While most Minnesota gardeners are just preparing to put their plants in their patch or plot, Meg Cowden's springtime meals are already filled with her first harvest of the season.
Even with the interminable drear of this year's wintry April, Cowden and her family were dining on her garden's first tender produce by mid-May: fresh spinach, asparagus, bok choy, lettuce and flavored with herbs.
"I'm passionate about helping people explore and stretch the margins of the growing season in early spring and late fall," said Cowden, 48, who lives and gardens in Long Lake.
Cowden is an evangelist for aggressive succession planting. Rather than sowing rows and beds of vegetables in one exhausting weekend and then waiting a few months for maturation, she advocates a continuous cycle of planting, harvesting and replanting.
With careful timing and efficiently and ambitiously reusing space, Cowden feeds her family of four year-round from the eighth of an acre she tills and tends.
She insists that the high-density method can maximize food production in any urban or suburban yard.
"You can do more than you think. By starting earlier, that part of the bed becomes harvestable earlier. When it's empty again, you can go behind and plant any number of foods in the same place," she said.
"Some things we eat at harvest but others we want to keep eating. We love fresh broccoli. I plant four rounds and we're still eating it in late November."
A Master Gardener, Cowden's skill and friendly you-can-do-it-too vibe has made her a social media sensation. In 2017, she began posting artful photos, instructional videos and encouragement of other succession-planting enthusiasts on her SeedtoFork Instagram feed.
She added a blog in 2018 and now shares her trials and triumphs with 67,000 followers. Her Modern Garden Guild, a paid subscription service she founded this spring, has 400 members and counting.
Earlier this spring, her book, "Plant, Grow, Harvest, Repeat," came out, chock full of her photos and DIY experiences and containing charts, tables and graphs especially geared to cold-climate enthusiasts. It even includes her "recipe" for slow-release organic fertilizer.
Already in its second printing, the book was called "a master class … for seasoned gardeners and newbies alike" by Publishers Weekly.
"I poured myself into it, writing from my heart and 20 years of observing nature and patterns," she said.
Sowing and storing
With diagonal beds built into a gentle slope, Cowden's fenced garden features a flat brick landing, a place to sit, rest and look out over the beds, trellises and low tunnels and then to take in the view of the barn at the bottom of the hill and creek beyond.
"It's really our second home. Some people have a cabin; we have a garden," she said.
Cowden is devoted to the typical Minnesota staples. To keep her yield high, she staggers the planting of about 20 varieties of peppers and tomatoes, a half-dozen blueberry varieties and eight kinds of potatoes. Last year, that strategy resulted in a 160-pound haul.
But she's bold with planting seeds and seedlings hardly native to chilly Zone 4. She's grown peanuts, hazelnuts, ginger, sesame seeds, chickpeas and popping corn. She produces her own cornmeal, grinds her own paprika and bottles homemade ketchup. This year she's trying lingonberries for the first time.
"If they grow in Scandinavia, they'll grow here," she said optimistically.
When the garden is resting in the cold season, Cowden "shops" the climate-controlled damp root cellar in a corner of the garage where potatoes, cabbage, carrots and Brussels sprouts are stored. By late spring there are still a few remaining onions and butternut squash from last summer's crop on shelves in a repurposed front entrance coat closet that she calls her dry root cellar.
Cowden spends the winter getting ready for the growing season. By early spring, peppers and nasturtium are hardening off on a sunny corner of her deck. Grown-from-seed tomatoes sprout next to the Peloton bike in the downstairs workshop. And baby cabbages, basil and dill sit in tiny soil pots under grow lights in the music room where her sons practice piano and trumpet.
To keep summer's bounty in her pantry and on her table year round, Cowden does more than can tomatoes, although she certainly does that — 55 quarts last year for wintertime lasagna, spaghetti and pizza meals. She also ferments, pickles, freezes and dehydrates her vegetables and reduces peppers, onions and garlic into tasty powders.
"There's this hot, sweet Peruvian pepper called aji amarillo. I dry it and it's my secret ingredient," she said. "It's joyful to add a dash from the garden to everything we eat."
Putting down roots
An "Army brat," Cowden is the fourth of five daughters, each born in a different state as they followed their father's military career. Cowden self-identified as the "nature girl" of the family, drawn to the outdoors and eager to help her parents tend a small garden that became "their sanctuary" wherever they landed.
While studying natural resource management at Oregon State University, she met her future husband. As newlyweds, they went all-in with their first big garden in the temperate climate of the Pacific Northwest.
When General Mills recruited John, the couple landed in Minneapolis and continued their backyard gardening habit. Six years ago, they moved to the western suburbs for a more expansive lot.
Now the parents of two teenagers have put down Minnesota roots.
"We want to stay here. After 19 years we truly feel at home," she said "I've got the Minnesota life I was looking for."
While Meg drives the garden vision, John is her co-pilot, taking the lead in establishing the living, blooming fence that rims two sides of the space. He is adept with the ancient growing technique of espalier; he prunes and trains fruit trees to grow laterally, flat against fenceposts. The apple, apricot pear and plum varieties become edible hedges.
"It's both an art form and it is an efficient use of space," Cowden said. "But it takes years to get fruit. That's OK. We believe in slow food."
Cowden said her whole family benefits from their daily interaction with a living space that never quite goes dormant.
"The garden is an invitation to live in the moment, to be present in the season with what is going on around you," she said. "The garden is the ultimate teacher, so rich with lessons, and I'm always a student."
In the past year, having her hands in the dirt has helped her to grieve. In the midst of the long verdant days of midsummer, Cowden's beloved father died at age 82.
"The garden helps you accept the life and death cycle," she said. "You see it. You look at the resilience of plants thriving in terrible conditions and going on to bloom and produce food for us. It shows you again that everything has its season."
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based writer and broadcaster.