By Dawn Schuett
Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN
Three vacant lots once overgrown with weeds in a southwest Rochester neighborhood are a source of pride, and nourishment, this summer for the families who live there.
Residents in the area of Leslie Lane Southwest, south of Willow Creek Golf Course, transformed the lots with a garden project that is uniting neighbors, teaching their children about healthy foods and resulting in a bountiful harvest.
Earlier this year, Keri Neff casually suggested to a few others how great it would be to plant some flowers and a tomato plant or two on the site along Leslie Lane.
Neff didn't have prior gardening experience but she sought the expertise of neighbor Colleen Gau, who's been gardening for more than 60 years. Gau got permission from the developer of the neighborhood and contacted a master gardener to guide neighbors with the plan. Letters were sent to all the neighbors, inviting them to participate. The majority of them -- about 16 families -- offered to donate money or labor.
"Just about everybody on the street is actively involved," Gau said. It took a group effort to install raised garden beds on the limestone ledge.
Neighbors constructed four beds, each 4 feet by 24 feet, from untreated wood and several smaller beds 4 feet by 4 feet for rhubarb, wildflowers and hot peppers. They hauled in black dirt and compost to fill them, and set up rain barrels at nearby homes to supply most of the water needed for the garden.
In the larger beds, they planted herbs, tomatoes and basil, peas and zinnias, and green beans, cucumbers, zucchini, spinach and carrots. They dug holes with a pick axe for three apple trees, planted raspberry bushes and started a compost pile for food scraps.
Every Saturday morning for two hours, any neighbors who can gather to tend to the garden.
The main goal wasn't to reap the biggest crop possible. It was about getting to know the neighbors better, sharing knowledge about gardening and teaching children where their food comes from, Gau said.
"Quite honestly, I think it's improved the whole neighborhood," she said.
From Gau's house, she has seen kids in the garden, picking pea pods for a culinary treat.
"It's been a real revelation for them," Gau said. "We've had so much fun watching the children do it."
With more produce to harvest in the coming weeks, it will go to neighbors who need or want it.
"It seems to me there's plenty there for everyone," Neff said.
Neighbors will be canning tomatoes in September and hope to organize a harvest party to enjoy recipes made from the food grown in the garden.
The project cost about $800 this year. The neighborhood received a federal grant through Olmsted County Public Health Services that it will use next year.
Dawn Schuett is a Farmington freelance writer.