Before it was called Urban Farming my Grandma Agnes and Grandpa George turned their entire city plot of land on Skyline Parkway in Duluth, Minnesota into a small farm. Nonproducing lawn variety grass only existed where there was shade, useless sandy soil, and walkways.
The above photo is from the Duluth News Tribune taken the summer of 1980. Grandma Agnes is standing in front of her monstrous sunflowers reaching 12 ft in height that year. This, thanks to technology is a scanned copy – I have the original framed above my writing desk – my Mother sent it to me after reading my blog posts about making sauerkraut in a Red Wing Stoneware crock and was inspired to send me photos of her mother – my urban gardening hero.
I spent every summer of my developing years with Grandma & Grandpa at their Skyline house so the gardens are as painted in my psyche as the sun shining upon the green astroturf of their sunporch and the tall grey fermentation crocks.
I wish I had pictures of those gardens to show you – but all I have is my memory so let me paint you a word picture.
The northern most garden closest to the sunporch with big picture windows that killed many confused birds was the size of a modest house foundation in square footage. Over half of it was green beans and the rest included rows of climbing peas and tomatos. Above this garden was the herb garden that featured dill, dill and more dill for pickling and canning.
Below this a set of four gardens roughly the same size featured large patches of cabbage, cucumbers, zucchini, squash, carrots, radishes, beets, parsnips, rutabegas, turnips, potatoes, onions, swiss chard, spinach, and lettuce. Smaller side gardens had asparagas, horseradish, rhubarb and my favorite raspberries.
It was my job to pick green beans. I hated picking beans because the plant leaves tickled my arms and mosquitos hid in the damp underside biting the tender white skin of my young Northern Minnesota arms.
I also got the fun job of picking raspberries. Fun in that I got to eat as many raspberries as I wanted – not fun in that raspberries have thorns and ants.
This giant vegetable production operation was not my Grandparent's first farm. My Grandfather's father bought land with his brothers in Northwest Minnesota via a Federal land grant and money saved working in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. The family farm lasted 1.5 generations before the bank foreclosed upon it and Grandpa packed his wife and 5 children up in the car and made their way to the big city of Duluth on Lake Superior for a job. They purchased their house with cash and occupied the surrounding city property with gardens full of food supplemented by winter deer hunting.
I salute my grandparents, and specifically my Grandma Agnes who spent hours and days in those gardens planting, weeding, picking then canning, pickling and preserving the food that resulted. As a young urban dweller advocating for local food and growing what you can where you can I spend roughly 5 hours or less a week in my community garden plot that is half the size of her smallest garden – and it makes me wonder how she did it.