The style or layout of community gardens can be as varied as the neighborhoods in which they’re cultivated. While a traditional approach suggests partitioned individual plots, positioned like city blocks within an urban grid, the only rules that apply are those chosen by the garden’s members. The Bancroft Meridian Garden, founded in 1996 on a lot along 38th Street in South Minneapolis, began as a flower garden. But communities change. So do their gardens. When the volunteer staff experienced turnover in 2014, the garden was reborn as an urban food forest — with the idea that its fruits would, quite literally, become ripe for the picking.
A food forest is a style of gardening where, instead of individual plots, the garden is planted for the entire community to enjoy. The Bancroft Meridian Garden includes apple, pear and cherry trees, as well as a variety of herbs. Volunteers from Bancroft Neighborhood Association manage and maintain the food forest, but anyone walking by is welcome to eat an apple or pick some mint. The garden is maintained in order for the neighborhood to enjoy its bounty.
The site of the Bancroft Meridian Garden was once covered with a building that housed an insurance company. But Jacque Passow only remembers the foreclosed lot and overgrown weeds that covered the lot’s blacktop surface after the building was torn down. Along with two of her neighbors, Passow learned about the inner workings of city bureaucracy, and ultimately brought together the property’s owners, Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis to create the garden.
The Minneapolis Park Board took ownership of the land, but commissioned use and maintenance to the Bancroft Neighborhood Association. A team of volunteers from the association manages the garden, which included Passow from 1996-2014. Bancroft Meridian was the first community garden in Minneapolis to achieve this arrangement, which eliminates the risk of redevelopment as long as the site is kept up.
With a few core volunteers at her side, Passow created a place of beauty. Bancroft Meridian Garden won awards for its flower gardens, and volunteers installed benches and a pergola so neighbors could enjoy the garden — an oasis and place of serenity in the city.
“It was an awesome idea and it worked really well in the early days,” Passow reflects. With time, the volunteers changed. One family had children and couldn’t dedicate time to gardening. Another family moved out of neighborhood. New families came on board. But Passow had difficulty finding enough volunteer workers to help.
“For about five years, we couldn’t get people to come out,” says Passow, who found she was spending more time organizing people than enjoying the flowers, which was her true passion. To keep the neighborhood interested, she tried new formats to attract new volunteers. In the early 2010s, she shifted the garden’s format from 100 percent flowers to incorporate vegetables planted in the traditional plot format.
But volunteers planted their crops — and then forgot them. Recognizing that the community wasn’t showing interest anymore, Passow stepped down and the neighborhood association took a new direction. The garden “needed new visions, new energy,” Passow reflects.
A living example
“We wanted to do something with pizzazz,” says Neal Baxter. “Something that would draw people’s attention.” Baxter believes Bancroft Meridian’s food forest is the first one created east of Portland, Oregon. Baxter lives next to the garden and now runs it with help from Becky Rayman. Baxter and Rayman believe it’s important for people to know where their food comes from. They felt Bancroft Meridian Garden could be a living example.
Rayman was enrolled in a permaculture class at the University of Minnesota taught by ecological designer Daniel Halsey, an agro-system and permaculture designer, and owner of Southwoods Forest Gardens. The Bancroft Meridian Garden “was a decorative space,” Rayman recalls. “It was pretty and it was well maintained, but it wasn’t functioning.”
She decided to get involved, and to create a garden that grew food and communicated a message. With Halsey’s help, Rayman and Baxter designed a food forest. The pergola and benches remain in place along with natural walkways, but they planted the garden with fruit trees, herbs and perennial edibles like strawberries.
A food forest, Rayman explains, isn’t to be harvested, but rather picked by people in the neighborhood — or foraged. “Ultimately the point of this [garden] is to feed the neighborhood,” Baxter says. The fruits and herbs are there for the taking. Neighbors can enjoy an apple or a few cherries while on a walk, or to bring their produce home for later.
A food forest is a lead-by-example ideology about farm-to-table consumption, but it’s also a unique ecological system. Halsey’s design is based on forest ecology, meaning species are planted to maximize their interdependence and complement each another, while serving a biological purpose. Some plants have deep roots that stabilize the soil; others provide nutrients for surrounding plants. The entire garden is designed to absorb rainwater and eliminate runoff. It’s a miniature and self-sustaining ecosystem requiring little or no maintenance.
The food forest was a hit when it was planted in 2014 and as the plants mature, yields have increased. Upkeep involves pruning trees and pulling weeds—in part to keep the garden looking tidy. “A food forest can look overgrown,” Baxter explains. And while a few weeds won’t drastically impact the ecosystem, managing excess growth and eliminating weeds communicates that the garden is being tended.
In St. Paul, the community garden in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood has faced some challenges similar to those at Bancroft Meridian Garden. Founded in 1981, the garden — which has traditional individual yearly plots, as well as permanent plots at the back and annual flower plots along the front fence — was purchased by the neighborhood under the fiscal management of the St. Anthony Park Community Council. The St. Anthony Park Community Garden is also “self-organized, so everything is volunteer,” explains Sherman Eagles, the garden’s long-time co-coordinator with his wife, Sue Connor.
Seeing other gardens shut down or relocate inspired the community to purchase its garden, first renting the land from Burlington Northern Railroad and officially purchasing the property in 2000. Eagles has seen volunteers come and go, just as they have at Bancroft Meridian. Still, the St. Anthony Park Community Garden continues to thrive after 35 years. The longevity of both gardens demonstrates the integral role such open space plays in a community.
Gardens provide food and a personal connection to the land. They represent both community strength and, more importantly, that pride in one’s community can achieve lasting effects. The Bancroft Meridian Garden’s food forest is a pillar of strength and pride in her neighborhood, Rayman says: “It adds beauty and peace and a place for inspiration,” while broadcasting the message that “people who live here are committed.”
As the pear and apple trees grow taller and produce more bounty each year, and the elderberries mature, “these trees and shrubs became an even more invaluable asset,” Rayman adds, “and not just because of the nutritional value of the fruit.”
This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Loren Green is a Minneapolis freelance writer who regularly contributes to City Pages,The Growler, Eater and Paste Magazine. He also helps run the music webzine Scene Point Blank.