When most people drive by the corner of Prior and Gilbert in St. Paul, they see a vacant lot with weeds and a broken recliner.

When Jeff Zeitler drove by, he saw Early Girls and Big Boys. He saw mounds of lettuce and rows of zucchini.

So, Zeitler and other neighbors approached the city of St. Paul to see if they could lease the land to develop a community garden. The city said swell.

"St. Paul was great about it," said Zeitler, who is on the Union Park District Counsel. "They were very helpful and enthusiastic."

"So, we crossed all the t's and dotted all the i's," said Zeilter. "We had a leaf [mulch] drop, and it's all staked out and ready to go."

There was only one, teensy little problem: St. Paul doesn't own the land. The state does.

So just as Zeitler and his neighbors were about to start tilling, they received a letter from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) saying that gardens were not allowed on a state right-of-way.

No garden. With little explanation, the state looked like it was going to choose the junkyard filled with weeds over the garden that would feed people healthy food.

Zeitler was not hostile, and he said MnDOT officials had been cordial. "But we really would like to get those tomatoes in the ground," he said. The group started a letter campaign over the weekend.

I called Kevin Gutknecht, one of the grenade catchers at MnDOT.

"Why do you guys hate vegetables?" I asked.

I told Gutknecht about the Union Park problem. He was logical and sympathetic.

"Sure, why not take a plot of land that isn't being used and turn it into a garden," said Gutknecht. "It makes perfect sense."

Gutknecht was unaware of the issue Tuesday morning, but guessed the garden had been rejected because either there was a safety issue or because MnDOT didn't want to set a precedent.

Yeah, it would be a shame if people just up and started growing food all over the place.

I told Gutknecht the lot was on a service road to Interstate 94, and that I sat there for 15 minutes Tuesday and not one car passed, so safety didn't seem to be a problem.

"Well, it does seem the likelihood of someone running off the freeway, up the hill and through a fence and smashing into some tomatoes is not good," he said.

Gutknecht said he'd check on it and get back to me.

I've written about government long enough to know that things like this often get caught up in the machinery, no matter how logical they are and no matter whether the people pulling the levers are earnest and sympathetic.

I told Gutknecht I had a column almost done. "Write a good ending for me," I said.

Zeitler is a landscape architect by trade, (in fact, his firm does some work for MnDOT) so he knows a good garden space when he sees it. He said a committee of gardeners scouted seven or eight sites and found the one at Prior and Gilbert to be the best in this dense neighborhood.

"This is a nice parcel," he said. "It's south facing, there are no large trees and the soil is pretty good. The city signed off on it, the neighborhood signed off on it. We were ready to have a work day May 5. Then we got the letter."

By Tuesday afternoon, however, common sense had descended on the big MnDOT building at 395 John Ireland Blvd.

"MnDOT is OK with community gardens like this one, provided certain conditions are met," said T.K. Kramascz, another agency spokesman.

So, the garden is a go?

"Yes," he said.

With that one word, I swear a small ray of hope drifted through my office window. I called Zeitler with the news.

"Huh," he said, sounding surprised. "That's great."

Man bites dog.

Zeitler said he will "rally the troops" and get going on the garden. So if you drive by the corner of Prior and Gilbert this summer, you might just see tomatoes growing instead of a broken chair and weeds.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702