This has been a year like no other. First, Minnesotans faced the challenges of a global pandemic and stay-at-home order. Then the world was rocked by the killing of George Floyd and the civic unrest and time of reckoning on racial injustice that followed.

In this extraordinary summer, the Star Tribune’s annual Beautiful Gardens contest is different, too. This year, we asked readers to nominate gardens that are beautiful in spirit, with a mission that benefits the greater community.

Reader response was overwhelming. We received more than 360 nominations this year. We read deeply touching descriptions of gardens that have impacted people in countless ways. We would like to offer a heartfelt thank-you to all our readers who took the time to nominate a garden this year.

With so many diverse gardens to understand and appreciate, it was challenging to choose just a few winners. A panel of four judges reviewed the submissions, and ultimately narrowed the field to a few gardens that we will highlight in the coming months.

You’ll see and read more about these gardens and the people who tend them in upcoming months.

Kenny Turck, Forest City, Minn.

Turck’s home and garden near the farm where he grew up is ground zero for the Dirt Group, a nonprofit he founded to help youths learn, thrive and recover from early trauma by growing food together.

A social worker, Turck is passionate about food access, food security and its importance to health and well-being. In his home, a former church parish, there’s a large kitchen in the basement where he teaches canning and food preservation. This year, with the pandemic and limited in-person interaction, the Dirt Group delivered kits to help youths grow food for their households.

Olivia Nienaber, Scandia

At her family’s farm, Nienaber, 17, has created gardens that give back to wildlife. Her goal is to improve the environment for early-migrating birds, as well as create a more diverse habitat. Every plant must provide food, shelter or cover to birds, hummingbirds, bees, butterflies or moths.

She transformed a formerly weed-filled area near the garage into a variety of native wildflowers, grasses and shrubs. With the help of her family, she also revitalized two small ponds to ensure that wildlife had sources of water, has built birdhouses and feeders and helped build brush piles so that birds and small mammals have a place to hide and raise their young.

Bethany Husby, Roseville

Husby tends a large garden and pond at her home, where she divides hundreds of plants every year, recruits volunteers and holds a plant sale to benefit a charitable organization. Inspired by a trip to Tanzania and the people she met there, she and her husband started a nonprofit, Heart to Care, to build a school in Tanzania. This year’s sale raised $54,000 for the school, which is now under construction.

Harmony Neal, St. Paul; 4b. Devin Brown, Minneapolis

Harmony Neal, a writer, teacher and laid-off restaurant server during the pandemic, decided to use their extra time to grow food for the neighborhood. Neal transformed the boulevard in front of their rented triplex on a busy corner into Giving Gardens, where the veggies, fruit, herbs and edible flowers are free to all.

After reading about projected food shortages and the closing of grocery stores damaged during the unrest after the George Floyd killing, Devin Brown was inspired to turn her north Minneapolis yard into a food source for her neighbors. With help from volunteers for Growers Unite Minneapolis, Brown created a vegetable garden on the boulevard and another near the alley, where neighbors can help themselves to fresh produce.

Andy Lapham, Minneapolis

At his home at 36th and Chicago and on the vacant lot next door, Lapham has created a permaculture demonstration site, where he grows and propagates fruit trees and berry vines and also raises chickens. He built a bench next to the sidewalk that has become a community giveaway spot, where people leave food to share with neighbors in need. Lapham also redesigned and tends a community veggie and fruit garden at a nearby school where neighbors are welcome to pick the produce.

Christina and Stephen McHenry, Minneapolis

After the pandemic ended the live music concerts that their family previously enjoyed, the McHenrys began hosting social-distance concerts in their garden, where neighbors can connect, enjoy music and help support musicians who have lost income as a result of the pandemic.

The couple and their children also have an organic vegetable garden and keep chickens, sharing the veggies and the eggs with their neighbors in the Lynn-Lake neighborhood.