As edible landscapes go, the Schoenherr family’s new front yard in Woodbury is a work of art. The once flat, turf-covered ground is now a rich, rolling tapestry of raised beds filled with a farm-worthy array of vegetable plants.
The grass is gone — but there are fruit trees and berry bushes and a brick bread oven, flanked by a circle of log seats ready for hungry visitors.
“It’s way more beautiful than I had ever imagined,” said Catherine Schoenherr on the day of the installation when an army of volunteers, led by California artist Fritz Haeg, converged on her lawn. Now the Schoenherrs’ yard is prototype garden No. 15, part of a worldwide project that Haeg calls “Edible Estates.”
To Haeg, the yard’s transformation represents much more than a garden; it’s a challenge to the status quo. By putting “visible food production” in residential communities, he’s trying to shift perceptions about what constitutes an attractive, acceptable front yard. A traditional suburban lawn — like the Schoenherrs used to have, and their neighbors still do — hogs resources yet contributes very little, Haeg said. An edible landscape not only produces food but promotes human interaction.
The Schoenherrs’ makeover was commissioned by the Walker Art Center, where Haeg is doing an artistic residency, and will be featured in an exhibition there later this summer. Haeg put out a casting call in the spring, seeking just the right lawn and owner, someone who was willing and able to maintain the garden, plus keep a journal.
From about 100 applicants, he chose the Schoenherrs because they had everything he was looking for: “a big, open, sunny spot, a neighborhood where no one else would likely do it and a family completely prepared for this scale of gardening. The family energy was already pent up,” he said.
The Schoenherrs had dabbled at gardening in the past, but got serious about it last year, inspired by their son Aaron’s senior project at the University of Minnesota — a statistical analysis of plant germination and growth rates. Catherine and her husband, John, rented a 35-by-80-foot plot in Lakeland (their back yard is filled by a swimming pool), which they tended with Aaron, 24, and his sister, Andrea, 22.
“We had a ton of fun last year, spending time together, getting our hands dirty,” said Catherine. When she read about Haeg’s project, she decided to offer up their front yard. Her family and many of her neighbors were soon on board.
“When I was younger, I liked playing sports in the front yard, but now it’s nice to see it transformed into something more useful than just a yard,” said Aaron, who lives in St. Paul but is committed to helping tend his parents’ garden.
“Having vegetables close by will be awesome,” said John. “Last year, our garden was 15 miles away, and we couldn’t see our neighbors.”
Andrea, who recently bought her first home in Woodbury, also plans to spend a lot of time in her parents’ garden. “I’m most excited about my family getting together,” she said.
Shaking up the block
Haeg’s project is all about breaking neighborhood norms, but so far, the Schoenherrs’ neighbors seem wildly enthusiastic about the outlier in their midst.
“I haven’t heard a single negative comment,” said Peggy Elsasser, who lives across the street. “My house is one of the most manicured on the block, and I’m really excited it’s there. I don’t have time to create that in my own yard.”
Elsasser, who operates the home-based Little Helpers Child Care, is especially enthusiastic about the “children’s garden,” a section in front that she and her charges helped plant and will help tend. It’s a hands-on opportunity to learn about good nutrition, she said. “They’re more interested in trying food if they’re part of the process.”
Haeg was pleasantly surprised by the warm neighborhood embrace of the project. “It took me off guard,” he said. “The installation was pretty incredible — like a barn-raising, with everyone pitching in.”
The Schoenherrs’ neighborhood might look like a typical suburban enclave, but it’s unique in several ways, according to Elsasser, who was the first homeowner on the block when the neighborhood was developed 20 years ago. “The entire community moved in within one month, so everyone was eager to meet their new neighbors,” she said. “It created a special bond that continued.” And while many nearby housing developments in Woodbury are regulated by associations with covenants that restrict unconventional landscaping, theirs is not.
“There are many neighborhoods in Woodbury where this would not be allowed,” she said.
A village to raise a garden
While some neighbors might have balked at such a radical transformation a few years ago, the time is right, Elsasser said. “People are getting back to being concerned about nutrition and what they’re eating, how food is grown and prepared.”
The Schoenherrs will definitely need their neighbors’ help. “It’s a pretty big garden for just our family to maintain,” Aaron said. Neighbors have already agreed to pitch in while the family is on vacation. Catherine is setting up weekly “gardening nights” so that neighbors can gather, do a few chores together and get comfortable helping themselves to produce.
“We’re all committed to making this a really beautiful thing,” Catherine said. “We’re all in.”
That shared commitment will make Edible Estate No. 15 a success, according to Haeg. “A garden is really dead if people don’t care.” His role is “taking that interest and activity and providing a place for it,” he said. “Once there’s a place for it, it happens. But I can’t create the energy.”
Haeg left the Twin Cities soon after the installation to tend to his other Edible Estate projects, in Israel and Denmark. He’ll return in late July for the installation of the museum show at the Walker. In the meantime, residency coordinator Anna Bierbrauer, a landscape architect, will coach the family through the growing season.
“The fruit trees will be a challenge,” said Catherine, as the family has little experience (they’re now growing 14 fruit crops).
In total, the new landscape includes about $5,000 worth of donated edible plants.
But average homeowners who aren’t part of a high-profile museum event can install an edible landscape on a smaller, simpler scale and still reap many of the benefits, according to Haeg. “You could do something for a few hundred dollars.”
He’s looking forward to his midsummer update on the landscape and its impact. “I can’t wait to see what happens.”