If the name Schoenherr doesn’t ring a bell, maybe their garden does. They’re the family who allowed an artist/master gardener to tear up their suburban front lawn and replace it with a forest of fruit and vegetable plants.
The Schoenherrs’ “Edible Estate” makeover in Woodbury, sponsored by the Walker Art Center, was showcased in an exhibit at the Walker and in everything from Minnesota media to National Geographic, giving the family 15 minutes of local fame. A talent scout tried to recruit the Schoenherrs’ young-adult kids for a proposed reality show (they didn’t bite). Mom Catherine was surprised when she stopped at a garden center, started to introduce herself to the clerk, and was told, “I know who you are.”
But now the spotlight has moved on, and many casual observers wondered what would happen this year, when the family was left to its own devices — no free plants, no professional design help, no first-year enthusiasm motivating neighbors to help with garden chores.
To find out, we visited the family — Catherine and John, their son, Aaron, and daughter, Andrea — to see how they’d scaled down their gardening ambitions this year.
Well, guess what? They’re still growing about 100 different crops, and their edible garden still covers almost all of their sprawling front yard. About half of the garden contains perennial edibles that came back or self-seeded, the family said. They supplemented that with about 1,000 plants they started from seed in March under grow lights in their basement.
“They [the seedlings] covered the whole ping-pong table and a couple other tables,” said Catherine. The basement was so lit up that “I was worried someone would think we were growing pot.”
Son Aaron, who lives in St. Paul, has been “the driving force” within the family, according to his mother.
“I just really enjoy coming out here,” he said. To him, growing food is part of a DIY lifestyle. “If I can do it myself, I like to. We grew enough tomatoes to make salsa to last through the winter. It tastes better, too.”
Neighbors have also played a big part in keeping the garden going. They’re still showing up just about every Wednesday evening to help tend the garden, hang out and maybe partake in some pizza if the Schoenherrs’ new outdoor oven is on duty.
The groups are a little smaller than last year, when the Walker was recruiting helpers, admitted John. “Now it’s more laid-back.” But Andrea started a Facebook page for the garden, which she updates with what’s currently being harvested.
A neighborhood ‘treasure’
“There isn’t quite the fanfare of last year,” said Peggy Elsasser, who lives across the street. “But people still have an interest. We’ve been very involved. It’s a treasure we have in our neighborhood.”
The Schoenherrs aren’t surprised that their neighbors remain invested in the garden. “A couple of them were more gung-ho than we were,” John said. Many of them pitched in during installation weekend, when the artist, Fritz Haeg, and his crew tore out the grass, formed berms and planted edibles. And many neighbors took part throughout the summer and fall harvest.
At the beginning of this year’s growing season, “Neighbors kept saying, ‘You’re going to call for help, right?’ ” Catherine said. “They seemed upset we weren’t asking for more help.”
In exchange for their gardening help, neighbors are welcome to pick produce whenever they want. “People harvest stuff, make stuff with it, and bring it over,” said Catherine. One neighbor, for example, helped herself to rhubarb and then delivered a pie. Sometimes the Schoenherrs don’t even know where their produce is going. “Once John said we hadn’t gotten many strawberries, and a neighbor said, ‘Yeah, you did.’ ”
It wasn’t all work and no play. Neighbors also gathered at the Schoenherrs’ place for outdoor pizza parties, and have requested a repeat of last year’s popular sauerkraut-making party.
That neighborhood involvement, along with the family’s commitment, is what has made the Schoenherrs’ garden a rock star in the eyes of Haeg, the California artist responsible for last year’s transformation. He’s created 15 Edible Estates around the world since 2005; all continue to produce food, he said. “But this one is quite exceptional.”
He chose the Schoenherrs from about 100 Twin Cities applicants because of their site and their “pent-up” energy to garden, he said last year. He hasn’t seen the garden yet this growing season, but has kept tabs on its progress and will visit in person when he returns to the Twin Cities next month.
Even the smallest neighbors lend a hand in the garden. Elsasser, who operates the home-based Little Helpers Child Care, has incorporated the Schoenherrs’ “Children’s Garden” into her summer schedule. The kids help weed and harvest and make pesto for their lunch, honing their fine-motor skills while learning about healthy eating, she said. “It’s a great way to have hands-on curriculum.”
Don’t the kids get bored with garden chores? “No,” said Elsasser, “they love going there. Gardening time is one of the highlights of our week. The school-age children said the thing they were looking forward to most was the garden.” And they look forward to what it produces, from berries to broccoli. “One little girl loves carrots so much we can hardly get the dirt washed off.”
The garden has had other ripple effects throughout the neighborhood. Becky Hagen, who lives around the corner, was inspired to install her own edible garden after working at the Schoenherrs’ last year. “I read about it in the paper and thought it sounded really exciting, so I volunteered to help,” she said, starting with the Memorial Day weekend garden installation.
“I realized I could do that in our neighborhood myself,” Hagen said. “I had tried before, but the soil is heavy clay with big rocks. Who can do a garden in that? But I observed how they went about laying the groundwork, with 6 to 8 inches of compost on top, and planted in that.”
This year, she’s growing lots of vegetables in her own yard, planted in 17 straw bales. “I was inspired by their garden to try different exotic plants I had never tried before,” such as kohlrabi.
She’s still “a regular” at the Schoenherrs’ garden on Wednesday nights. “It’s fun to see everyone,” she said. “It’s really a social thing, talking about garden topics. I enjoy hanging out there.”
Now she’s hooked. “I’ve developed a really strong interest in gardening,” she said. “I haven’t found anything that got me so fired up in a long time.”