Dowling Community Garden was an unlikely spot to grow vegetables when Minneapolis began digging Victory Gardens there in 1943.
The former swamp at 46th Avenue S. and E. 39th Street had been filled with crushed rock, clay and sand. Six plow owners refused an invitation to plow the land, apparently afraid of breaking their machinery on the debris.
Eventually someone did till the land, as have generations of gardeners since. On Saturday, Dowling will celebrate its 70th anniversary. It is believed to be one of the oldest community gardens in the country and one of just two surviving Victory Gardens from World War II.
Dowling has survived threats of sale for development and bouts of indifference from a society that in the 1950s increasingly turned to supermarkets for produce.
Today, the garden’s biggest challenge may be its popularity. Recently, people on the waiting list have had to wait five to six years to get a plot.
“There is a real interest in gardening, and [Minneapolis public schools] have allowed us to do this,” said Jerry Foley, who has had a Dowling plot since 1988 and is on the garden’s steering committee. “The neighborhood advocates for us; they like the open space.”
Today, about 300 gardeners work 185 plots on the 4-acre site. The garden is on the grounds of Dowling Urban Environmental School, and some garden plots are reserved for school classes.
With a sign, fenced grounds and benches surrounded by flowering perennials that welcome visitors, the garden has come a long way from its early days. The land was donated to Minneapolis schools in 1921 by lawyer William Eustis, a former Minneapolis mayor, to build a school for handicapped children. Eustis was handicapped and used crutches.
Dowling school opened on the eastern edge of the property in 1924. But large parts of the 21-acre plot as well as adjoining land owned by the University of Minnesota were still undeveloped when World War II began, and people were urged to plant gardens to do their part for the war effort.
Roughly 25 to 30 acres of school district and University of Minnesota land were plowed for Victory Gardens. By today’s standards, the plots were enormous — as big as a city lot, and cultivated by people who had grown up on farms and knew how to preserve their harvest. Today, the biggest plot is 800 square feet, but most are around 100 square feet. This year, people pay $18.50 to rent a typical plot.
Weed growers get the boot
By community garden standards, Dowling is a Cadillac operation. Years ago, water pipes were extended from the school into the garden, so no plot is more than 100 feet from a water source. A garden shed holds tools and wheelbarrows. There are raised beds for gardeners who are in wheelchairs or who want to stand while gardening.
In the spring, loads of composted manure are dumped at the site. Gardeners keep the same plot year after year, so some have permanent trellises and grow perennials like rhubarb and raspberries.
Dowling has a steering committee and rules that can get gardeners tossed if they violate them. Unapproved chemical use is prohibited, because of state laws affecting school grounds. Everyone has to do four hours of service at the garden: filling water barrels, taking coolers of donated produce to local food shelves three mornings a week, cleaning up.
The worst offense of all: Not planting a garden, or neglecting a plot. People who let the weeds run wild get kicked out. This year, a couple in their 60s who had waited years for a garden planted and then ignored their plot, saying they didn’t realize how much work it was to garden.
Foley, who spends hours each day at the garden, weeds neglected plots and donates any vegetables to the food shelf.
On a recent morning, the garden smelled of dill. Still-green hops shivered in the breeze on lush vines that climbed a trellis. Foley pointed out a giant Czech kohlrabi that he is growing in his plot, and fellow steering committee member Jeffrey Loesch steered visitors by grafted tomato plants that were 6 feet high.
“We’re just like any other farmer; we want to see what our neighbors are growing,” he said with a laugh.
It’s the community that makes the garden special, Loesch said: “We trade produce and share insights.” Foley said he met a rookie gardener from the neighborhood who told him she regularly walks through the gardens to “learn by looking.”
Peter Schmidt and Susan Reed have each had a plot at Dowling since the couple moved to the neighborhood 19 years ago. Reed said their yard is too shady to grow vegetables.
“I love the camaraderie,” she said. “I have a circle of friends here, and we trade ideas and produce. It’s been really nice.”