Calista Swensen’s garden is thriving in what seems like an improbable setting.
Tucked away on the side of a large industrial building at 7550 Corporate Way in Eden Prairie, the 4,800-square-foot garden is hard to spot from the road.
The 16-year-old Eden Prairie High School junior joked that she has a connection with the building owner. Her father, Brett Swensen, owns Modern Office Furniture, one of the businesses housed there.
But, stroll amid the bucolic green symmetry of what Swensen calls the People’s Patchwork Community Garden, and its commerce-focused neighbors are forgotten. It’s quiet here among the plants. No wonder Swensen considers gardening her “happy place.”
“The idea that I can catalyze life by dropping a tiny pebble of a dormant embryo into the soil simply amazes me,” she said.
Swensen began planning the garden last April. It has 107 edible botanical varieties spread over 12 plant beds, with another 16 varieties scheduled for winter.
“We really transformed it,” she said of the field. “We tried to make something new and positive out of a place of broken glass and litter.”
Despite a dry summer, the plants are faring well. That’s good news for the PROP Food Shelf. Everything grown in the garden is donated there.
As of Aug. 28, 487 pounds of produce have found their way to those served by PROP.
The People’s Patchwork Community Garden’s goal, according to its website, is to unite the community, utilize sustainable practices, and, most importantly, donate fresh produce to PROP. The garden is for the people, by the people, the website states.
“It’s so rewarding to be able to watch the seeds grow into something that really helps (the community),” Swensen said. “Like how I say on the website, ‘Planting the seeds of positive change.’ And it truly is.”
Swensen also volunteers at the PROP Shop in Eden Prairie. She plans to study botany or horticulture after high school.
“I had that connection and I wanted to be able to help the food shelf,” she said. “PROP couldn’t take any new volunteers because of the pandemic, so I found another way to do it.”’
Janet Palmer, PROP executive director, praised Swensen’s generosity.
“Calista’s efforts should warm everyone’s hearts!” Palmer wrote in an email. “It is a remarkable effort to create the garden and spend hours tending to it so that PROP can receive so much produce. This truly is a work of love, and we appreciate it greatly.”
Palmer said PROP ensures all participants have healthy food options, including fresh produce.
“Fresh produce is our No. 1 request,” Palmer said. “PROP assists up to 25 families per day, so the food reaches needed households quickly.”
During the pandemic, PROP has continued food service with curbside pick-up and deliveries. Palmer said PROP plans to reopen to the public in mid-September, which will allow for self shopping “for those tasty tomatoes.”
Lots of variety
So, what’s growing in the People’s Patchwork Community Garden?
“Basically everything you can grow in Minnesota,” Swensen said. “Do you want a tour?”
She is an expert guide as she strolls through the garden in early August, pointing out each plant and its current progress. The garden offers the variety of a grocery store produce section: tomatoes, broccoli, onions, zucchini, broccoli, potatoes, onions, pumpkins, corn, kale, and butternut squash, just to name a few.
“I love butternut squash,” she said. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t.”
The garden has a potager design, which aims to create an area both ornamental and productive.
“I use principles of companion planting, which is an organic gardening practice,” she said. “(That entails, for example) putting the tomatoes by the carrots because they benefit each other.”
It is also inspired by the artist Maurice Pillard Verneuil, whose art is featured on the garden’s website. “He makes prints that sort of remind me of this companion planting design,” she said.
The garden, Swensen said, is a patchwork of many people’s efforts, hence the name. “People have donated their help and service, and knowledge,” she said.
Although an avid home gardener, Swensen discovered “imagining, planning, researching, planting and maintaining a 4,800-square-foot community garden is a much more complicated task.”
Judi Martin, a master gardener and family friend, served as a resource for Swensen, helping her plan, seed start, and maintain the garden.
Rainwater from the industrial building’s roof is collected into two tanks used to water the garden. Her father and his friend worked to make the rainwater collection system possible.
“We can distribute it over this field over time,” she said. “Because of the drought, it hasn’t been as consistent as we have liked. But that’s just one of our sustainability efforts.”
This year, it’s been friends and family helping Swensen.
“But next year, I’m looking to make it a community garden with a volunteer schedule,” she said. “I want to continue gardening into the colder seasons with the brassicas and (other plants) more tolerant of the cold.”
For more information on how to help grow the People’s Patchwork Community Garden, visit the website.
“Calista’s efforts should warm everyone’s hearts! It is a remarkable effort to create the garden and spend hours tending to it so that PROP can receive so much produce. This truly is a work of love, and we appreciate it greatly.”Janet Palmer, PROP Food Shelf