Actress/singer Jennifer Baldwin Peden is known for her leading roles on local stages. But in 2008, while performing in California, she also played a supporting role in a production in her Minneapolis back yard.

That would be the vegetable garden that her husband, Tom, created while she was on tour.

Jennifer had always been the gardener in their household, ever since they bought their home in the Seward neighborhood more than a dozen years ago. She was the one with the gardening passion and pedigree (her father, Herb Baldwin, is a landscape architect and co-founder of the University of Minnesota's landscape architecture school).

"He taught me a lot," she said. "He'd come over and say, 'Remember a garden is always changing, always fluid.' He encouraged us to play with shapes."

With her father's input, Jennifer had gradually transformed their deep lot from a sand volleyball pit and a few railroad-tie raised beds, into a flowing garden that meandered from the house back to the alley. She added flowering perennials, including tulips, roses and peonies, accented with interesting foliage, including hostas and a collection of coleus. Herb Baldwin's influence also extended to the front yard, with his gift of Virginia creeper. "He gave us two plants and said, 'Try this on your fence,'" Jennifer recalled. "In two years, it spread so that it was completely covering it."

Tom also grew up in a gardening family, but the bug was slower to bite him. "I saw [gardening], but never had an interest," he said. "I avoided it. It seemed like a time drain, and I had better things to do."

But when Jennifer hit the road with "Figaro," Tom decided to take the lead in their back yard.

"It was an odd time in our lives, with a lot going on," he recalled. In addition to being away from home, Jennifer was pregnant with their first child and making visits to her brother, who was battling cancer in Oregon.

Leaving her garden unattended during the growing season added another layer of stress. "It was bothering me to be gone in April, May and June," she said. "I wondered about the future of the garden. Tom said, 'Let me try it out.'"

After reassuring his wife that the garden wouldn't be neglected, Tom had another idea: Why not create the vegetable garden she'd always wanted, so that the garden would be even bigger and better when she returned?

"My initial plan was to make it a surprise," he said. "But I'm not good at surprises. And I didn't know what I was doing and needed her help."

Conference calls

So he confided his plans over the phone and sought her input. "We'd have these long conversations, all about the vegetable garden," Jennifer said.

The couple decided they wanted a French-style kitchen garden, with a natural look. Tom collected sticks from the woods and built tepees on which to grow peas and pole beans. He planted cucumbers, peppers, squash, herbs and lots of heirloom tomatoes. And he consulted his father-in-law. "Jen's dad is so knowledgeable about plants," he said. "What a great resource to have."

The elder Baldwin also advised Tom on how to make the vegetable garden as aesthetically pleasing as Jennifer's flower beds, avoiding straight rows, and mixing flowers in with the veggies.

Even armed with expert advice, installing and maintaining a big garden was a tall order, Tom discovered. "These things are living, and they're going to do their own thing," he said. "For a novice like me, it's overwhelming. I had to give up on the idea of knowing everything and just go with it, learning by trial and error." He had his share of crop failures, including edamame. "And I didn't have much luck with lima beans or carrots, either."

When Jennifer came home for a visit in mid-June, she was surprised to see such an ambitious garden. "I knew something was happening. But it was quite a bit more involved than I thought it would be," she said.

She returned home for good in mid-July, and soon the couple began harvesting their bounty. "With a baby coming, we did a lot of canning," she said. They canned salsas and soups and tomato sauce, using equipment borrowed from Jennifer's mother.

Tom, too, had grown up watching his mother can vegetables. "I tried to get out of the house when she was doing it," he recalled with a laugh. "I was familiar with it but had never done it." Now, his perspective changed. "It's really satisfying. It gave us a chance to work together. And it's great having a full pantry of jars you don't have to pay for."

When Tom's parents came to visit, his mother was "shocked" to see what he'd accomplished in the garden, he said. "She was patting me on the back."

That first fall harvest season was a bittersweet time of both mourning and celebration for their family. Jennifer's brother died. But a few days later, her sister and frequent co-star, Christina, gave birth to her first child. And in November, Tom and Jennifer welcomed their son, August. The gardens became a place of refuge and reflection for them, Tom said.

And now gardening is an interest they share fully. "Everything has grown and increased since he's gotten involved," Jennifer said. Last summer, they doubled the size of Tom's original vegetable garden, and Tom even did "double duty," helping Christina tend her tomato plants while her husband, a sound engineer, was touring with Lady Gaga.

When Tom himself travels, as part of running his small business, he now finds his thoughts wandering to his garden and what he's going to do when he returns. "I'm hooked," he said. "I look forward to it."

Gardening has deepened his appreciation of their home, he said. "Before, I don't think I spent a lot of time out here. I mowed the lawn and that was about it. I walked from the car to the house. Now I feel connected to the property. As a new parent, it's fun to be out here with August, to sit in the grass and play."

Gardening also has given him a new appreciation of his ancestors and the past. "Our grandparents were doing all the things that are trendy now, like eating locally, growing organic food," he said. "That was the only option they had. Now we're coming back to that."

This spring, the garden will undergo another transition. The couple found out last fall that their soil is contaminated with arsenic left behind from a long-ago pesticide plant in the neighborhood. In a few months, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will dig up their garden and replace their topsoil, as well as their perennials. They'll be getting small, nursery-grade plants, not the mature specimens, some of them family heirlooms, that Jennifer has nurtured for years.

"It will take time to get it back to the way it was," Tom said. "We've gone through the various stages of grieving, but we've come to terms with it. We can rebuild."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784