For many people, this unique stretch of time will be remembered as the Season of COVID or Pandemic 2020.
For Lindsay Brice, though, it will forever be the Summer of Broccolini.
“I had no idea how great it is, or all the things you can do with it!” enthused Brice.
What’s made the cruciferous vegetable all the tastier is that the slender stalks that Brice, 43, is tossing in stir-fries, salads and pasta come from her own backyard. Her St. Paul garden is also producing tomatoes, kale, beans, lettuces and fragrant basil — perfect for endless batches of pesto.
The fresh organic vegetables are a treat for Brice and her partner.
“We planned a trip to New Orleans; friends from New York were coming for a visit, all canceled,” said Brice, an attorney. “At the same time that so many people had their hours cut, work got busier for both of us. We wanted a garden, but we didn’t have the time.”
So Brice hired helpers who are getting their hands dirty on her behalf. Her elevated garden bed, complete with trellis, was installed and planted, then weeded, tended and watered by A Backyard Farm, a St. Paul business that goes to work for inexperienced or busy city dwellers who want the harvest without the hassle.
“We can do as much or as little as they want,” said Joan James, who founded A Backyard Farm with her business partner/spouse, Coleen Gregor, 11 years ago.
“We use an intense method of gardening that gets a lot of food from small yards,” James said. “We start early and do succession planting so there are two or three harvests; they’re still picking until the first of November.”
They also teach people how to grow vertically on trellises, which can double the size of the garden.
A Backyard Farm offers homeowners three options. Like Brice, customers can choose to have everything done for them with weekly visits by garden workers. Another plan is to choose mentoring; for $75/hour a mentor will make monthly visits and work with customers to teach them gardening skills to help them reap what they sow. Knowledgeable gardeners can pay for installation, with raised or elevated beds and soil, then take it from there by themselves. Beds start at $1,500, which includes delivery, installation, soil mixture, gates, rabbit fence and trellises.
“When a lot of people get started, they don’t understand how much there is to it. They need the right soil, enough light, decent drainage,” Gregor added. “They don’t know about spacing, and plants get crowded out. When we get them off on a good start, they can be successful.”
Many clients have beds installed in fall so they can hit the ground running in the spring, said James. “We create mini greenhouses over the beds in early March so if your bed [is installed] in the fall, you get the early spring planting.”
While A Backyard Farm added a significant number of new residential customers this year, a chunk of its business evaporated. In normal years, the team usually worked gardens in senior housing complexes and day care, camp and school programs, offering education and fresh vegetables. This year because of the pandemic, two-thirds of those established programs took a pass.
But it’s turned into a bumper year for home gardening. As the lockdown began, heightened concern about the food supply made growing-your-own an appealing option. Spring planting season arrived just as many people were looking for family projects or new hobbies to keep them busy.
Horticulture experts and Master Gardeners affiliated with Extension at the University of Minnesota have upped their game to reply to questions; since early spring, the number of inquiries about vegetable patches, flower gardens, lawns and landscaping has risen 40% (extension.umn.edu/master-gardener/ask-master-gardener).
Extension horticulture experts also communicate through a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/HortExtensionEducators). On its website, Extension added more blogs (extension.umn.edu/news/gardening-food-body-and-soul), tutorials (extension.umn.edu/yard-and-garden/yard-and-garden-news) and even a podcast (www.vegedge.umn.edu/resources/kalepodcast), plus a topical weekly webinar to inform and educate both large-scale growers and home gardeners from across the state.
“It’s hot and heavy right now as people are eating so much out of their garden. It’s been a good year for growing but also for weeds; we get a lot of weed-control questions. People send us photos wondering, ‘Is this a weed?’ ” said Extension horticulture educator Julie Weisenhorn. “They’re looking for reassurance — are they doing this right.”
Weisenhorn wants to provide encouragement, as well as science and research-backed information to get more Minnesotans hooked on gardening, so they will want to keep at it even after the pandemic is just a memory.
“A lot of times they need that one positive endeavor. They put a tomato plant in a pot, and they’re eating from it in a few months,” she said. “Next year maybe they’ll try to grow a cucumber. Our goal is to see them achieve that first step.”
‘Everyone wants a garden’
Julie Bischke bills herself as “the Garden Coach.” Based in Jordan and working mostly in the western and southwestern suburbs, Bischke, who started her business in 2009, has had a summer like no other.
“Oh, my gosh, this virus has changed my business dramatically. I can’t keep up with the demand. I have opportunities that I pass up every day; I’ve turned down over 200 jobs,” said Bischke. “I can’t believe that I am getting paid to do this work.”
Bischke supervises a crew of eight college students and even hired a personal assistant to run her errands in an effort to stretch resources for the clients who are eager to hire her to do landscaping work or design and plant flower or vegetable gardens.
Bischke also offers hands-on training to prepare her customers to become effective gardeners and maintain the foliage that she plants and installs.
“Right now, everyone wants a garden. They’re entertaining outside or just spending more time in the fresh air. They want that beauty for their souls in these times we’re living in, and who doesn’t like fresh vegetables?” she said.
Weather and winter
Heading into harvest season, it seems the garden gods are smiling on the newbies and novices who joined more seasoned gardeners this year. While there is much about the year 2020 that has been devastasting, Minnesota’s summer weather has been ideal, a plus for people still scaling up their skills and knowledge.
“This is the best gardening weather in five years. The rain and the heat have come at the perfect time, and everything is growing like gangbusters,” said James. “I made 12 jars of dill pickles yesterday and barely made a dent in the haul.”
James and Gregor have had quite a busman’s holiday this summer. They expanded their personal garden by 10 beds, utilizing unplanted space at a school.
While their days are long, they suspect that their efforts will pay off.
“It’s a lot to work. We’re growing three times the amount we usually grow,” James said. “We’re working with our customers to show them how to dry, freeze and put up their produce like we do, using techniques beyond canning. We have no idea what’s going to happen next and, come winter, this could really pay off.”
Kevyn Burger is a freelance writer and broadcaster in Minneapolis. Staff writer Kim Palmer contributed to this report.