Gardening was forbidden where Anthony Emanuel grew up.

Residents were not allowed to disturb the ground around the north Minneapolis public housing complex apartment where his family lived, so the curious fifth-grader clandestinely planted a handful of sunflower seeds in the yard.

He recalls those seeds sprouting into towering flowers admired by the neighbors, even as his mother wrung her hands over getting caught by the building supervisors.

Two decades later, Emanuel, now a youth steward at the nonprofit Hope Community's gardens, is at the center of the Twin Cities' burgeoning community garden movement.

The number of community gardens in the metro area has jumped from 166 in 2009 to nearly 600 this year, according to a tally kept by Minneapolis-based nonprofit Gardening Matters. Cities and suburbs, with the help of nonprofits that have nurtured the movement, are turning empty lots into lush garden plots.

This year alone, Minneapolis agreed to make nearly three dozen vacant lots available for community gardens. Across the river, neighbors with the help of Galilee Lutheran Church have leased two acres on Rice Street from St. Paul Regional Water Services for a new community garden. Schools are adding gardens to spruce up playground space and serve as outdoor, hands-on classrooms.

Emanuel, 27, introduces skeptical city kids to Hope Community's three gardens in Minneapolis' Ventura Village neighborhood. "Once they are in, it's hard to get them out," he said. "It's really cool to see them look at our garden like a grocery store."

Several factors are fueling the gardening boom, said Susan Phillips, executive director of Gardening Matters.

"There is an increasing hunger to know where our foods come from," she said. "Genetically modified foods, distance to travel — People want to know what goes into the making of that tomato.

"What chemicals were applied? What did the soil look like? Growing food in your own backyard or in a community garden is one way to know."

People are changing their diets, adding more fruits and vegetables. And gardening and canning have gone from Grandma's snoozy pastime to something younger generations are sinking their hands into. Facebook and Twitter feeds are awash with photos of glossy homegrown tomatoes, squash and peppers.

"It's cool. It's hip again," Phillips said.

Waiting lists, outdated laws

It hasn't been all green pastures. Believe it or not, there are some laws that make community gardening criminal. A state law about seed-sharing got Duluth gardeners in trouble until lawmakers changed it last year. There's some interest in expanding edible landscapes with berry bushes and fruit trees in Minneapolis parks, but a long-standing rule that prohibits "molesting vegetation" needs to be changed first, Phillips said.

Blaine started a community garden in 2009 based on resident feedback. The 40 garden plots next to City Hall fill up by March and there's a waiting list, said recreation manager Shari Kunza, who oversees it.

"Everyone is there for a different reason," Kunza said. "Some people are there for relaxation. It's their passion and it gets them back to nature. Some people are there to grow vegetable for their families. It's cheaper and healthier. Some people need it. Some people just plain love it."

Sherry Sanders co-founded the Rice Street community gardens in Maplewood during this growing season. There are 230 growing plots, all of them full and about a quarter worked by immigrants still learning English. Many of the gardeners come from apartment complexes in the area.

"Our goal is to help provide for families who are food insecure," Sanders said. "There are all kinds of people who need fresh vegetables. This is in walking distance."

This spring, Hope Community, in partnership with the Land Stewardship Project, opened its third community garden in the Ventura Village neighborhood. It's connected to the Rose apartments, a mix of affordable and market-rate housing planned and run by Aeon and Hope Community.

The 5,000-square-foot garden plot is a pleasing mix of flowers, fruits and veggies ringed by a fence of metal and brick. Rainfall pouring off the roof is stored in underground cisterns and used to water the garden. It's one place where Emanuel works with kids.

From plot to plate

Hope Community staffers, volunteers and neighbors plant and tend the garden, and offer sessions for budding gardeners and chefs. Neighbors can stop by Tuesday afternoon or Thursday evening to learn about the garden, harvest food and take it home.

So far the garden has produced more than 350 pounds of food including beets, turnips, beans, cabbage, berries, herbs, squash and melons. Staffers figure that as many as 150 people have been involved in the garden and activities such as cooking, food preservation, and designing gardens for soil and water health.

Last week, Elise Schultze stopped by the garden for the first time to pick up some cucumbers and lettuce while her son was at school.

"I've seen people here and I thought, what is this about?" said Schultze, who recently moved to the area. Alisa Hoven, program coordinator with Hope Community's Healthy Food Strong Community program, helped bag her produce and locate the garden's pepper patch.

The community gardening movement is not just about warm-and-fuzzy feel-good moments, said Dylan Bradford Kesti, a community-based food systems program organizer at the Land Stewardship Project. It's a response, he said, to a food distribution system where fast food and starches are cheaper and easier to come by in working-class city neighborhoods than an apple — "a food system that is not fair, just or healthy."

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804