It was morning in the garden. The start of the workday.
Half a dozen 14- and 15-year-olds fanned out across an overgrown lot at the corner of Fremont and 37th Avenue N. under the careful watch of their mentors.
They yanked out weeds and cleared underbrush. They pulled vines off walls to reveal bright murals, celebrating everything green and growing in north Minneapolis.
By lunchtime, neat rows of tomatoes, peppers, beans, eggplant, herbs and flowers marched across the lot. The gardeners moved between the rows, watering and weeding and earning the week’s paycheck from the Step Up summer jobs program.
It was sweaty, dirty work, but the students grinned their way through it. As summer jobs go, you could do a lot worse than 20 hours of fresh air a week in a garden, learning from people like Raymond Jackson.
Jackson is a volunteer with Growing North Minneapolis, and part of a team of community elders, college students and experienced gardeners helping 36 teens tend 18 urban gardens this summer.
“That’s one of the things I’m trying to instill — that work can be fun,” said Jackson, who got his first taste of agricultural work at the age of 8, earning 35 cents a day in the cotton fields of Dothan, Ala.
Fifty-five years later, volunteering with the urban garden program helped Jackson recover from major surgery, and gave him a chance to share a few lessons about perseverance and joy.
“This is real fulfilling for me,” Jackson said, smiling at the restored garden. “It keeps me going. I love it — being outside and working with the youth.”
The six teens in his care are tending three gardens in this neighborhood. They work 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., 20 hours a week, for $10.50 an hour. They started planting in a cold, wet June that stunted their seedlings and turned the garden soil to mud. Now they’ll get a taste of gardening on hot, humid July days that scorch the leaves and bake the soil and draw the gnawing garden pests.
“You learn how to be patient,” said Jazmine Bolden, 15, before moving off to maneuver a 7-gallon drum of water down a row of curly kale seedlings.
Last year, she worked a summer internship cleaning up city parks. Keeping three community gardens green and growing is more tiring and a lot more interesting.
Rebecca Lee is 14. This is her first job.
“It’s great,” she said. “You get to be outside, we get to learn new stuff.”
Some of the summer interns have worked in family gardens. Some used to think tomatoes grew on trees.
Some of them are growing vegetables they’ve never tasted before.
By summer’s end, they’ll not only be able to grow their own food, they’ll know what to do with it after the harvest.
There will be cooking classes where they’ll learn how to turn their fresh-picked eggplants or broccoli or sweet potatoes into a meal. There will be lessons about compost and pollinators and the value of a hard day’s work.
If the gardens grow well, they may get to sell their surplus produce at local farmers markets.
If the gardens grow well, vegetables will be the least important thing they produce.
“We’re not hopeless, hapless and helpless in this community,” said Michael Chaney, one of the founders of Project Sweetie Pie, a nonprofit dedicated to building green businesses and agricultural businesses in north Minneapolis.
What’s really growing here — garden by garden, gardener by gardener — is a new green economy for the North Side.
“These young people are becoming producers,” Chaney said. “We’ll know we’re successful when the foods that sit on the shelves in our grocery stores reflect our community.”
For more information about everything green and growing on the North Side, visit projectsweetiepie.org.
To learn more about Step Up youth employment, visit achievempls.org/stepup.
Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks