Urban Containment

Two city gardens—one beautiful, one edible— demonstrate their command of containers.

An Edible Sanctuary
Photo by Craig Bares

An Edible Sanctuary

When Brian MacDonald and Joyce Johannson put a second story on their Linden Hills home six years ago, they chewed up their front lawn in the process. Rather than slap water-sucking grass over it, they considered the yard’s full-sun exposure and what it might give back, especially considering their full-shade backyard. “We’d always had a little vegetable patch next to the driveway,” says MacDonald. What might the front yard produce?

An urban yard farm, one that’s beautiful and bountiful. MacDonald, who works for a medical device company, and Johannson, a public relations professional, drew up plans for raised beds and their yard placement, maximizing sun exposure and being mindful of proportion. Then they commissioned the beds from Dan Pederson of the boutique design-build firm Benson Pederson in St. Paul. Pederson used Corten steel, designed to rust to a deep patina, which is a favorite of outdoor sculpture artists. The rich, maintenance-free effect of the patina is perfect for extreme (read: Minnesotan) climate changes while delivering dynamite curb appeal.

Then MacDonald and Johannson planted crops in the beds—some from seed helped along with grow lights indoors, some from starter plants purchased at farmers’ markets. It’s been a creative, fascinating, and delicious experiment. “Every year we have something that is a big success,” says MacDonald. “Last year it was ground cherries. The year before: winter squash. One year we grew a fantastic melon called a Minnesota Midget.” This year, the promise is in fruit trees planted four years ago—apple, apricot, pear. They’re finally poised to produce enough for pies.

As for aesthetics, “It’s never going to look like a flower garden,” MacDonald says. In the past, the couple has tried to place veggies according to looks, but looks don’t necessarily yield food. “Mostly we grow stuff we want to grow and let the aesthetics take care of itself.” The neighbors don’t mind. MacDonald says they’ve been quite complimentary (perhaps in the hopes a few ground cherries will roll their way).

But it’s the kids in the neighborhood who are truly impressed. “One year some kids stopped by. I pulled some carrots out of the ground, washed them off, and ate them right there. It blew their minds.”

A Moveable Yard

Scott Endres is seriously flush with pots around his home—a St. Paul Victorian that spans a straight-off-the-grid lot. “I probably have 40 or 50 containers I plant every year,” says the co-owner of Tangletown Gardens in Minneapolis. It’s the perfect approach for an urban gardener lacking space but looking for the tranquility of caring for and enjoying a lush garden.

For one, Endres says, “Containers are mobile. You can move them like furniture.” For creativity, for interest, or purely for the zen of gardening after a day at work, containers beg to be played with. “I pack the day with so many things. I’m really only working in my own garden in the morning or evening,” he says. With containers, a busy urban warrior “can remain connected to earth, to plants. It reminds me why I got into this business.” Secondly, containers look great right away and with very little effort. There’s none of that “wait for the tulips” business. “And you don’t have to get overwhelmed, running home to a whole driveway of plants to maintain,” Endres says. In fact, one of his favorite tasks for his Tangletown clients is mixing a container “recipe”: “We’ll arrange plants in a box and send that home, ready to be planted. You can do one in a weekend.”

And containers are portraits of their arrangers. “They are expressions of the people composing them, like pieces of art,” says Endres. This creative license, Endres says, is a great gift to the urban gardener: “Smaller spaces allow you to express your personality through gardening without it consuming your life.”

Going Veggie in the City? Consider the Following:

The Rabbit
• “Enemy No. 1,” says MacDonald, especially on new, tender lettuce. Solutions? Chicken-wire screens and chicken-wire barriers around three sides of the yard. “On the fourth side, we have a motion-activated sprinkler called The Scarecrow (available locally at Gertens in Inver Grove Heights). We point it right at the lettuce patch.” (Bonus: It keeps dogs out, too.)
Another easy tip: “We plant lettuce in tall pots rabbits can’t reach.”

The Soil
•“Vegetable gardens are all about soil,” says MacDonald. “If the soil is good, the garden is going to look good.” MacDonald and his wife got theirs from Dale Green Company located in Burnsville. “I said, ‘Give us the best stuff you have.’” It was expensive—and worth it.

The Compost
• “We compost everything. We have compost bins in the front and back yards,” says MacDonald. One is a Biostack (Scotts brand) purchased at Home Depot, with three stackable sections for easy turning. The other is a Lifetime Compost Tumbler (available locally at Costco and Home Depot) that rotates on an axis. In both you’ll end up with the same thing—the fertilizer you need to grow veggies, plus a place for scraps and yard waste.

The Known Winners
• “It’s not the best idea to go in for the newfangled products in the seed catalog,” says MacDonald, who has himself been seduced by what he calls “the experimental stuff.” Instead, he says, “We end up getting the best harvest out of the old standbys.” Brussels sprouts, early squash, collard greens—all the things your mother and grandmother said you should eat.

The Sun
• You can’t grow food without it.

Best Bets

MacDonald recommends these eats:

• Franklin Brussels Sprouts. “Very sweet and early to mature. We freeze them and eat them all winter.”
• Delicata Squash (early variety). “We roast them with the skin on, drizzled with a bit of good balsamic vinegar.”
• Minnesota Midget Melon. “An heirloom variety. We pick them in the morning and eat them for breakfast with a bit of yogurt. We didn’t grow them last year. Big mistake.”
• Flash Collard Greens. “They reliably overwinter in our garden with minimal protection and provide some of the first harvests in the spring when fresh produce from the garden is hard to come by.”
• Habanero Peppers. “We had a bumper crop two summers ago, and I made my own hot sauce that we are still working on.”
• Broccoli Raab. “An early season green. Unlike normal broccoli, you eat the leaves and the shoots.”
• Ground Cherries. “They keep a really long time if you leave the husks on.”


Want to Contain it? Consider the Following:

“Containers are expressions of the people composing them.” —Scott Endres, Tangletown Gardens Trend-Endres1.jpg

• The Houseplant.
If the weather is warm, trot those babies out, Endres says. “Houseplants are fun outdoors, especially in tough spots.” As long as the weather is fair and you’re watering, don’t worry. “If they can grow in a dorm room, they’re going to like the oppor-tunity to be outside.”
• The Art of Illusion.
Endres was at first disappointed with his backyard’s tiny size. “I wanted a water feature! A big patio! A raised terrace! But I looked at it on graph paper and saw that they would never work.” So he created the illusion of those things. “I designed a ‘floating patio’—a moat around the back patio filled with koi. It gives the psycho-logical safety of an island.”
• The Grand Entrance.
“The front yard is public space, often viewed by cars going 30 miles an hour,” Endres says. “Use broader brush strokes.” Endres arranges containers in big groups and uses large planters to match the scale of his house.
• The Pots.
A broken container can break your heart (and your pocketbook). Choose pots to withstand Minnesota’s weather and don’t let water freeze in them.

The Boulevard Garden

That weedy strip between the street and the sidewalk? A uniquely urban opportunity.

Trend-Blvd.jpgCultivating the boulevard is one of the delights of city gardening. Not only are “front gardens” highly visible—“Hey! Check out my garden, stranger!”—but replacing an otherwise barren area with deep-rooted and hearty native plants helps prevent water runoff from dumping pollutants into our watershed. That means helping protect the Upper Mississippi River Basin—the same basin that provides drinking water to us and about 18 million other people.

You can also eat from the boulevard area. Says Matt Phillips of Phillips Garden Center, which has designed and planted many Twin Cities boulevard gardens (including the one pictured here), “I personally took an ugly area by my garage with beautiful exposure and made it a small vegetable garden. The sidewalks provided an already established barrier for weeds. I put up a simple fence that did the trick for the rabbits, and I planted viny vegetables around the fence—peas and cucumbers—to conceal it.” If it’s the sunny side of the sidewalk and you’re testing the soil and watering regularly, then bon appétit from the street. Just remember:

• Who owns the boulevard.
You do, but the city has the right to access utilities underneath it. Anything the city tears up is yours to repair.

• Height and hardscaping.
Minneapolis and St. Paul regulate visibility and liability.

• Check the soil.
Boulevard gardens must be designed to avoid soil runoff. And always get the soil tested. The boulevard may not even contain “soil” as gardeners know it, but rather construction fill. It may also contain lead and other toxins.

• Salt?
Don’t. Says Lynn Aufderheide Biegler from Phillips Garden Center, “If there is excessive salt use in winter, certain plants may not survive.”