When horticulturist Myron Thornberry starts talking about harvesting the organic vegetables he grows in Minneapolis, he sounds like a breathless chef at a three-star Michelin restaurant.
“Two cultivars of pole beans, five of kale, four cultivars of mustard greens, two of parsley, Malabar or red spinach, two cultivars of Swiss chard and several types of peppers,” he said. “The peppers, I had 50 plants of those — from bell peppers, which are sweet, to Carolina Reaper, which is dangerously hot with over 2 million Scoville heat units. The clients love them.”
Thornberry’s clients are not billionaires like Elon Musk and Laurene Powell Jobs. Instead, they are Twin Citians who use food shelves and shelters. Thornberry’s plot is part of the 22 at Gethsemane Community Garden, an urban oasis on the edge of downtown Minneapolis that produced over 1,000 pounds of organic fruits and vegetables for food shelves this growing season. The crops were harvested weekly in the summer and relayed to four shelters.
Gethsemane is a winner of the Star Tribune’s annual Beautiful Gardens contest, whose guidelines were changed with the onset of the pandemic to be not just about aesthetics but also service.
“It’s a true community garden in that it brings gardeners together to form a community, it serves as a beautiful focal point and relief amidst all the concrete of downtown Minneapolis, and it feeds people,” said Greg Kaster, a history professor at Gustavus Adolphus College who co-chairs the garden’s eight-member board. “It brings so much joy to a part of the city that has seen so much hardship and neglect.”
Built on the site of the former Leamington Motor Inn, where The Beatles stayed for their 1965 Twin Cities concert, the garden abuts the lot once occupied by the Drake Hotel, a temporary home for over 200 people that burned Christmas Day 2019. Drake residents were often garden clients.
“They loved the fresh produce but also would just come over and sit because at the time at the Drake, families were turned out after breakfast and came back at 5, so we needed a place for people to rest,” said board member Kristine Granias.
Respite for the weary
The garden includes picnic tables and a pergola, features that are used by downtown residents, office workers on lunch breaks and passersby. It’s also a respite for creatures. Butterflies, hummingbirds and bees — keystone pollinators — all stop in, as well, for nectar and succor.
Granias is a former member of Gethsemane Episcopal Church, which was founded in 1856, two years before Minnesota became a state. After a sustained decline in membership, the parish was disbanded in 2018. But the garden, which began under its auspices, still benefits from its largesse. The church provides water and trash services gratis.
“They’ve also given us money to put up the high fence and for security cameras,” Granias said. “We have a good, precarious partnership.”
A retired middle school orchestra teacher, Granias is the resident historian of the Gethsemane garden, which sits on a lot next to the church building.
“After the hotel was torn down, it just became weeds,” Granias said. She and former parishioners “determined that food justice was something we were interested in, so we decided to ask [landowner] Brian Short if he would let us use a portion of the garden. We gardened it for three years then the [lead] person who was in charge left, so it was kind of abandoned again in 2016.”
Granias stepped up to lead the effort, contacting Hennepin County master gardener Del Hampton for advice.
“He’s so knowledgeable and energetic and really understands community organizations,” Granias said. “We didn’t know if it would work, but he said, ‘Are you kidding? If you build it, they will come.’ “
And the gardeners did.
Touching something deep
Thornberry first heard about the Gethsemane garden about six years ago as a service activity for employees of Ameriprise, his employer. After he got to the site, it touched something deep in him.
“I was raised in eastern Kentucky in Appalachia where West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio meet, and we grew crops for food to live — people there still do,” Thornberry said, noting that he developed his passion for horticulture in fourth grade when a teacher, as one of his assignments, had students order seeds from Gurney’s Seed and Nursery in Yankton, S.D.
“I ordered one pack of watermelon seeds, and there’s just something about growing something from this tiny seed into something succulent and delicious or beautiful.”
The plants hold sway over his spirit and soul.
“I have a terrible memory with names and faces, but I can remember Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Filifera Aurea Nana’ [cypress]. Latin names are super-easy.”
Thornberry farms two plots, where he also plans to grow cilantro and cabbage. He gives about 98% of his produce to the food shelves.
“We’ve asked food shelves to survey their clients and see what they like and don’t like, and we’re happy to grow what they request,” Thornberry said. “Not only do we try to go organic with the soil and culturing of the plants, but we also get organic seeds produced in clean conditions so they’re not rolled in one toxin and coated in another toxin. We have to consider that this food will go to pregnant women, children, people on chemo.”
Krissy Fair, also a gardener and a member of the board, donates a portion of her tomatoes, potatoes and cucumbers to the food shelves. But much of what she farms is for family and friends.
Preserving for the winter
“Lots of the stuff we harvested we canned to preserve,” Fair said. “Mostly Roma tomatoes, good for salsa and pasta sauce. We had about 30 garlic bulbs. We use it through the year.”
Fair, who also grew cultivars of peppers and Magic Molly purple potatoes, lives on the 27th floor of the nearby Grant Park condos. She does a fair amount of overlooking. Not long ago, as she peered down at the green oasis, she saw Thornberry lying near the garden. She called down (via phone) to check on him.
“Between finishing up a project and everything else, I was just exhausted,” he recalled. “But Krissy is important for our security and safety.”
Occasionally, “people do do stupid things,” Fair said.
And sometimes, passersby will wander in to help themselves to produce that they shouldn’t. Those 22 lots are privately owned. There is, however, a well marked “giving garden” where people can pick produce. This year’s crops included okra, cucumbers and peppers.
The Gethsemane gardeners also teamed up this year with chef Sean Sherman and the Indigenous Food Lab to grow an experimental plot of the Three Sisters — corn, beans and squash — as a demonstration of main agricultural crops of Indigenous food culture.
Gardener Nicole Pettit partners with Thornberry on his plot. She was his boss at Ameriprise.
Pettit likened the satisfaction she gets from the effort to something she experienced in her first job out of college.
“I worked in a department store in sales, and people would come in and need something very specific for a function or recital, christening or whatever, and when you’re able to provide the thing they needed, they’d get all excited about it and you’d get this rush,” Pettit said.
With the garden, I’m not selling something but knowing that you had an integral part in creating it and connecting it to someone who wants and needs that food, it’s just a rush.”