Project: Beautiful Gardens

Back-yard bounty

  • Article by: CONNIE NELSON , Home + Garden Editor
  • Updated: October 21, 2009 - 7:27 AM

A passionate, learn-as-you-go gardener reaps the fruits of many years of labor in his Edina yard.

Mark Campbell has been gardening since he planted a lily of the valley in second grade. But he never planned to make money from it. Or to spend six months living in a tent so he could study sustainable agriculture. Or to fill his Edina yard with so many fruit trees and hostas that he'd need a spreadsheet to keep track of them all.

In many ways, Campbell is an accidental gardener.

He's the kind of guy who worked a stint at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum on a whim. "I went out to buy apples one day and got a job," he said.

And it was a love affair with herbs that led him to start a garden-based business in the mid- 1980s.

"I was way into herbs," he said. "I had 13 kinds of basil. I had edible flowers and heirloom tomatoes. I was growing back then the varieties you see now."

The "oddball" offerings from his garden attracted the attention of Lucia Watson, who bought them for her Minneapolis restaurant. And somehow Campbell ended up supplementing his herb business by cooking at Lucia's Restaurant.

A rainy summer in the early 1990s brought an end to all that. When his "cash crop" of basil rotted in the garden, he applied for and won an apprenticeship at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. (The education and research program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, describes itself as being "dedicated to increasing ecological sustainability and social justice in the food and agriculture system." Until recently, apprentices were housed in tents.)

He turned over his house to friends, let his garden go fallow and went west for six months. Which turned into seven years when he stayed in California to take a job at Jacobs Farm/ Del Cabo, an organic farm and family farm cooperative.

By the time he moved back to Minnesota in 2000, his garden was "just a weed patch" and his attitude about tending it had undergone a transformation: He was going to garden for keeps.

Growing in place

Before, Campbell had kept his gardening -- and his garden expenses -- to a minimum. He didn't want to make changes in the landscape that might make the house less salable.

"I kind of changed my philosophy," he said. "I decided I'm going to act like I'm going to live here for the rest of my life."

Since then, Campbell has ripped up most of the grass in his yard because he considers grass a waste of precious resources. "I resent and despise mowing," he said.

This time around, though, he didn't plant unusual herbs and heirloom vegetables. Campbell, who now considers them "labor-intensive," is committed to using what he grows. And because he's cooking professionally again (this time for Beaujo's Wine Bar and Bistro in Edina), he didn't want his produce to go to waste.

"If you have vegetables, you have to cook," he said. "I wasn't cooking so much because I was cooking at work, so I started planting fruit trees. They're way less work. I plant them and don't do anything with them. With lettuce, you have to water and weed."

So while he can't resist growing a few tomatoes and some Hmong herbs, the bulk of his garden is given over to more than 50 kinds of fruit trees, bushes and vines. He has everything from apples (nine varieties) to apricots (three varieties) to seaberries and jostaberries, which he describes as a cross between black currants and gooseberries, both of which he also grows.

He harvests fruit all season, often freezing or drying it to use later in pies, crisps and crumbles. In early fall, he starts making jams and jellies. "I've not let any fruit go to waste," he said.

Campbell admits he has a "farm mentality" and likes to grow "what's useful." But his tendency toward purposeful gardening is tempered by his other earthly delight: hostas.

Practical and pretty

He has more than 420 varieties and 500 plants (I'm using his spreadsheet now), many of which are tucked under fruit trees for shade.

"This is the artistic side of my garden," he said. "To me, the variety of colors, shapes and textures of hostas is like a work of art."

Campbell's garden is artfully designed. Hostas fill the front yard, undulate along the side yard and into the back. And he's added whimsical accents in just the right places. But he's too much of a softy, too open to experiment, to have a pristine garden.

Purslane sprouts here and there. "I just let it go," he said. "It's edible and high in omega 3. It might just be the next miracle food." He's kept the older gooseberry plants in the ground, even though they're not very productive anymore. And a sizable weed, a common mullein, stands like a sentinel next to the sidewalk in his garden. "I think they're so majestic," he said.

But his garden is undeniably green. He uses no chemicals in his yard. "So I can sleep at night," he said. He shreds leaves from his trees and uses them as winter mulch. He tosses his kitchen waste in his vermiculture bin in the basement and uses the "tea" and castings to fertilizer his garden. With that and his massive "freeform" compost heap, which sits behind the garage, his garden is "a closed system. I have no yard waste going out of this yard," he said.

True to his nature, Campbell hasn't mapped out the future for his garden -- or himself. He says he doesn't want to garden commercially again because he considers his garden his "sanctuary." But then he adds, "I do fantasize about having a huge orchard somewhere. I've got farming in my blood."

Connie Nelson • 612-673-7087

Watch a video of Mark Campbell making a fruit crisp with produce harvested from his garden at www.startribune.com/homegarden.
  • about this series

  • There are some spectacular private gardens around the Twin Cities. We discover several each year in our Beautiful Gardens contest. From October to April, we'll bring you into one Beautiful Garden a month.
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