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The plots at Rice Street Gardens brim with life in summer: Massive sponge squashes dangle from vines, ruby-red Thai chilis shine through dense beds, and magenta amaranth crowns rise over rows of eggplants.

The community garden is a source of pride for many immigrants living in the Rice-Larpenteur neighborhood where Maplewood, Roseville and St. Paul come together. The garden's 260 plots offer socialization as well as nutrition for dozens of families.

"The garden is beyond physical," said Esther Brown, who immigrated from Nepal and tends to a plot with her mother and sons.

Now organizers are working to ensure that the gardens stay put. They occupy about 2.5 acres of a 13-acre parcel owned by St. Paul Regional Water Services (SPRWS), split between a northern section and a smaller area near Roselawn Avenue off Rice Street that is likely the site of future redevelopment.

SPRWS plans to sell the site at some point, but officials are telling prospective buyers that proposals to preserve most of the gardens will be prioritized. While there are no immediate plans to sell the site, organizers are optimistic they can retain much of the property and have a seat at the table.

In the meantime, families have raised about $600,000 of their $1 million goal towards purchase of their section of the property, according to co-founder and organizer Katheryn Schneider.

Brent Marsolek, an SPRWS supervisor, said the agency bought the property for $2.5 million and wants to make sure it's not sold at a loss. "We've made it known to anybody interested in the land that the garden is integral to the community," he said.

St. Paul Regional Water Services, which serves 450,000 customers in St. Paul and several east metro suburbs, bought the parcel — which straddles the border dividing the three cities — in 2014 with the intention of building a facility there. It has since decided to instead update the nearby McCarrons Water Treatment Plant, Marsolek said.

The gardens were launched in 2016 after SPRWS allowed neighbors to establish plots on the site, and Rice Street Gardens was formed to protect and govern use of the land. Water Services made it clear the property would eventually be sold, but has supported the gardens.

The land was almost sold in 2021 to a local developer, but the deal fell through. There are no imminent plans to sell the site, but potential buyers are putting proposals together, according to Marsolek.

One of those groups is led by Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, which has been in talks with SPRWS about building affordable housing on the site, according to spokesperson Kaitlyn Dormer. She said Habitat would seek to incorporate the gardens into its projects.

Another local housing nonprofit, Rondo Community Land Trust, agreed to finance an appraisal of the property, which Schneider said would help garden organizers get the best price for the land. She would like to see the gardens eventually become part of the land trust.

Organizers hope that any housing built on the site would be located close to the corner of Rice and Roselawn, which would preserve about 80% of the current garden plots, Schneider said.

The gardens have helped brighten the surrounding area. Plots are cheap, just $20 per year, and there's a list of families waiting for a spot to open up.

A gourd grew atop a tiered structure at Rice Street Gardens.
A gourd grew atop a tiered structure at Rice Street Gardens.

Aaron Nesheim, Sahan Journal

Many of the gardeners are older immigrants, mainly Nepali and Karen. But all groups in the area are represented at Rice Street Gardens, including Bhutanese, Hmong, West African, Black and white families.

Brown, who came to the United States from Nepal in 2009, said her 63-year-old mother would likely have left Minnesota if she didn't have the garden.

"Here in the garden she meets people, socializes and connects," she said.

Most plots have scaffolding for plants made of sticks and dead trees collected from the adjacent woods. Brown's husband, who works in construction, wanted to go to Home Depot for supplies to build the garden scaffolding, but her mother insisted they just use materials salvaged from the woods.

Brown said many older immigrants like her mother experience isolation and loneliness in the United States. They're often left in apartments to watch their grandchildren while the parents are working. The gardens enable them to grow and harvest food like they may have done in their home country, and to socialize in their native language, she said.

Rice Street Gardens held a fundraising event in early August that featured music, dance and a fashion show highlighting its many cultural groups. Organizers hope their efforts will make it the site of celebrations for years to come.

About the partnership

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