A few weeks ago when rain pounded down, Christopher Lutter-Gardella braved the elements to retrieve tomato plants from outside his Minneapolis home. It was a rescue mission for seedlings that were just getting established in a section of his expanded garden that lay under a roof with no gutter. The deluge threatened to drown them.
One spring day in St. Paul, LeAndra Estis fought against her longstanding dislike of worms to dig in her backyard, planting a new garden. “I take a deep breath and try to remember that they are helping the soil,” she said. “If I see a lot of worms, my ground is good.”
Lutter-Gardella is expanding his garden threefold this year. Estis is planting the first one she can call her own. As the growing season takes hold amid a world of coronavirus and civil discontent, we checked in with these two urban gardeners — and will follow their progress throughout the season as their produce, they hope, flourishes. For now it’s clear that both revel in their gardens as a source of food, and also as a place of refuge.
“Sometimes as you are facing hard things, gardening is a really good stress relief,” said Estis.
Lutter-Gardella agrees. “If I feel distressed, depressed, angry — you go walk in the garden, you kind of leave everything else behind,” he said.
“I find myself at home, and I have time to expand the gardens the way I’ve always wanted to do,” said Lutter-Gardella, an artist known for large public works, such as a 2019 installation of butterflies, “Kaleidoscope,” at the Mall of America. When the pandemic struck, most of the projects for his company, Big Animal Productions, were put on hold or canceled. He lives in the Powderhorn neighborhood of Minneapolis with his wife, Jeannette, and his son, Gabriel, 15, a student at South High School.
Estis is an issuing specialist with the Minnesota Department of Motor Vehicles. When she bought her first house last fall in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul, she wasted little time in breaking through the freshly laid sod to create two garden plots; one is 5 by 10 feet and the other is 5 by 15 feet.
“When we came to the season, we would be ready to plant,” she said. She lives with her two daughters, Quaia, a 19-year-old Concordia College student, and Lonna, 13, a student at Parkway Montessori.
In a year when the economy is slumping and trips to the grocery store can seem harrowing, both Lutter-Gardella and Estis are motivated to grow some of their own food. But deeper inspirations are also taking root.
One spring day, when she was working from home, Estis looked out the window to see her 73-year-old mother, who lives in the same neighborhood, delivering yet another collection of plants to add to Estis’ newly created garden. The garden is bringing the family together, as it did when Estis gardened with her own grandmother and mother in the Rondo neighborhood. As a young child, she wondered why her mother would subject her to such manual labor.
“When I was maybe 10 or 11, I started to grasp how happy it made me,” she said. She wants to pass along that joy — and the basic survival skill of producing your own food — to her children. And she is delighted to share the experience with her mother. “This is putting life back into her,” Estis said.
When Lutter-Gardella attended Northland College in Ashland, Wis., he found himself in a community of organic gardeners, naturalists and indigenous friends — “people who are closer to the earth and the soil,” he said. The inspiration they wrought has stayed with him over the years, even though he opted to become an artist rather than an organic farmer, an occupation that had been in the running. “The whole thing [gardening] relates to an artistic occupation; they both are about our connection to all living things,” he said.
Lutter-Gardella has planted lots of vegetables such as kale, tomatoes, beets, carrots and bush beans. He has also added blueberries and raspberry bushes to the apple tree already in his yard. “It is obviously about growing food, but also creating an environment and beautifying the property,” he said.
After much searching, Estis found some collard green seeds, an old family favorite. She also has planted spinach and green, yellow and red peppers, along with strawberries and cantaloupe. As for her goal, Estis said, “I’m pretty sure it’s going to grow. For me, it is the self-fulfillment of accomplishment — I did this — and the stress relief of rubbing your hands in the dirt.”
At a time when interest in gardening is growing, Estis had to shop for four days and make stops at many stores and garden centers to find what she was looking for, even nabbing some garden tools at the Dollar Store. She hoped to plant only seedlings, but many items were picked over. “Whatever we didn’t find as plants, we put in seeds,” she said.
Lutter-Gardella decided this would be the year to focus on his soil. He tests his beds with a soil-testing kit, learns what each plant requires to thrive and amends the soil accordingly. Blueberries, for instance, like a highly acidic soil. He is also growing squash on a trellis for the first time. The vining plant can take up a lot of garden space when left on the ground. When trained up a trellis, though, the weight of the vegetable can snap the vine. He plans to manage the process by carefully cradling each squash in a sling made from an old T-shirt.
Lutter-Gardella turns to Facebook as a free resource. When gardening questions arise, he posts a query on his Facebook page as a way to crowdsource answers. “It’s a fun way to discover the knowledge of your friends and neighbors,” he said.
Estis has a few tips, too: Ahead of planting, keep coffee grounds, which make a good fertilizer. She sprinkled grounds into each hole before placing a collard green seed, for instance. And wear gardening gloves, because they make worm encounters easier, she said.
After Estis and her daughters had put the last plant in the ground, daughter Quaia said, “I’m glad we’re done.” Estis has enough gardening experience to know that after the planting comes watering, weeding and other upkeep, so she shared a fundamental truth and perhaps the ultimate tip: “ ‘Done’ doesn’t happen.”