Not long ago, there were three vacant lots in the Hawthorne neighborhood of north Minneapolis.

They're not empty anymore. Now they're filled with an abundance of ripening garden produce: tomatoes, squash, cabbage, lettuce and herbs. The lots are owned by the city and the county, but the plots are tended by members of nearby Kwanzaa Community Church and kids from the neighborhood.

"Watching it develop from nothing to this -- it's cool!" said Sue Friedman, who organized the Hawthorne Community Garden for Kids, which shares the site with the Kwanzaa Urban Farm.

Vegetable gardens have been sprouting on vacant city lots all around the Twin Cities in the past few growing seasons -- small CSAs, microfarms and community gardens. But the flourishing garden in Hawthorne is unusual in that it's the fruit of multiple community organizations and individuals coming together.

Friedman, who owns Friedman's Department Store on nearby North Broadway, dreamed up the idea of a youth garden as a way to give neighborhood kids "something constructive to do, to take pride in," she said.

She was an unlikely head gardener. "I don't have a background in gardening at all," she admitted. But she'd grown a few tomato plants over the years, and her own two kids, now grown, had enjoyed nurturing them, she said. "I love kids. They're my greatest joy."

Friedman talked with Kwanzaa, which had started a garden on the site several years earlier as a way to build community.

"One of our values is to cherish and prioritize relationships," said the Rev. Ralph Galloway. "We see this as a wonderful way to do that in the neighborhood -- a place to rekindle friendship and teach children how agriculture works. Food doesn't come from McDonald's or Burger King but from God, through the Earth."

Kwanzaa's garden was almost wiped out by the May 2011 tornado that did so much damage on the city's North Side. The church was looking to restore and upgrade the garden this year, and Friedman was looking for land for a youth garden. She recruited some master gardeners she knew to mentor the kids, and obtained funding from the Hawthorne Neighborhood Council and the Accenture Foundation to build raised beds and a shed, designed by University of Minnesota architecture students, in which to store tools and conduct small classes.

On May 20, the weekend that marked the one-year anniversary of the North Side tornado, the community came together for a barbecue and garden-installation party at the Hawthorne plot.

Then all summer long, the kids and church members tended the garden, using only organic methods -- there are two on-site compost bins, and no chemicals are allowed.

"We're adamant that it be organic," said Beverly Larkin, a master gardener, founding member of Kwanzaa church and garden coordinator.

The church has a partnership with Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota, Galloway noted. "When the environment is not treated safely, it hurts low-income people first."

One of the youth gardeners is Si Si Mitchell, 11, who lives within walking distance of the garden. She planted carrot and cilantro seeds at a winter workshop hosted by the Hawthorne Neighborhood Council, nurtured them at home, then transplanted her seedlings to the garden earlier this summer.

"I like the whole process -- to get my hands in the dirt and get all dirty and stuff," she said. "It's fun to see what happens to it when it grows all the way."

On a sunny Saturday morning earlier this summer, Si Si and her mother, plus a friend visiting from Atlanta, stopped by to check on the garden. "I helped make the beds," Si Si pointed out proudly.

The garden is a great addition to the neighborhood, said Si Si's mother, Lisa Mitchell. "In summertime, it's good for kids to have something positive to do," she said. And nurturing plants teaches youngsters patience and follow-through, she noted. "It takes a while to do a seedling. You have to be responsible, taking care of something."

The young gardeners are learning other new skills, including how to make money from what they grow. They've been taking their produce to the West Broadway Farmers Market and staffing their own stand, with proceeds going into a fund for next year's garden.

"I grew up on a farm," Lisa Mitchell said. "For the kids to sell, to see that this could actually be a business, is a good deal for them."

Camiella Been, 11, had tried her hand at gardening before, but selling produce at the farmers market was new to her.

"At first I thought no one was going to come around," she said, but she soon got comfortable talking to people and drawing their interest to the vegetables and herbs she was selling. "I learned how to introduce everything to the customers."

Will she be back next year for another growing season? "Yes," she said. "It was really fun."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784