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Christopher Lutter-Gardella spied the limp gray vole on a patch of dirt in his backyard, picked it up by the tail and regarded its killer: his cat prowling the gardens at his Minneapolis home in the Powderhorn neighborhood. “He keeps the critters at bay,” he said.

Beside her own backyard patch of vegetables in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, LeAndra Estis let out a little scream, followed quickly by a laugh. “It’s just a fly,” she said. Tending her garden patch has softened her fear of all things creeping and flying. But pick up a dead animal? Never. Even the furry rabbits that nibble her greens stop her in her tracks.

In many other ways, these gardeners that we have followed through the planting and growing season are, well, peas in a pod.

Both have learned lessons from other gardeners and the earth, produced more than they thought possible and relish their gardens as places of refuge and joy. In a year when food security for many is dwindling and COVID-19 means more time at home, they both set out to garden like never before.

For Lutter-Gardella, that meant turning over much of his yard to the endeavor. A crabapple tree in his front yard stands before a stone path nearly shrouded by a small jungle of squash and tomato plants accented with tall stalks of purple corn. The garden fills the side yard and pours into the backyard, where kale, beets and other vegetables amass in a row of raised beds. The longtime gardener had vowed to expand his usual summer operation threefold, and the result is a yard rich with food.

For Estis, who bought her home last fall, it would be the first garden she created herself, though she had gardened as a child with her mother and grandmother. “We call this Tomato World,” she said of a plot where a tangle of stalks hold bold pops of red against a wire fence. In another garden, cut from the sod and surrounded by bricks, cantaloupe has taken hold. Beside it, a heap of weeds pulled days earlier dry in the sun.

Gaining control

By the end of August, both gardens were threatening to get out of hand.

Lutter-Gardella was discovering that “work and gardens don’t really mesh.” The artist creates large-scale, interactive sculptures, including the Luminous Yeti that warmed up the 2019 Holidazzle in Minneapolis. With public events canceled, his work shriveled up in March. Now his schedule is filling once again; one project was commissioned for the Caponi Art Park in Eagan.

Between work, he picked beans too late and harvested a squash too early. “I was kicking myself,” he said at wasting a vegetable after his toil of the summer due to rushing. Lutter-Gardella said that harvesting should occur when the garden dictates, not when a person’s work schedule allows. Work makes it “harder to abide by the garden’s timing.”

Estis, an issuing specialist with the Minnesota Department of Motor Vehicles, still works half of her time from home and sneaks in weeding during lunch breaks. But in her three backyard gardens, unwelcome intruders grow quickly and can be difficult to tame.

She has occasionally left an unidentified plant in the ground, waiting to see if it will produce a vegetable. “I come back out and find that it was a weed and it had strangled other plants,” she said.

Learning lessons

Lutter-Gardella and Estis aren’t afraid to turn to social media as a source of gardening knowledge.

Lutter-Gardella posts questions on Nextdoor and Facebook, finding wisdom in his neighbors’ experiences. “You get a lot of different answers to questions, but it’s always interesting. It’s like crowdsourcing.” he said.

Estis has found inspiration and know-how from two Facebook groups, Black Planters and Black Girls Grow Gardens. They have helped teach her that sprinkling crushed red pepper or placing a few small bags of shaved Irish Spring soap can ward off bunnies.

But some lessons are hard-earned, coming from toiling in the soil.

Estis realized that she planted too much cantaloupe, and the robust spreader choked out other plants such as strawberries and jalapeños. While she has had heaps of the melon, she originally picked them too soon, when they were bitter and hard. She learned that they are ready when they literally fall off the vine. “Now I have very good cantaloupe — just too much of it.

“I’ve learned that less is more,” said Estis, who hadn’t counted on some plants being so prolific. “Now I know I don’t need to plant six tomato plants because I don’t need 160 tomatoes.”

Lutter-Gardella has learned lessons about tomatoes, too. Interested in eking out the most from his plants, he has fortified his bamboo staking system with branches that have fallen from a backyard tree. “That took some doing,” he said, “figuring out how to stake them and tie them in such a way that they can breathe and have good form.”

Both Estis and Lutter-Gardella have shared their summer’s abundant and ongoing harvest.

Lutter-Gardella has done food swaps with another gardener in the neighborhood: He traded cucumbers and tomatoes for collard greens. He has also gifted a neighbor with green beans.

Estis routinely sends her mother, who lives in an apartment in the neighborhood, home with cucumbers and tomatoes. And when the SafeCity community center down the block holds its weekly food shelf and neighbors walk by with their grocery bags, she invites them to pick some tomatoes to add to their bounty.

Meeting their goals

When Lutter-Gardella set out to remake his yard into a mini urban farm, he focused on soil, hoping to learn better how to amend it to get the most out of his plantings. As he walked among an array of healthy plants, many protected by chicken-wire fences, he said, “My work on the soil paid off.”

Of course, another goal in this year of economic uncertainty was to feed his family in the summer and beyond. Already, he’s made apple butter from the crabapples, frozen pesto so he’ll have that zing of basil flavor deep in the winter, and saved kale in the freezer.

Estis, too, wanted to put fresh food on the table. “Tomatoes are my number one favorite. I would spend $15 or $20 a week on tomatoes and cucumbers before I grew my own. I haven’t bought a cucumber or a tomato at the store since I don’t even remember.”

But beyond that obvious benefit, Estis hoped the garden would bring her family together and teach her two daughters how to grow food. It worked. Both girls marveled at the sprouts in the spring. On a recent weekend, 19-year-old Quaia headed out to weed before Estis. And in a particularly sweet turn, Estis’ mother spends more time at Estis’ home either helping or overseeing the garden work.

The gardens have proved a respite in trying times. The garden is “a good place to escape the news — to put the craziness behind you,” said Lutter-Gardella. For Estis, her garden evokes similar feelings: “happiness, pureness and mental stability.”

Planning for next year

Lutter-Gardella wants to continue the expansion he began this year. A potato patch may be coming. But first, he wants his garden to act as backdrop for community togetherness, outdoors. His son Gabriel is a 10th-grader at South High School and will be doing online learning. “The idea is to host kids from around the neighborhood for once-a-week social-distance gatherings, a place in the midst of the gardens.”

Estis has plans, too. She expects to grow a wider variety of plants, including zucchini, and to build on what she’s already accomplished. “I can’t wait to do this again until next year,” she said. “I found a new love.”

Kerri Westenberg • 612-673-4282