In May of 2012, this stretch of land near the corner of Prior and Gilbert avenues in St. Paul was a mess of weeds and junk, tucked under giant billboards and wedged between Interstate 94 and a railroad track.
Today, with winter approaching, many of the annuals have gone brown, but there still are bunches of green tomatoes and occasional patches of Swiss chard or kale sprouting from tidy boxes.
The former vacant lot has been transformed over the past four years into Merriam Station Community Garden, an expanse of urban farmland that includes 100 plots of produce that feed scores of families in the area.
The garden recently won this year’s St. Paul Garden Club Award from the Minnesota State Horticultural Society.
It almost didn’t happen.
It was in May of 2012 when I got a call from a guy named Jeff Zeitler, who was on the Union Park District Council. He and a small group of neighbors thought they had finally found the right spot for a new community garden. It had water, sunlight and decent soil. It wasn’t being used for soccer or some other public good. It was an ugly dumping ground for broken furniture and garbage.
The neighbors and the city of St. Paul gave the group its blessing. As the volunteers were about to start tilling, however, they received a letter from the Minnesota Department of Transportation. The state, not the city, owned the land, and it was no longer giving out permits for gardens.
At Zeitler’s request, I made some calls. So did some city officials and a couple of legislators. By the end of the day, common sense ruled and a behemoth government agency changed its mind and decided that vegetables were better than junk.
Since then, about 175 people of all ages, creeds and colors have become urban farmers. One of them is Megan Nieto, who said that before the garden, she hardly knew any of her neighbors.
“It’s such an interesting cross-section of people,” said Nieto. “Such amazing friendships have been made there. It’s truly magical in so many ways.”
Nieto grows many of the staples to make the cuisine of her husband’s homeland, Costa Rica. She grows onions and garlic and black beans. This summer alone, she was able to grow three months of food for her table.
The garden has turned a blighted area — where residents were reluctant to walk alone — into a gathering place where they do yoga under the trees, walk their dogs or listen to music together. They’ve built a shed and even a sandbox where the kids play when the adults are gardening. And when the tomatillos went crazy this year, they got together to share recipes.
The transformation has slowly caused people to respect the land.
“I think by beautifying the space, we have discouraged people from dumping,” said Nieto.
Tom McNellis, another gardener, agrees. He’s one of the grounds managers, in charge of keeping the place picked up. “We still get some dumping, but it’s less every year,” he said.
“It’s amazing to see how it’s evolved,” McNellis added. “It’s really cool to be part of it. The people are just great. I think I’m going to go out to water for 20 minutes, and I run into friends and stay for three hours.”
The neighbors also have used the garden to help others. They collect surplus produce and donate them to Keystone Community Services food shelf. The past few summers they have donated more than 400 pounds of fresh vegetables each year.
With the growing season coming to a close, the gardeners of Merriam Station have some winter events planned, including a workshop on seed starting, in order to stay in touch.
“Everyone just loves it,” said McNellis. “It’s really more like a family.”
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