their neighborhood. I flat out told them I support our diverse neighborhood and I was very accepting of our kids marring outside of our race. Her young daughter was expected to marry a white guy. That year we had a shooting on our property by our black neighbors on our west side. The white neighbors on our east side moved the next year.
By the end of that first growing season we had over twenty pumpkins! We got some corn and lettuce, zucchini. I packed some Asian vegetables in there too. But our enthusiasm about garden work slowly died. Our backyard looked like the Amazon. We had 14ft tall sunflowers, 20ft long pumpkin vines, several tomato plants, 3ft long Asian pea’s pods, zucchini plants… It was awesome! We got noticed by the neighbors. Most people said they liked it but I think they were being polite. Our garden took up most of our back yard open space. I made a large compost bin I threw all our yard crap in. We started to kitchen compost. I would have Kristina cut my hair in the backyard and throw the clippings in the compost; Asian immigrant style!
By the second year we started to understand what a perennial plant and an annual plant were. We have had chamomile growing in the same spot in our garden for the last four years. Perennials are easier. The raspberries, trees, strawberries, some herbs, and bushes- they are less work. We extended the main vegetable garden the second year and bought more plants to add to our collection. We have rhubarb, blueberries, black currants, more grapes and a family rosebush. We tried growing potatoes and onions. Again, whatever we could pack into the yard and was edible we would try to grow.
I started thinking more about medicinal plants: dandelion, types of mints, different herbs and traditional medicine. Then I began to get upset I couldn’t grow weed. Screw the government for telling me I can’t grow medicine in my yard and responsibly use it. I have only smoked maybe six times and not in twelve years. But I want my freedom to do it if I want. Obviously there is a huge gray area there and I haven’t ever needed to use weed but I support the use of traditional medicine.
The second year we wanted to grow watermelons but were running out of space for more plants. I read we could make “watermelon mounds” on our lawn and grow the seeds in there. So I made 4- 150 pound manure piles in our front yard and planted watermelon seeds. The watermelon plant vines along the grass and grows in the lawn. Our mounds have been growing the last three years, but I have only got one small watermelon from it. I just like telling people I am growing watermelon from four mounds of shit in my front yard.
At the beginning of our third year we had a bad incident with our Honeycrisp apple tree. Aurelia and I went on a walk and left Annika and the punk neighbor boy out in the yard playing. It was real early spring and the trees didn’t have their leaves yet. Annika and the boy were playing with sticks. We got back from our walk and I didn’t notice anything at first but then I saw the destruction that two- six year olds could do. They chopped down our Honeycrisp apple tree. Cut it in half! They were hitting other trees too, but the Honeycrisp took most of the beating. I almost threw up I was so sick. I knew it was the punk neighbor boy but Annika helped. For her punishment I told her she had to help me plant a new tree and she was not to play with sticks for a year. And I was STRICT with it. 11 ½ months later she looked at a stick and looked at me and I would shake my head no but then allow Aurelia to play with the stick. I laugh thinking about it. I love Annika, she’s a wonderful kid.
I ended up moving the Honeycrisp to the front of our yard near the side walk and transplanting two of our fruit trees to allow more garden space. Then I went out and got an heirloom apple tree and Annika and I planted it in the front yard. That leaves a total of 5 fruit trees: 3 apples and 2 pears. The Honeycrisp grew that year, but we still haven’t got any fruit from it. Hopefully this year we will.
We have wanted chickens and a couple of goats. We would get eggs and milk. I never had a farm fresh egg or had goat’s milk so it be a change for me. But I could make cheese, yogurt and ice cream. In order to do this we would need four things to happen.
First, we would need to get our trees trimmed. We have three mature trees in our yard. We have two in the back. The good tree in back we would trim the branches a good way to the top. The bad one is half dead and we would cut it down to the top of the trunk. In the front we have an overgrown Silver Maple, we just found out we can get syrup from. But it is clobbering the house and it needs a heavy prune. That would give us a lot more yard space to garden. Second, we would need a fence. Third, we would need a permit for the chickens and one for the goats. To get the permits we would need permission from our neighbors. Fourth, we would need more discipline.
Half way through our third year we let our garden go. There was a couple week period we didn’t weed because it was too hot and there was too many bugs. I didn’t want to weed by hand. I ended up going to Sears and spending $300 on credit and got some gas powered yard tools. I got a Mantis. It is a small tiller and cultivator. I love it. But by the time I took it to the garden it was too late. Our garden was the typical overgrown jungle our neighbors have come to expect and we just let everything grow to see what fruit we would get; Not much from the vegetable garden. We got a lot from the perennial plants. We made a lot of jam and got a good crop of heirloom tomatoes. I told myself in order to bring animals on our property we would have to keep the garden up for a year.
We have been learning how to use our crops too. We never had a zucchini before we planted the garden, now we love them. It‘s great to eat fresh salads from the garden. We have learned to can pickles and green tomatoes. We have come to a spot were the garden is not as much for show but to make a stand against our food system. We were a lot of talk and not a lot of walk. We are starting to come around. The first year we didn’t can anything. We planted all Burbee seeds and didn’t save seeds. We have started to use more of what we grow, plant heirloom vegetables and save seeds. This year we have put $110 into the yard, which is way down from previous years.
We have dreams for our house. We have a 1 1/2 story with 3 bedrooms and 1 bathroom. We want to make it a two story, four bedrooms and three bathrooms. Replace the garage with a two story garage to have a greenhouse on top of the first floor. Turn it in to a true Urban Farm. Dreams! It will never happen.
This year has brought changes. We are in the middle of a short sale on our house. We bought in 2005 for 170, we now owe 160 and our house is worth around 55. We want to go back to school and can’t have our cake and eat it too. So we decided to give up the house. We are not sure when we will be moving. I was going to put down grass seed after taking out the Hmong fence but I decided to plant the garden. We used the whole garden. We have a total of 1,288 square feet of garden. Our lot is a total of 6,944 square feet. We didn’t pack plants in, giving everything its appropriate space. I planted a lot less veggies this year; pumpkin, zucchini, cucumber, summer squash, lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, dill, a lot of basil, cilantro and greens. The garden looks very nice. The perennials are doing great. I added to the manure mounds in the front and planted some watermelon seeds.
We threw around several ideas where to move; Oregon, California, to a farm in Wisconsin… We are planning on staying in the Twin Cities. Probably in the city and hopefully a house with a yard. We are tempted to take all our plants with us. We have dozens of raspberries and strawberries, 7 grape vines, 9 blueberry plants, 2 black currants, 5 fruit trees, perennial herbs and flowers, and a family rosebush. At the least, we will take the Honeycrisp tree which was cut in half; it’s about three feet tall, and the family rosebush. We have spent hundreds of dollars on the plants but we have had them 2-4 years and they have matured. To start over would be hard due to the amount of time the plants need to grow. But who digs up five trees and throws them in a G.A.P.O.S. van when they move? Tom Miller does, along with his super nice toilet! Overboard my ass!
I don’t know what this year will look like. I might have to trespass on lawn after we sell to harvest fruit and veggies. We are not sure the extent of gardening we will be doing next year in a rental house. I can say we have more experience, patience and discipline. I love to garden we hope have chickens and goats someday. Our view on self reliance and our culture has changed. It’s not about our half-assed effort with our yard. It’s about respect for culture and our community.