Gardeners are reclaiming vacant lots in north Minneapolis and turning them into bountiful gardens

At first, it’s hard to spot the garden on a vacant lot at 2131 Penn Av. N. in the Willard–Hay neighborhood.

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.

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.

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.

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, local foods.

“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.”

Small gardens will play an even bigger role in the city in coming years. Minneapolis’ 2030 climate action plan will include a goal for more gardens, with most clustered in Green Zones, areas known to have environmental troubles such as poor air quality. A large swath of north Minneapolis, near the garden on Penn Avenue, is classified as a Green Zone.

That first year, Frye and Kuykindall figured out what seeds to plant and how important it was to share the experience with the community.

“We wait for the earth to do what she needs to do,” Frye said. “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.”

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 an adult, she said, she started to question where she could get healthy food in her own neighborhood, which is dotted with fast food restaurants and convenience stores.

“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 is also a way to “overcome the racial bias in the city design that predisposes us to unhealthy eating behaviors.”

Frye and Kuykindall rely on volunteers to keep the gardens healthy. Donyele Cook showed up one recent Thursday after a big rainfall scared away other volunteers.

“People don’t give a lot of life to the North Side, so I think it’s important to show people that there are people who care and try to do things in the community,” Cook said. “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.”

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota’s immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for its free newsletter to receive stories in your inbox.

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