It will be a while before all the snow is gone, but Twin Cities gardeners already are looking forward to the rows of sweet peas, tomatoes, peppers and other veggies that will line their soil.

After a harsh winter, the growing season can’t come soon enough for Michelle Bruhn, a gardening blogger from White Bear Lake.

“Especially this time of year, everyone is itching to get their fingers in the dirt,” she said.

Bruhn was among the two dozen eager green thumbs who came together for the inaugural meeting of the Twin Cities Growers Network last week.

The upstart network brings together urban farmers, gardening enthusiasts and horticulture experts from across the metro area, providing an “informal, but informative” space for anyone interested in growing, said University of Minnesota Extension educator Karl Hakanson.

The network’s first meeting covered a lot of ground (so to speak), including why it’s important to save seeds and how often to till soil. But the group’s mission is simple.

“We really want people to connect with each other and help each other and learn from each other,” said Hakanson, who started the group.

That’s exactly what attracted Minneapolis resident Seth Erling. The 43-year-old recently built a greenhouse next to his garage; he wants to open it up to the community, but it’s the largest gardening project he’s taken on.

“I’m hoping to meet people who will point me in the right direction,” he said.

Alice Paczkowski, 62, of Bloomington, helps several community gardens that grow for local food shelves. She said many gardens face similar issues, like the spread of powdery mildew, a common fungal disease.

“If we can work together as a group we can get rid of some of the problems,” she said.

Kitt Healy works for the nonprofit Organic Seed Alliance. She said Minnesota’s short growing season presents some challenges for gardeners, but most available gardening information is tailored for other climates.

She thinks the new network can help change that. “There are a lot of people here with a lot of experience who have a lot to learn from each other,” Healy said.

In addition to gardening tips, the network provides something that’s all-too-rare in farming: connection.

“There’s no group of metro growers that exists. There are lots of nonprofits and organizations that focus on local food,” said Jason Walker, of the Sustainable Farming Association, which helps run the network. “But there’s none that actually links the growers and producers together.”

Even though there’s lots of information online, Walker said face-to-face interaction goes a long way — like having someone to call for advice about crop rotations or to help water a plot when you’re out of town.

“It adds a sense of security that all the YouTube videos in the world can’t replicate,” he said.

Hakanson said the network will help meet a growing demand for urban agriculture. There are upward of 700 community gardens in the metro area, according to data from the now-defunct organization Gardening Matters.

“A lot of people have community gardens, and youth gardens, and backyard gardens,” Hakanson said. “People want to grow. They want to learn about food.”

He sees the network as a way to teach about gardening without getting overly scientific or academic. Future meetings will focus on a range of issues, like using the right tools or discussing plant varieties.

“There’s a lot to know, right. A lot of details. And the bottom line is no matter what you’re growing for, you got to know what you’re doing,” he said. “What I try to do is connect the dots — help connect people to resources and to information and to the university and to each other.”

After the first meeting, Bruhn said those connections are already starting to blossom.

“Already I’ve met some of the people that I’ve only seen online,” she said.

 

Austen Macalus is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.