Neighbors don’t need an invitation to wander into the Schoenherrs’ garden and help themselves to homegrown produce.
With more than 100 different crops growing on their Woodbury front yard, the family can’t possibly consume it all themselves, even after canning jars of pesto, pickles and tomato sauce.
“We have a lot of stuff to eat during the winter,” Catherine Schoenherr said.
Still, the food keeps coming. “There’s basil coming out of our ears,” said her husband, John.
The couple’s neighbors have been their garden partners since late May, when they pitched in to help a California artist tear up the Schoenherrs’ traditional suburban front lawn and turn it into an edible landscape — packed with fruits, veggies and herbs, but almost no turf grass.
Neighbors regularly show up for Wednesday “garden nights” to pull a few weeds and pick some of whatever’s growing that week. One Wednesday when Catherine was busy and decided to call off the weekly ritual, a neighbor showed up to weed anyway.
“It’s a really cool trade,” said Andrea Schoenherr, the couple’s young adult daughter who no longer lives at home but returns frequently to help with the garden. “People are pitching in their time, and we’re giving them food.”
Their neighborhood has always been close-knit, said Catherine, but the garden has strengthened those ties and helped create new ones. People stop by, introduce themselves, ask questions and offer compliments.
Fritz Haeg, the artist who transformed the Schoenherrs’ as part of his Edible Estates project (the Walker Art Center sponsored his recent residency), has been struck by the neighbors’ warm embrace of the garden.
“Of all the gardens I’ve done [15 as part of the project], this one is the most alive, active, used, lived in and healthy,” he said.
Haeg chose to conclude his multiyear, worldwide project in the Twin Cities because it brought him full circle. “The most interesting experience of the project was to have it come home to the suburbs of the city I grew up in,” he said. And those suburbs have changed. When he started the project in 2005 with an Edible Estate in Kansas, “one of the original points was resistance, opposition, ripping out the iconic American front lawn,” which he considers an unproductive, polluting drain on resources.
He chose the Schoenherrs’ yard for his final installation, in part because they were already committed, energetic gardeners, but also because an edible front yard was so outside the norm for their neighborhood. “I thought this garden was going to be making waves, but it was quite the opposite,” he said. “It became a de facto community center.”
That’s partly because of the Schoenherrs, their energy and their connection to their neighbors, he said, but it also represents a paradigm shift about lawns and local food. “It’s very different from when I was growing up,” he said. “That’s the incredible leap we’ve had culturally.”
Hits and misses
Like any gardeners, the Schoenherrs have had their flops and successes this year. The Arctic kiwi vines are producing fruit, but they’re tiny. “We’ve been struggling with them,” John said.
The family members, who all love homemade salsa, haven’t been able to make as much as they expected. “The tomatoes were late, and the cilantro was early,” John said.
Andrea added: “The timing didn’t work.”
And when Catherine wanted to can pickles, she didn’t have enough cucumbers. “I actually had to buy them at the farmers market,” she said with a laugh. “We did use our dill.”
But the successes have far outnumbered the flops. Their new apple and pear trees produced fruit the first year. “People are shocked,” John said. Their artichoke plants are full of artichokes. “We’re really pushing the zone,” said Catherine, who may try wintering the plants in their garage.
They’ve produced bumper crops of salad greens, tomatoes, chard, peppers, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant and Brussels sprouts. Catherine loves the way the sprouts look, growing in a lush circle behind a ring of log seats. But she wasn’t sure how to prepare them.
“Lots of people, myself included, didn’t know what to do with eggplant and Brussels sprouts,” she said. So she arranged a demonstration by a cooking expert who shared recipes and preparation tips.
“The first time I cooked an eggplant, I did not like it,” Andrea said. “So gross! But when we had the cooking demonstration, I absolutely loved it. It was so good — fried with bacon, onions and white beans.”
What about next year?
In addition to learning new recipes, the Schoenherrs have increased their horticultural know-how.
“I will never again have a garden without mulch — the weeds don’t grow,” said Catherine.
The whole family is committed to continuing the garden next year, although maybe with fewer crops. And they’ll definitely rotate some, to deter diseases and pests. “You don’t want to plant the same plants in the same spots,” said Aaron Schoenherr, the couple’s young adult son, who also has his own place but visits regularly to help with the garden.
Will the novelty of a neighborhood garden wear off? The family doesn’t think so.
“We’ve already had people who helped us say they want to help next year,” Catherine said. “It blows my mind.”
And they don’t miss their front lawn. “I did have some thoughts at the beginning,” Catherine admitted. “We had a lot of fun on this lawn. But it’s just like any room in your house. Something serves a purpose for a while, you grow out of it, and it becomes something else.”
She likes what it’s become. “A neighbor called at the end of August. She said, ‘One of my best friends has cancer and isn’t able to work. Her family has several kids, and they’re trying to get through the end of the month. Would it be OK if I harvested stuff for her?’ ”
Catherine was happy to give her blessing. “I thought, ‘This is why this is here.’ ”