As this year's growing season began, Minnesotans were coping with challenge and uncertainty on multiple fronts.

The pandemic and spring lockdown had taken a financial and emotional toll for many. Then George Floyd's killing ignited a storm of protests and civil unrest that devastated some neighborhoods and thrust the Twin Cities into the epicenter of a national reckoning about race.

Against this backdrop, people all over the Twin Cities responded by putting in gardens — on boulevards, in backyards and in vacant lots — to grow food for people who needed it.

Devin Brown decided to plant the boulevard in front of the house in north Minneapolis' Folwell neighborhood that she'd bought the previous fall. The nearest grocery store had recently closed after it was damaged by looters in the wake of the George Floyd protests, and Brown had seen a "scary" statistic that one in five Americans weren't going to be able to afford food by fall, because of economic fallout from the pandemic.

"North Minneapolis is already a food desert," said Brown, a massage therapist. "I'm more than willing to offer up my boulevard to my neighbors. I saw an opportunity to bridge the affordable food [gap] and also help change perceptions about north Minneapolis — to bring north up without gentrifying north."

In St. Paul, Harmony Neal, a writer who teaches at the Loft Literary Center, had experienced a temporary layoff from their job as a restaurant server, due to the pandemic.

Inspired by the book "Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants" by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Neal decided to help neighbors by growing food on the boulevard in front of their rented triplex on a busy corner in St. Paul's Merriam Park neighborhood.

"People are going hungry during the pandemic," Neal said. "I thought, 'I have sun. I need to put in food.' "

Being temporarily out of work, Neal also had time to garden.

The boulevard gardens created and tended by Brown and Neal this growing season were selected by a panel of judges as winners in the Star Tribune's annual Beautiful Gardens contest, chosen from more than 380 nominations from readers. In this unusual year, we invited readers to nominate gardens that are beautiful in spirit and contribute to the greater good.

Reading up on plants

Both Neal and Brown had some prior garden experience, but not a lot growing food.

"I hadn't gardened much. Mostly flowers," said Neal, who undertook a crash course of self-study. "I read up on plants."

Brown was raised by a grandmother who gardened. "Vegetables were not her thing," said Brown. "But I was always getting in the dirt with her."

After getting permission from their landlord to dig up the grass and weeds on the boulevard, Neal invested about $1,000, including part of their stimulus check, to buy compost, organic fertilizer, edging and plants. Neal's partner helped with the installation, and neighbors pitched in with contributions of compost and other supplies. "People donated a lot," Neal said. "I am not a wealthy person."

Neal planted tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupes, beans, pumpkins, squash, dent corn for making corn meal, herbs and edible flowers.

All summer long, the produce in "Giving Gardens" was free for the taking. Neal set up a whiteboard to announce what crops were ripening next, and placed a small cabinet with a pair of scissors and plastic bags for snipping herbs. "Neighbors appreciate the herbs. They're so expensive in the store," Neal said.

The cabinet became a place where other neighbors brought food to share, from extra produce from their gardens to baked goods, including a batch of muffins that showed up one morning.

"Stuff comes and goes like crazy," Neal said.

And during the pandemic, Giving Gardens also became a social connecting spot for the neighborhood. "I've definitely met way more people," Neal said last summer. "People love it."

Mobilizing a crew

Brown planted her boulevard garden with help from Growers Unite Minneapolis, a Facebook group launched earlier this year by her friend Angelina McDowell in response to food scarcity in neighborhoods.

Growers Unite Minneapolis organized a crew to help turn Brown's boulevard into a garden.

"About 12 people showed up with plants and seeds," Brown said. "They brought so much I had to improvise" and add another small plot in back, closer to the alley, where she also keeps chickens.

The crops on Brown's boulevard — tomatoes, cabbages, peppers, squash, broccoli and basil — are planted in burlap bags filled with soil rather than directly in the ground. Brown was concerned about soil quality, and the potential for contamination by motor oil from passing cars. "I opted for clean soil," she said.

All the food Brown grew on the boulevard throughout the summer and into fall was free for the picking to anyone who wanted it. She posted about the garden on her neighborhood association's Facebook page and encouraged people she encountered to help themselves.

"I'd say, 'Hey, pick my garden' when people were leaving for work in the morning."

Ready for spring

With one successful season behind them, Brown and Neal said they are committed to planting their boulevard gardens for the benefit of their neighbors again next year.

Brown plans to expand. "My tomatoes were out of control!" Brown said. "People were taking things. I will do it again next year, with full-fledged raised beds and a front fence."

Neal, a self-described activist, views gardening as an extension of their activism.

"Community is important. Feeding people and providing them with basic things is the most valuable stuff we can do," Neal said. "It's important to contribute in ways you enjoy."

But Neal's Giving Gardens is likely to look different come spring.

Neal ran afoul of a city ordinance prohibiting plants taller than 18 inches within 30 feet of an intersection. After several interactions with the city, Neal got an abatement order to cut down the garden or face its removal, along with a hefty assessment.

During a hearing by phone, Neal shared letters of support for the garden and pointed out that vehicles parked at the intersection affect visibility much more than the plants on the boulevard. In the end, Neal was informed that the garden must comply with the ordinance next spring.

"The whole thing was a nightmare," Neal said. "I am committed to doing it again next year, but I'm not entirely sure what it will look like." Many food plants grow taller than 18 inches, Neal noted.

Neal's garden has "very strong support" within the neighborhood, said neighbor Rachel Richardson, who nominated the garden for the Beautiful Gardens contest.

"[Neal] took this abandoned boulevard and turned it into a garden. It's beautiful as well as really rich and full of food," said Richardson, who noted that there were at least 10 other boulevard gardens nearby, none of which were cited.

The city's ordinance is designed to protect visibility and safety, said St. Paul city spokeswoman Suzanne Donovan. Updating the ordinance to allow more flexibility in urban gardening, including those on boulevards, is a policy matter that would need to be addressed by members of the St. Paul City Council, Donovan said.

Neal and Richardson believe it's time for the city to change its ordinance to better accommodate boulevard gardens for food and pollinators.

"People have a right to grow food," Neal said. "We need more gardens like this."