Free organic vegetables. Picnics. Concerts and puppet shows.

What was once an empty lot in north Minneapolis is now home to the volunteer-driven Old Highland Peace Garden, which buzzes with activity during the growing season and beyond.

The garden is the brainchild of neighbors Jae Wencl and Angelina McDowell, who wanted to create a community gathering spot centered around gardening. When the pandemic hit, it became a way to feed those in need and to nourish in other ways.

It wasn't long before Wencl and McDowell found themselves leading an army of volunteers.

"The community coming together to create this organic garden all occurred organically," said Justin Brokaw, who nominated the garden, a winner of the Star Tribune Beautiful Gardens annual contest. "Show me any neighborhood that gives like this."

Plans for the garden were laid four years ago, after Wencl and McDowell, both active in the Old Highland Neighborhood Association, attended an association gathering.

"We noticed it was always the same people and we thought, 'How do we get more new people here?'" McDowell said. "Jae suggested a community garden."

With help from the nonprofit Gardening Matters, they landed a sunny, 65-by-65-foot plot on the northwest corner of N. Emerson and 18th avenues. The Northside Residents Redevelopment Council awarded them a $500 block grant to purchase materials and get the garden up and running. And the neighborhood association raised another $1,000 to purchase galvanized planters.

Little did they know they were sowing the seeds for something bigger.

The army of volunteers

The garden was small but successful, but the economic chaos caused by COVID-19 increased the need to provide food for neighbors.

Wencl and McDowell suddenly found themselves homeschooling their kids while balancing full-time jobs. McDowell was also in the middle of graduate school, working on a master's degree in social work.

While they had a small garden team in place, they launched an effort to attract more volunteers, posting pleas on the Old Highland Peace Garden Facebook page, other social media and asking anyone they came across.

"We just want people to help when they can. It's a no-ask volunteer effort," Wencl said.

Soon, they had an army of volunteers who donated perennials to border the busy streets and hauled dirt to fill the garden beds. Some volunteers created a pollinator garden. Others built a beehive.

Because the garden had a limited budget, made mostly of grants, the resident of the neighboring property footed the bill for water. Local businesses also kicked in, including Goddard's Gardens and Project Sweetie Pie, a nonprofit that works to establish food security in north Minneapolis. The Rotary Club of North Minneapolis organized garden cleanups, donated a bench and funded signage identifying plants and vegetables.

Community member Nikki Carlson donated materials, including for a floating deck that would soon become a gathering place for events, and recruited Keller Williams Realty for a day of service in which 100 real estate agents shoveled dirt to build beds and clean up the garden.

Then Mortenson construction company got involved, too.

"We said we could use a picnic table. They said you should dream bigger," Wencl said. Now there's a pergola on the site.

True to its roots

During the growing season, the garden produces thousands of pounds of fresh organic fruits and vegetables.

"We don't use pesticides or anything. We try to keep it low-maintenance but functional," Wencl said. "We want the garden to prosper and serve and be a wonderful place for everyone."

People are welcome to harvest what they need when they need it.

"We just want people to take what they want," said McDowell. "The concept is someone could be passing by and say 'I need some squash for our dinner tomorrow' and it's there."

There also are regularly held harvest parties, in which neighbors gather and pick produce for themselves and for others who aren't able to pick their own.

Harvest parties can include more than just harvesting. On one summer evening, 30 neighbors gathered to pick parsley, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, kale and collard greens. The kids focused on picking peas and berries because they could snack along the way. There was also a potluck with grilled hot dogs, appetizers, sides and desserts.

McDowell said events such as garden gatherings have helped bring the neighborhood together.

"Once we held events in the garden, people started intermingling with each other and getting to know each other," she said.

For volunteer Sue Tincher, the garden is what solidified her move from southwest Minneapolis to north Minneapolis when she was looking at homes in the city.

"It was a big factor. I liked that there was a place for connecting with nature, connecting with the neighbors," she said.

Kelley Eubanks likes that it's a place where all are welcome.

"For me, it's a shared spaced where people can come and relax and show all the wonderful things happening in this community," Eubanks said.

Building community

The garden has also become a spot for educational and social activities. The beds and plants are carefully labeled.

"Many people are picking fresh vegetables for the first time and don't know what they are," Wencl said. "We are teaching lots of people, young and old, to harvest fresh vegetables and fruits for the first time."

The Raptor Center, Minneapolis Nature Preschool and Agape Child Development Center have hosted demonstrations and playdates. Open Eye Figure Theatre put on puppet shows. And the occasional cello or violin concert has been held in the garden.

It also has become a memorial, after three teens died when the vehicle they were in crashed at the site during a high-speed police chase in the fall of 2020.

"We try to keep space for the family and friends who come here," McDowell said. "We planted [at the memorial] and we try to make them feel welcome in this space."

Neighborhood gardeners are already planning what they'll plant in the coming season. Concerts are being scheduled and free yoga classes are also on the horizon.

"I feel like this place, over time, can get better and better," Wencl said.

And it can continue to grow organically.

"[The philosophy] is not trying to force it on anyone," McDowell said. "The progression has naturally happened."