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At first, it’s hard to spot the garden at 2131 Penn Avenue N. in the Willard–Hay neighborhood. From the sidewalk, it doesn’t look much different from the other vacant lots interspersed with houses along the street, especially in the first few weeks of the growing season.
But when Queen Frye shows up in her gardening clothes–dirt-stained jeans, funky sunglasses, and wooden earrings with the word “RESIST” etched on them–the yard comes to life.
The lot sat vacant for 15 years until Frye, an accountant, and Michael Kuykindall, a hair stylist, turned it into R. Roots Garden in 2019. The couple saw an opportunity to give back to the neighborhood Frye grew up in by creating a direct link to healthy food and a space for community to gather. They also wanted to carry on the gardening legacy of their mothers and grandmothers.
On a recent day in late May, rows of bright green seedlings were taking shape, forming rows of mustard greens, cucumbers, zucchini, kale, and bell and hot peppers. Frye pointed out a patch of corn, a plot for nearby high schoolers to garden, and a section for new experiments–eggplant, artichokes, and celery. A rain barrel collects water and a compost system collects yard waste. Also, there are plenty of collard greens.
“Those are what the people like,” said Kuykindall. “They’re always like, hey, you got some more collards?”
Across Minneapolis, gardens have been popping up in vacant lots with increasing frequency. The city now encourages sanctioned vegetable gardening in almost any available spot, from park-owned land to community gardens to abandoned or vacant lots.
The city’s garden lease program rents out about 60 city-owned vacant lots for growing food at $1 a year per lot plus a one-time $50 fee. The program started in 2010 with about 20 lots, and changes to zoning laws in 2011 allowed more urban agriculture. (R. Roots Garden comprises four privately-owned vacant lots, and is not part of the city program.)
Minneapolis’ 2030 climate action plan will include a goal for a yet-to-be-determined number of gardens, with most clustered in Green Zones. (Green Zones are areas the city has designated as places of concern, due to environmental issues such as poor air quality.) A large swath of north Minneapolis, near the garden on Penn Avenue, is classified as a Green Zone.
Vacant lot gardens provide access to healthy foods and green spaces, said Grace Rude with Homegrown Minneapolis, a city initiative to grow more healthy, sustainable, locally grown foods. Gardens can also improve some environmental issues, she added.
“Urban agriculture supports the climate through a lot of different avenues,” Rude said.
Plants “capture” and hold carbon, reducing greenhouse gas, she said. Gardens also improve oxygen production, and put compost and food waste to good use.
“Gardening and urban agriculture improve the soil quality, and it’s important for the climate to support local food,” Rude said. “It’s way better to have food grown next door with fewer pesticides and less transportation.”
That first year, Frye and Kuykindall hauled in fresh soil. They figured out what seeds to plant and how important it was to share the experience with the community. They’re looking to expand again by buying a farm outside of the city in Peace, Minnesota.
Frye leaned against the rain barrel and explained their sustainable, permaculture gardening philosophy.
“We wait for the earth to do what she needs to do,” she said, noting that last year the gardeners never needed to use the garden hose. “If we get rain, we get rain. If we don’t get rain, we don’t get rain. If we get sun, that’s great. And so whatever your harvest is, you get what you get and you don’t have a fit–which is kind of opposite of what our culture has evolved to.
“It’s just kind of being patient in developing that relationship with the plants and the land that you’re on. Because it does take that connection—that relationship—to really understand the full season.”
“More than growing a garden”
Frye and Kuykindall rely on volunteers to keep the gardens healthy. But getting people excited about weeding can be challenging, Frye said, laughing, so a bulk of the early-season work falls to them. She doesn’t mind the work, but she thrives off of community.
“It’s more than just growing a garden,” Frye said. “It’s about building relationships, learning people’s food stories and providing access to having better options and a better way of life, even.”
Kuykindall remembers the green tomatoes his grandmother and great-grandmother grew in Chicago, in a tiny square of a garden. Frye introduced him to gardening on a larger scale, and he quickly picked up on the physical labor, earning the nickname Mic the Tiller.
Now, Kuykindall plans to plant sunflowers and herbs (hibiscus, peppermint, sage, and lavender) for use in developing his own hair products. He works as a stylist at From the Roots salon, in St. Paul.
Frye grew up in north Minneapolis, not far from R. Roots Garden on Penn Avenue. As a little girl, she learned gardening skills from her mother as a way of life, without understanding the benefits to health and community. As an adult, she said, she started to question where she could get healthy food in her own neighborhood, and realized that building gardens is an act of resistance.
“It’s our way to say, ‘Enough is enough; we’ve got to stop the madness and give people the option to nourish themselves,’ ” she said. “It’s a way to create that local stream of access so you can make the choice over your health, to overcome the racial bias in the city design that predisposes us to unhealthy eating behaviors.”
Often, Frye said, people think a susceptibility to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes are in their DNA.
“We’re trying to share knowledge to make people aware that it’s not in your blood or your bones,” she said. “It could be in the way food is systemically designed in our neighborhood, predisposing you to unhealthy eating habits.”
At their home in Plymouth, Frye and Kuykindall have started experimenting with a greenhouse they call their “R. Roots, Jr., laboratory.” Last season, they saved seeds from their pepper plants.
“We started them as seedlings and those things germinated and popped up, and I was like, ‘Get outta town!’ ” Frye said. “If it continues all season and we actually get fruit from it, we’ll have some heirloom going on. I can’t wait to see the fruit from that. I think I might cry, Mic, when I see that.”
It’s their surest sign of success, she said.
“I just feel like, I can do this,” she said. “And if anything were to happen—like things shutting down—I can always feed myself, and that’s so important to have autonomy over what I can put in my body. It’s like the ultimate survival.”
Frye pauses to pat dirt around some turnip greens. It makes her wish more people knew about their gardens. This week’s Wednesday volunteer morning was rained out, but garden volunteer Donyele Cook shows up Thursday morning anyway.
“People don’t give a lot of life to the Northside, so I think it’s important to show people that there are people who care and try to do things in the community,” said Cook. “When you’re around new growth, it helps the environment you’re in. And it’s something extra to come outside and get your hands dirty.”
Frye and Kuykindall surveyed the yard, knowing that it will soon be brimming with vegetables, and that in August and October it will be the site of harvest and community celebrations with spoken word, music, and breakdancing.
But they also fully appreciate the garden in its current state—despite the dandelions.
“I like all stages,” Frye said. “I think this is beautiful.”
Frye’s family wanted to reflect the changing nature of gardens in the name of the non-profit venture. At a family meeting to name the garden, everyone embraced “R. Roots Garden.” “You just kind of fill in your own blank, what [the R] means to you,” Frye said. To Frye and Kuykindall, on any given day it can mean Rest, Relaxation, Redemption, Reason, Revolution, or Reclamation.
R. Roots Garden events:
- Volunteers are welcome every Monday and Wednesday morning. “I want people to know that we’re a really cool, fun organization so that when people are making options of where they want to give their time or resources, to think about us,” says garden co-founder Queen Frye.
- Harvest celebrations at the garden located at 2131 Penn Avenue N. are scheduled for Aug. 7 and Oct. 16, 2022.
- Find R. Roots produce for sale at Storehouse Grocers in the George Washington Carver Cultural Center in St. Paul every other Saturday and the Lakeview Terrace Farmers Market in Robbinsdale. Or buy straight from the Penn Avenue garden at harvest events.
- Donate to the garden’s GoFundMe campaign to buy land in Peace, Minnesota.
Other urban garden projects to get involved with:
- Project Sweetie Pie runs several gardens throughout the metro and distributes fresh produce to the Northside.
- Appetite for Change runs seven gardens for community members and youth and the popular Breaking Bread Cafe, which distributed meals to neighbors and healthcare workers during the pandemic. Appetite for Change also offers free cooking workshops.
- The Somali American Farmers Association runs an urban farm and provides urban agriculture training at the Horn Towers public housing complex, 3121 Pillsbury Avenue, in Minneapolis’ Whittier neighborhood.
Starting a garden
- The Garden Lease Program in Minneapolis can hook you up with a space to rent, and steer you toward free or low-cost supplies including compost, tools, seeds, and even water access if your garden is near a fire hydrant.
- Blooming St. Paul offers similar resources in St. Paul.
- Check out the University of Minnesota extension services for information on testing your soil for lead or other contaminants, and for advice on planning a vegetable garden.