Andy Lapham has a knack for salvaging castoff things and transforming them into something useful.

"I do like junk," said Lapham. It's what he used to build his shed, his chicken coop and his one-of-a-kind trellis/gazebo, which is topped with a canopy of old bicycle wheels.

But Lapham's biggest reclamation project is a formerly vacant, junk-strewn lot in Minneapolis' urban core that he and others have nurtured into a lush, productive garden that grows apples, plums, berries of all kinds, sunflowers to nourish birds and bees and other pollinator plants.

Lapham doesn't own the garden; its out-of-state owner has given him permission to grow there.

"They let me garden for free," said Lapham, 35, whose laid-back demeanor belies his drive to produce. In return, he takes care of maintenance, snow shoveling and trimming branches that dangle into the street.

This compact oasis of urban agriculture at a busy corner in the Central neighborhood is Lapham's passion. It's a community garden and a demonstration site, where he leads tours and shares what he's learned about permaculture — producing food sustainably within a system inspired by natural ecosystems.

Lapham and his gardens were one of six chosen in the Star Tribune's annual Beautiful Gardens contest, selected by a panel of judges from more than 380 nominations from readers. In this year of pandemic and racial justice reckoning, the contest was changed a bit. Readers were invited to nominate gardens that are beautiful in spirit and contribute to the greater good.

Lapham's passion for growing food has evolved, although the seed was planted in his bloodline. "All my grandparents were born on farms," he noted. Growing up in Golden Valley, his family tended a vegetable plot. "We always had a garden, but it wasn't really intense."

His own interest intensified after a 2013 trip to Hawaii, where he visited an eco village in the jungle.

"It was so cool!" he enthused. "There was all this food growing, 30 to 40 people, a communal kitchen. I wished we had places like that."

Back in Minneapolis, Lapham asked his landlord if he could install a garden at the home he was renting in Seward. The landlord balked. "He said, 'If you move, the next tenant won't want to take care of it, and it will turn into a weed patch.' " Lapham did it anyway. "I built a raised bed, got books and started learning different things."

Later he took a class on permaculture, and learned more things, including water collection methods, sustainability techniques and low-tech building using recycled materials.

"Before that, it was just gardening," said Lapham, who makes his living working on landscape jobs.

Finding the lot

Lapham took over the vacant lot in 2015. At the time he was working for a food share program, Sisters Camelot, and helping tend its garden on a city-owned lot. When the program lost the use of the lot, Lapham called around and found the empty lot in Central. He tracked down its owner in Pennsylvania. "They loved the garden idea," he said.

So Lapham cleaned up the junk and abandoned mattresses, and recruited friends and volunteers to help him clear buckthorn and brush.

"The soil was pretty poor," he said, so he brought in better soil and compost and started brewing compost tea.

Then he began planting — apple, plum, apricot and pear trees, berries of all kinds, cherries, grapes and currants. Once the plants started producing, neighbors started to help themselves to the fruit. "People come and pick 'em, especially kids," he said.

Tending the garden led Lapham to buy the house next door, a century-old fixer-upper. He was working in the garden with a friend when he noticed the tenants loading up a moving van.

Later the landlord stopped by. "He said, 'I can't believe what you guys have done [with] this lot. One of you should buy this [the house].' " Lapham told him he couldn't afford a house. It sat vacant for two months.

By that time, Lapham's lease was ending, and his roommates were moving so he asked the landlord if he could rent the house. After renting for two years, Lapham had saved up enough to buy the house on a contract for deed.

"Now I get to learn how to fix an old house, too," he said. And owning the house next to his garden gave him more land for planting and for keeping chickens — four hens and a rooster.

Lapham also helps tend a third food-producing garden a block away. It's owned by the Baha'i Center of Minneapolis, which asked Lapham to give its youth farm a permaculture makeover. He dug a swale [a trench for irrigation] and redesigned the garden, adding new crops.

"Neighbors come and pick them," he said. "Corn disappears fast. We know it's everybody's favorite." Pattypan squash and watermelon also have been popular. "But nobody touched the kale."

Lapham's latest hobby is plant propagation. "I'm learning how so I can give plants to neighbors, other community gardens and spread them around the neighborhood," he said. Last March, he posted a plant giveaway on Facebook, and about 20 to 30 people showed up to get his plants.

Troubled times

After George Floyd was killed by police just two blocks from Lapham's home, the neighborhood erupted in unrest and increased crime.

"It's been real scary," Lapham said last summer. "I woke up to gunshots."

More recently, a neighbor was clubbed in the head with a gun and had his wallet stolen, and there's been a spate of carjackings. "I'm lucky enough to own terrible cars nobody wants," Lapham said, including two old Volkswagens and a work van.

He's also had tools, equipment and plants stolen from the garden. He built a shed out of salvaged materials for storing his tools, but "I can't put everything inside," he said.

Sometimes the challenges of urban living make him dream of owning a small farm in the country. "I think about it a lot, with the crime in the neighborhood," he said. "Hopefully it'll turn around."

But there are examples of caring and altruism in his neighborhood, too. The bench Lapham built at the corner bus stop on the edge of his garden has become a place where people drop off food for the taking to help neighbors in need. What doesn't get taken by people, Lapham feeds to crows and other birds.

While most Minnesota gardeners take a break during the winter months, Lapham stays busy with garden-related chores.

"I've been trying to fix a lot of the tools," he said earlier this month. "I took apart and rebuilt the tiller, the blower and the chain saw. I spend a lot less time out there in the winter but there are still things to do all the time."

He's been doing some pruning. "A lot of trees you can only prune in winter," he said. "It's safer for the plant, and helps it produce better. It wakes up in the spring and doesn't even realize it is missing a limb."

Soon he'll start collecting cuttings to propagate. And he recently filled out an application to get seeds through the Horticulture Society's Minnesota Green Program, with the aim of starting seeds in March and April.

"I'm excited to see what we're going to do — more garden plans and more tours," he said of the growing season ahead.

What motivates him to invest so much time and energy into urban farming?

Lapham paused to ponder that question. "I don't watch TV, drink or go out or do anything," he said with a smile. "I want to learn all these things and be an inspiration for others to try — build a better world instead of wasting time."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784