Food Is The Second Medicine

Food is the second medicine.

We are spiritual beings having a physical experience.  When our feelings are hurt or we’re down we might say our spirits are low.  When we feel great we say we’re in high spirits.  Our feelings are one reflection or dimension of our spirit that our bodies can easily perceive.  

Our bodies’ condition can affect our feelings and spirit.

  Hormones, wounds, illness, health, touch and sensuality, all of these physical realities in our bodies interact with our spirits to help us feel emotions.  Water and food provide our bodies with the energy to continue hosting our spirits.  It’s common knowledge that our bodies absorb the physical qualities of the food we eat when we digest it and strip it of usable nutrients.  What would happen if folks everywhere started to recognize that the spiritual qualities of the food we eat are absorbed and used by our spirits? 

Have you ever heard someone say that

Love is the most important ingredient

in their cooking?  More then one professional chef has told me this and though I love to cook, I’m not a chef.  By trade I’m a landscaper and composter.  In my experience, the same ingredient that good chefs pour into every dish in order to bring flavor to life is also the most important tool we have for growing healthy food.  Love guides any holistically healthy growing operation.  Love of people, love of Earth, and love of life are a few of the tools that growers can use everyday in their pursuit of health.  


Some folks understand the concept of voting with a dollar.  The idea is that when we spend money on something we are effectively voting to have more of that thing be produced.  By spending our money we are also asking to have more of the spirit or emotional energy that surrounds the production of the items we purchase be created in the world.  This all comes home to our personal feelings and spirits when we ask ourselves a couple of sometimes hard to answer questions: 

Do I know where my food came from?  Do I feel good about the place that my food came from? 

Do I feel like my food is full of healthy living nutrients, or is it possibly tainted with poisonous pesticides?  When we look at food from this angle we see that from the moment we purchase food, it begins having an emotional impact on our own spiritual health and the health of the planet, an impact that we are in control of by the power of our choice.    

When we honor ourselves we feel better. We honor ourselves when we give ourselves those things that are holistically good for us.  We are fully connected in every way to this planet, the condition of the planet’s living systems guide the condition of humanity.  

To honor our environment is to honor ourselves. 

Our ancestors made our lives possible and our descendants will only know life if we leave the world in functioning condition for them.  I’ve heard it said that we did not inherit this world from our elders, instead we borrowed it from our children.  

Prayers can come true if you live them.

If I pray for a healthy environment then I need to work for and make choices that promote health in the environment.  By this way of living I am empowered to work for a miracle, I like that because life on this planet seems like it needs a miracle right now.  

Water is the first medicine and food is the second.

  What is good for us is also good for our home planet.  Clean water and healthy organically grown food have the power to heal our wounded environments, bodies, and spirits. 

Growing A Sustainable City

The city that gardens together grows sustainably together.  Gardening is perhaps the greatest tool for building sustainability that we can all share


Gardens can improve water quality, air quality, access to food, and personal health.  Cities that actively nurture the gardening and urban farming efforts of their citizens reap the benefits of healthy communities.  The nurturing of

sustainable cities

starts with the roots of the community.  Wherever there is a strong activist gardener population, you will find wonderful green ideas and initiatives sprouting up all over!

Rain gardens capture and filter rainwater run-off, community gardens and urban farms grow healthy food for people, locally grown food requires less trucking which keeps our air cleaner, fruit trees on the boulevard provide habitat for migrating birds and meeting places for neighbors.  A city full of healthy gardens is a sustainable city full of happy people.  Each city in Minnesota has it’s own unique approach to sustainability.  In this volume of the Seed, we’ll have a look at two cities in the metro area to see some great examples of how local governments work with residents to incorporate all kinds of great gardening into their sustainability plans in order to grow happy, healthy cities.  


Homegrown food, local food, or food security, however you want to look at it, Minneapolitans' taste in food is rapidly



According to Gayle Prest, the city’s official Sustainability Director,

“Gardening is an integral part of the long term sustainability plan for Minneapolis”

With more then 100 community gardens and 33 farmers markets, this city is obviously hungry for healthy change.  Leading the charge for this change is an official city organization called

Homegrown Minneapolis

  which is dedicated to nothing less then building a healthy, local food system for all Minneapolis residents. 

Homegrown has recently been hard at work on an

Urban Agriculture Policy Plan

that will guide city land use decisions related to urban food production and distribution. The plan will help identify where and how land should be used to grow and distribute food through community and commercial gardens and urban farms.  In short, this new ag-plan will help Minneapolis scale up to the next logical step in urban food production.  By defining and allowing for urban farms, and market gardens, and by amending the zoning code to better accommodate urban agriculture this innovative plan will allow Minneapolis residents to have more control over their food choices, and more access to healthy homegrown food.

The time to support the Urban Ag Plan is now, call your

city council person


-Update: Your Support Helped Get This Passed!-

“The key to all of this is to start with deep rich organic soil made from our own compost”

Gayle reminds me as we talk about the city’s goal for having curbside residential compostable waste pick up by 2014.  This point is especially powerful as it shows yet another great way to improve our environment and our gardening habits at the same time.  When we compost we reduce the amount of garbage going to burners and landfills and we improve our garden soil, that’s the kind of sustainable solution we can all grow from. 


Oakley Biesanz, Naturalist for the City of Maplewood, explained to me some of the gardening strategies that are helping to grow a sustainable future for residents there. 

Maplewood is a statewide leader

in controlling water quality through

rain gardening


  With over 620 city installed rain gardens now thriving in residents yards, 60 more growing on city owned land and many more to come Maplewood is proving that rain gardens are an effective and beautiful way to keep waterways clean and healthy.  With the city’s support and promotion rain gardening has become the  standard for dealing with storm water run-off in Maplewood.

At the

Nature Center

where Oakley works, the mission is to enhance resident’s awareness and understanding of land, water and wildlife resources; to empower the community to become stewards of the environment. This mission is clearly evident in the Demonstration Gardens, which include rainwater gardens, woodland wildflower and prairie butterfly gardens and a small section of no-mow grass.

For lawn enthusiasts, Maplewood has developed the

Mow-Hi Pledge

This pledge to cut the grass no shorter then 3 inches and leave all the clippings on the lawn will help residents reduce fertilizer and watering costs and environmental impacts.  Of course it doesn’t hurt that there’s a grand prize drawing for folks who are willing to take the pledge. 

Community gardens

are sprouting up in Maplewood this spring as part of a multi-city effort to improve access to food growing space.  Working with the Maplwood-North St. Paul Parks and Rec. department, School District 622 and a local church, the two cities will now be able to offer over 650 community garden plots available to the public this spring.

In the long run, sustainability is just a common sense approach to life, and gardening is the simplest approach to sustainability that we have available. 

Whether you’re filtering rain water run off through rain gardens in order to keep the ground water, rivers, and lakes clean or keeping nutrients in your neighborhood by composting in your back yard, or maybe even growing your own food and medicine at home or with neighbors in a community garden, these are all among the most Earth friendly, community building habits humans can all share.  

It takes a village to raise a garden and no one should be left out of the process.  From youth to elders, from city council members to dirt gardeners, we all have a stake in helping to grow a sustainable city right where we live and we all need to work hard and connect with our community if we are going to see success.

Gardeners, take the opportunity this spring to think globally, garden locally and start to grow a sustainable city!

Gardeners Get Involved

Gardeners are natural givers

, because the garden teaches us the importance of giving.  When we give our plants compost, they thrive and produce.  When we give our bodies home grown foods, we thrive and are productive.  When we share all this productive health by giving the gift of

access to gardening 

to folks who wouldn’t otherwise have it, we share one of the most profoundly transformative gifts imaginable.  For many a gardener there’s almost no greater feeling then to share a skill, tool, piece of land, or even just a nice conversation that will help another gardener grow.  Minneapolis is a giving and green city.  As a gardener and volunteer, there’s never a shortage of great organizations here that I can get involved with in order to share the gifts gardening can give. 

Gardening Matters


a Minneapolis based non-profit agency has been busy organizing several social service providers city-wide in order to help them work together in the garden.  Many local agencies such as

Waite House


Homegrown Minneapolis

, and

Youth Farm and  Market Project

have been working to increase Minneapolis residents’ access to gardening for decades.  Gardening Matters plan is to link up all these great organizations along with local gardening volunteers and businesses to create Garden Resource Hubs that residents in need can access for garden classes and information, planting space and gardening resources. 

Gardening Matters is working with activists, businesses, and neighbors from across the city in order to have the resource hubs up and running by the spring of 2011.  


Resource Hubs are defined as“A collaboration of individuals and organizations are working together to develop neighborhood-based local food resource hubs that would support growing, selling and preserving of food by households, community gardeners, and urban farmers all within their community.”

The website states that the plan for this year includes these main focus areas:

  1. Serve as local points of distribution for physical resources
  2. Provide physical space for education classes
  3. Focus on building leadership capacity at the community level
  4. Develop a community network of gardeners and urban farmers that are able to support one another
  5. Build community connections

The organizing work that is currently underway is truly impressive.  Through the Garden Resource Hubs, Gardening Matters is encouraging folks to garden, and potentially improving the quality of life in Minneapolis for a very long time.

Stefan's Fantastic Farm

(This article was first written in 2011, since then Stefan has joined forces with farm partner, Mr. Michael Pursell and together they've more then tripled their urban farm vegetable production and sales.  -RH)

Stefan Meyer 

is one guy we could all learn a lot from.  As the driving force behind Minneapolis’ most ingenious new food production business,

Growing Lots Urban Farm,

Stefan is demonstrating for all of us the potential power held in the ground beneath our vacant urban lots. 

For the last few years, the city of Minneapolis has begun to take the importance of locally grown food seriously.  Through encouraging the growth of farmers markets, and official initiatives such as

Homegrown Minneapolis

, the city has sprouted seeds of change that should improve our health, habitat, and happiness as they grow.  As politicians congratulate themselves for being so wise and Earth-friendly, green thumbs

 around town welcome this emerging atmosphere of tolerance toward nature in a city where inspectors routinely cite and ticket residential gardens as “Overhanging Vegetation”, and until recently bees and chickens were illegal creatures. 

Now that the officials have decided we can go ahead and grow, smart folks like Stefan aren’t waiting around for them to change their minds.  Late last year Stefan got together with Redesign Inc. a local community development corporation that encourages all kinds of good green growth throughout Minneapolis.  With a little help from these folks, and a whole lot of hard work Stefan has pushed the way forward for the development of Minneapolis’ first parking lot-covering urban farm.  Where once was blacktop now tomatoes are growing!  This is just the type of change welcome in a city hungry for homegrown health.


It takes someone with a great imagination to look at a barren blacktop lot and visualize a verdant veggie patch.  I guess you could also say that anyone who thinks it’s a fun idea to turn a parking lot into a production farm is in no way afraid of hard work. A hardy work ethic and a bold imagination are two traits that seem to have helped Stefan Meyer’s city farming dreams come true. 

What I see as I approach Growing Lots Urban Farm is astounding to my gardening sensibilities.  I happen to know that due to concern over land use Stefan had to delay installation plans of not only his garden plants, but also all the soil for the garden until the end of June.  For a garden that was built from the very ground up starting so late in the season, his results are more lush and fruitful then many gardens planted in May. 


Stefan says that one of the secrets to his success is the soil mix.  He worked with local businessman Peter Kern from Kern Landscaping in St. Paul to develop a mix that could not only sit on top of a thin landscaping fabric covering a parking surface, but could also pack enough fertility in only a foot of depth to make the garden plants happy and healthy.  Stefan says that if he had a growing space that he could use for longer then a year or two, he would have worked the soil in a moderately different way.  More akin to the style of legendary urban farmer Will Allen’s Growing Power planting method where blacktop is first covered with wood chips to create a barrier between the soil and the pavement that prevents roots from reaching the blacktop.


The late start to this season as well as a decidedly uncertain potential for next season’s farm are both a result of what Stefan describes as the biggest challenge in creating an urban farm, land availability.  While small lots can provide a decent living for farmers employing bio-intensive farming methods such as deep composting, companion planting, and the use of beneficial organisms, city land prices even for modest sized lots are unattainably high for almost any farmers’ budget.  It seems that if cities are to take seriously the prospect of raising a large amount of food within city limits, state and local governments need to start subsidizing land costs for local and urban farmers instead of big box stores and stadiums.

Land availability is just one of the many challenges to having a successful urban farm.  I’m sure most folks familiar with gardening in the city would be surprised to find that anything other then squirrels could present a greater challenge to an urban farmer, but rest assured, Stefan says squirrels are a close second on the list of challenges.  Apparently squirrels are crazy for melons.  


Having his entire melon crop decimated was enough to make Stefan consider drastic action.  I recommended getting young cats.  I’ve had farm kittens that get transplanted and raised in the city work wonders at keeping squirrels, rabbits, and other urban vermin at bay.  Of course Stefan’s farm isn’t right next to his house so the best options for now may be to attract a pride of strays or get some live traps set up and take his squirrels across the river to St. Paul like everyone else who catches squirrels in Minneapolis does.


Despite these challenges, Growing Lots is growing lots!  The tomatoes and cucumbers are just starting to come in by the basketful while beets, chard, kale, basil, and salad greens have been producing practically since going in the ground.  Stefan’s produce is sold before it’s even grown as he’s set his farm up in the community supported agriculture or CSA model.  This season he’s delivering produce boxes on a biweekly basis to 7 lucky share purchasers who are treated to a wide variety of seasonally changing produce.  If given a permanent site Stefan says he’d like to offer up to 100 shares in his farm and build much further complexity into the farm and it’s offerings. 


Tomatoes ripening on the vine, bumble bees buzzing everywhere, and dragonflies zooming by overhead with downtown standing in the background, all of these are signs of success for an urban farmer like Stefan.  It strikes me that perhaps Stefan’s biggest success this season though is in his creation of a fine example that we can all be inspired by. 

“Heat exhaustion can sneak up on you in a parking lot!”  Stefan laughs as he explains while we tour through his first season’s bountiful beds.  “I guess working 12 hours straight in a 102 degree parking lot can really take its toll.”  While I’m not sure that most folks I know would live to laugh off a workday such as this, Stefan’s southern Minnesota farm raised smile doesn’t fade as he tells me that he decided he had better have half a day off after that one. 


Thanks to Stefan’s dedicated work and undaunted imagination, folks in Minneapolis can clearly see that growing lots of food in the city is not only possible, but it’s also beautiful, fun, and good for us all. 

Butterfly Gardening

Why do we love butterflies so much?  

Is it the beauty and freedom that define their days?  Is it the transformative potential of the


that attracts us?  After all, butterflies are just bugs too, right?  How is it that we save so much room in our hearts for one bug and have entire industries devoted to the extermination of other bugs?  

Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.
~Nathaniel Hawthorne

Whatever butterflies are doing that strikes our imaginations and warms our hearts, they seem to be doing it better then any other insect around.  While the dragonfly can impresses us with speed, agility, and grace, the butterflies’ lackadaisical charm flutters ever deeper into our hearts.  While the honey bees work day and night to serve our human purposes, so many people react to their little striped suits with sheer panic, but come the lazy butterfly hopping around on the breeze and people everywhere stop to smile. 

It’s high time we humans started devoting more space to the other creatures we share this planet with, and our collective love of butterflies can guide the way towards a healthy habitat for us all.

"Just living is not enough," said the butterfly, "one must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower."~Hans Christian Anderson

The Butterfly Effect

Tiny actions can have huge effects on complex systems.  The butterfly effect is a theory used by 

scientists and storytellers alike to explain the notion that even seemingly insignificant actions can have a huge impact over time. With this in mind I like to ask myself a seemingly tiny question.  

What is the effect of my life on the Earth’s living systems?  The size of this question however should not be judged by the number of words it takes to ask, but by the millennia it takes to answer.

Our daily decisions have impacts far beyond our capacity to understand. 

Monarchs below and Western Tiger Swallowtail above feast on the 

nectar of summer blooming native perennial plants.  Butterfly gardening grows beauty and environmental health. I like to plant a few deeply rooted butterfly attracting native plants in amongst my vegetable gardens.  Not only are my vegetable crops helped when the perennial roots draw moisture from deep in the ground during the heat of the summer, but the butterflies are happy to see the free food I've grown them, and I'm happy to see the butterflies!

Butterfly Gardening Basics

Simply put, if you want to see butterflies, plant native flowers.  The most inviting homes for butterflies will have different types of native flowers that bloom and provide nectar all through the growing season.  To ensure your yard has more butterflies then the Jones’s next door, also plant some caterpillar host plants.  One classic example of a caterpillar host plant is

common milkweed

, which hosts

monarch butterflies

and seems to grow as freely as the butterfly it hosts.  If monarchs are your goal, make sure you also plant

meadow blazingstar

, no other nectar-bearing bloomer can make the monarchs line up like this form of Liatris.  Monarchs are also strongly attracted to other forms of



black eyed susans



, and


Why stop at monarchs though when there’s so many wonderful little butterflies out there to see.  Variety is the spice of life, and the more types of native plants you have in your yard, the more likely you’ll see rare forms of butterfly.  Caterpillar host plants include: Artemisia, which is preferred by Painted Ladycaterpillars, Hackberry treeswhich host many creatures including the American Snoutand Tawny Emperorcaterpillars while Violets,Purslane, and Sedumwhich will host the lovely Variegated Fritillary.   

Many butterflies will have widely varying food sources.  Much more then nectar passes the pointed proboscis of our protagonist.  Various butterflies will eat everything from leaves and rotting fruit to dead animals and dung.  The greater the variety of native plants you grow including trees, shrubs, blooming perennials and ground covers, the more diverse will be your yards selections of foods, and the more the butterflies will flutter by.  

A butterflies' beauty is bold and obvious, while other garden bugs may appear to human sensibilities as creepy or scary.  However, even the creepy bugs play an important part in our lives.

We like the butterflies, are all connected to, and reliant on a living planetary system stocked full of a huge variety of bugs.  In order to protect one type of insect like the butterfly, we must protect all of the other insects, plants, and animals that live in and create the butterflies ecosystem.

Hints for Butterfly Beginners:

1. Good plants from good sources.

Locally, the best butterfly plant selections are sold at 3 garden stores. Visit all three, they each have different selections and really cool gardeners on staff. 

Landscape Alternatives

, and

Outback Nursery

are my top stops for butterfly garden plants.  Roy at Landscape Alternatives is especially knowledgeable about local butterfly plant selections. 

2.  Good dirt makes good gardens.

Ignore the silly rumors that native plants like “starved” soil.  I don’t have any idea where or how this rumor got started, but it’s a downright lie.  The meadow, prairie, and woodland soils from this region, are some of the richest soils I’ve ever encountered and I’ve checked out dirt around the world.  If you want success with your new butterfly garden, before you plant, remove any sod, wood mulch, landscaping fabric, or other impediment to growth, and lay down at least 6 inches of fresh compost (not bagged, never trust a dirt bag), after laying down the compost turn it into the soil with a shovel leaving large chunks of the soil undisturbed.  After the compost has been incorporated into the soil, simply cover with more compost till the surface of the garden is smooth and then plant away till your garden is full and your heart is content. 

3.  Cover The Ground In Green.

I call this notion “living mulch”.  Not only will this practice keep more moisture in your soil, but by shading the ground, it will help ensure that you are packing your space with plenty of plant diversity.  Lawn grass doesn’t count.  Sod grass lawns provide habitat for neither butterfly, nor bird, nor beast.  When designing your yard, plan for as little lawn, and as much garden as possible.  If you make the flowers happy, you’ll make the butterflies ecstatic!

4.   Grow Many Layers of Canopy.

When we build habitat, it’s good to let nature be our guide.  Before the Twin Cities existed in this area, there was forest.  When we wish to heal the land locally, we need only help recreate the forest.  Native trees and shrubs should be included in the plan for any well landscaped twin cities yard.  I like to plant meadow plants around and underneath newly establishing trees.  Meadows are what the forest uses to recreate itself and fill in the gaps after windfalls and forest fires.  Think of our city building and farming practices as being as destructive to the local forests as a fire or tornado, then you can begin to see the amazing amount of repair we need to create in our environment before it will be healthy again.

5.   Never Use Pesticides or Chemical Fertilizers.

Butterflies are delicate, and we aren’t all that much tougher then them. It doesn’t take much to upset the balance of health in any ecosystem. We’ve already discussed how tiny decisions have big impacts, and this is certainly the case here.  

The gentle breeze blown by the beating wings of a butterfly in your back yard could just be the catalyst for the creation of a current of cultural change in America.  Life is funny like that.  Little actions in one place can have huge impacts in seemingly unrelated, far away places. A friend of mine once said to me of butterflies “they should be called flutter-byes, that’s what they do”.  I couldn’t agree more.  Now is the best time to plan a butterfly garden, before the growing season flutters by.

Eat Your Weedies


said it best,

“A weed is a flower too, once you get to know it.”

The dandelion for instance.  How many of us are completely unaware of the untamed beauty of this plant? 

Providing free nourishing food, and medicine for passers by, offering soil fertility, and perfect plant companionship for tomatoes and other shallow rooted crops, and all of this in a form that is simple, ruggedly beautiful, and completely unstoppable.  


Nature utilizes weeds to perform functions that are often beyond our capacity to easily grasp.  In an abandoned lot for instance, our hero the dandelion will drive roots into the earth allowing minerals and nutrients from deep in the ground to be accessed by other shallow rooted plants.  The channels made in the ground by dandelions roots also help drive water and air downward increasing the overall capacity for root depth and allowing water to enter the water table instead of rushing off to damage local creeks, rivers, or lakes.

Let's all yank from the root the damaging notion that some plants are evil.  Instead let's see beauty, life, and nourishment wherever we can.

Dandelion, (Taraxacum)


If you were offered a hardy perennial plant that bloomed all season, was entirely edible, could be used for medicine, helped shallow rooted crops like tomatoes grow stronger, and provided habitat for bees and butterflies would you think I was crazy for even suggesting that such a plant exists?  Sure you would if you were unaware of the amazing super powers of the Dandelion.

Now the English name dandelion is a corruption of the French dent de lion meaning "lion's tooth", referring to the coarsely toothed leaves.  The shape of the leaf is hardly the most notable part of this plant.  I’d have to agree that taraxacum is a lion among plants, but given all this plant offers the world I think it’s time for a new name.  Terrific-lion seems much better suited then dandelion ever was.

Terrific-lion grows everywhere, the leaves are yummy and full of vitamins A, C, and K.  The root makes a tea that can help with liver detoxification.

Creeping Charlie, (Glechoma hederacea)


Speaking of poorly named plants…. wow, I sure don’t think I’d want to meet anyone whose nickname was creeping charlie, but then sometimes when we get to know a person we realize that our ideas about who they are don’t always match reality.  Such is the case with dear charlie.

Europeans who traditionally used it as food and medicine imported creeping charlie to America.  In days of old, people would eat the plant fresh and cooked and put it to use also as a flavoring and clarifying agent in beer.

Lately, while speaking with a landscaping client who happens to be one of the world’s foremost experts on herbal treatments for autism in children, I was amazed to learn about the magic, magnetic nature of plants and people.

The swing set in my clients’ back yard is the preferred hang out for her young daughter who due in part to high mercury content in her blood lives with the effects of autism.  As an herbalist, my client, Lise Wolf, had been introduced to the notion that plants are attracted to those creatures that they can help heal and nurture.  One day Lise noticed an interesting phenomenon.  The creeping charlie in her back lawn was growing from all directions toward her daughter’s swing set.  The growth pattern was so pronounced that the creeping charlie was actually climbing the supports of the swing set in lieu the rest of her yard.  As soon as she noticed this pattern the herbalist in her took over and she set to researching the association between creeping charlie and heavy metals in the blood.  What she found was inspiring.

Creeping charlie  has been used since the introduction of lead based paints in Europe to treat what was known as “painter’s colic”, or lead poisoning, and modern herbalists swear by it’s use for treating heavy metal poisoning.  Since finding this information Lise has been using dear old creeping charlie to effectively reduce mercury levels in her daughter and the other kids she helps.

Charlie should also not be discounted as an important pollinator food source.  During the spring and summer, an organic lawn covered in creeping charlie and white clover is a foraging bee and butterfly buffet.

So while charlie does creep his way through the garden, his popular nickname would tend to leave a gardener feeling creeped out, and given how terrific Charlie is, I say it’s time we give this fine friend a new nickname.  Good Time Charlie used to make us sing the garden blues, but now that he’s better understood I’m sure we’ll all be singing a different tune.


Lamb's Quarters (Chenopodim album)

Grows like crazy, and tastes like spinach.  These are the outstanding traits of lamb’s quarters.  The list of minerals and nutrients available from lamb’s quarters are almost as long as it’s list of common names.  Aside from Lamb's quarters, this plant is known world wide as every thing from goosefoot, fat-hen, nickel greens, and pigweed, to the nicknames, which denote it’s preference for compost piles, dungweed, and my personal favorite, dirty dick.

While the nickname dirty dick works wonders at wiggling the giggle out of folks, it only tells half the story.  This plant is nutritious, and that’s not dirty, that’s delicious!  Delicious Dick is the new nickname for this strong, upright, freely seeding weed.  You’ll find new dinner delights with Delicious Dick in your dish!


Terrific-lions, Good Time Charlie, and Delicious Dick are all right outside your door!  A buffet of heroic plants ready to please your pallet, and these three are just the beginning.  Wood Sorrel, Burdock, Chickweed, Violets, Daylillies, Garlic Mustard, Milk Thistle, Plantain, Purslain, and Nettle are a few of the other heroes of health that grow freely all around us here in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Worms Go To School

Worms eat our food scraps and leave compost in the soil.  Compost feeds the plants and the plants feed us.  This winter the pre-schoolers at Anishinabe Academy in South Minneapolis are learning how this simple and respectful cycle works by growing worms fed with the kids own food scraps right in their classroom.  While children at Anishinabe are learning in class about worms, soil, seeds, plants, food, and health, a team of energized, organized grown-ups from the school and community are learning how to grow opportunities for the kids to get their hands dirty in the garden.

I’m not sure if worms can smile, but I smile when I think about kids learning how to empower their health, respect their environment, and sustain their culture. 

Recently Jonathan Beutler, a community educator and worm grower offered to work with Russ Henry of Giving Tree Gardens and teachers from Anishinabe Acadamy, to facilitate worm bin classes and equipped the classrooms with all the knowledge and gear they will need to keep on growing worms and soil from food scraps all year long.


Allies come in all different shapes and sizes, so please don’t judge a worm by it’s squirm

Worms are easy!  Here’s a few do’s and don’ts:

DO use 2 opaque bins stacked inside each other with lots of air holes drilled through the inside bin and the lid.

DOuse shredded leaves for worm bin medium, wet your medium with lukewarm water till it’s damp, not soaked.

DO use a little sand (worms don’t have teeth and use the grit to help them digest)

DO Feed The Worms!  Red Wigglers like to eat a variety of foods including but not limited to: leafy greens, potatoes, banana peels, coffee grounds, egg shells, leaves and trimmings, tea bags, cereal, and grains.

DO tuck the worm food under the soil, the worms like to live in the dark and this also helps keep any smells down


Don’t drown your worms, they like a moist but not soaked medium,

Don’t have a stinky bin, keep out dairy or meat!

When your worm bin gets ½ full of compost, remove the compost by screening out the worms orsimply scoop all worm laden compost over to one side of the bin.  On the other side make up some new medium with sand and food scraps, most of your worms will find their way over to the new medium within a couple of days.  After you’ve got the compost mostly worm free, go feed the plants! Don’t put a lot of citrus in the bin, this may make the bin too acidic for the worms

Compost, It's Hot!

These days it seems folks all around me are taking bold strides to “green up” their everyday lives.  Whether we’re motivated to reclaim our health from the abominable agriculture and healthcare industries, or take back our wealth from the robber barons of the big energy companies, all of us are awakening to the idea that it’s time we followed that sage bumper sticker advice and remember how to "live simply so that we may all simply live". 

Composting is one of the simplest things that I’ve ever learned.  As a designer of Earth friendly landscapes and organic gardens, part of my job is to help folks implement changes right outside their doors that positively impact the entire global ecosystem.  I routinely testify that there is no greater teacher of natural methods then nature itself.  

So what does nature tell us about compost? 

In nature there is no waste.  Any creature lucky enough to emerge from the muck is quickly turned back into muck upon death, at which point another creature feeds on the muck created by the first creature. When we compost we pay direct homage to this ancient cycle, and our gardens display the rewards of this environmentally respectful approach.  What I’m getting at here is that nature shows us that compost grows great plants.  Compost has always been the only sustainable means of creating fertility in soil.

Okay so enough about why we should compost, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.

First of all, I’m through with black plastic compost bins. Ineffective, ugly, and misleading to folks, these bins are ridiculous.  We already know that the act of composting at home is a way of copying nature.  Ask yourself, when was the last time you found a black plastic compost bin on the prairie, or in the woods, or wetlands?  Compost happens in nature completely unaided and unhindered by plastic bins.  Instead all the parts of the trees, and plants grow up and then periodically or seasonally die off to fall loosely across an open area where the rain soaks the leaves, and the wind and animals stir the whole thing up.  After a good sit on the floor of the forest or prairie, a dead leaf or fallen apple becomes soil.  At home we copy this process, in an open air compost bin or compost pile we mix together our kitchen waste such as fruits and vegetables, coffee, egg shells, grains, and bread, with our yard waste such as leaves and grass cuttings.

This edition of The Seed is dedicated to the hundreds of folks who've asked me how they can make a functional, affordable, and aesthetically pleasing compost system at home.  Giving Tree

is proud to have partnered with another green thinker,

Margaret Wilke

to bring you a great gardeners thoughts on growing garden gold from garbage!

Garden How To :

home composting made easy

When attempting to adapt open air composting to the urban environment a little experienced advice can be handy.  I always describe the best urban composting system as the 4-Bin system that I learned from my friend

Margaret Wilke

.  Simply make 4 bins that are at least 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep each.  The bins should be made out of whatever re-usable construction materials you have around.  I love to use chicken wire and stakes because they’re cheap and breathable.  Make sure the sides of your bins allow for a lot of air flow, so if you make your bins out of wood leave a few inches of space between each board.  Situate your bins in a location that is easily accessible so you don’t feel like you’re going for a hike each time you bring a bucket of kitchen scraps out.

  If you are worried about ill-tempered neighbors or city inspectors, you could always plant raspberry bushes along the sides of your bins.  That way the bins will be disguised and you’ll have a peace offering to share with any disgruntled passers by.  Using your 4-bin system should look a little something like this:

Bin 1:

  This is a storage space for yard waste.

Bin 2

:  Whenever I’ve collected enough food waste in my kitchen scrap bucket I empty the bucket into Bin 2 and then I layer on a healthy dose of yard waste from Bin 1.

Bin 3

:  After Bin 2 is full, I move all of its contents into Bin 3.

Bin 4

:  After Bin 3 is full, I move all of its contents into Bin 4.

By the time you’ve layered and then moved your compostables from bin to bin a few times you’ve got yourself some real garden gold.  Feed your new plantings plenty of this fine homemade magic and watch them grow healthy and bountiful.  Give the entire garden a 2-inch layer of compost each spring in order to ensure a full season of growth.

Margaret talks compost


stands beside the compost system that she's been faithfully using for more then 20 years in the picture below.  Composting is one of Margaret's passions, and her wisdom rubs off on anyone who visits her gardens!

"Composting is one of my passions.

  I think it is because it is a kind of alchemy.  You can turn things that people normally throw away into GOLD!  Well, not real gold, but something as valuable as gold to anyone who gardens.  You would have to pay a lot of money to get the kind of enrichment for your soil that organic compost gives you, and my bet is it wouldn’t be as good, either for the garden or for the environment.

It all starts in the kitchen.

  We keep an old ice cream bucket with a lid handy in the kitchen sink. Everything that is plant based, that normally would go into the trash, winds up in the bucket instead.  Even with just two of us these days, my husband and I, we often have a bucket or more of material to take out to the compost heap every day, especially in the summer.  It makes us very aware of how much we are dependent on the products from the earth for our health and well being.  Food comes from somewhere, and it’s not the grocery store!  And plant material needs to go back into the garden to complete the God-given natural cycle that sustains life.

We compost as long as we can into the fall, and begin again in the spring as soon as there are any days above freezing. Actually, I should rephrase that. I compost as long as I can into the fall, and begin again in the spring as soon as there are any days above freezing. My husband just puts up with me.

Here’s what goes into the bucket from the kitchen:

All vegetable and fruit trimmings, skins, seeds, stems, leaves, etc.

Coffee grounds (very key because they have nitrogen that helps the compost “cook”)

Tea bags

Egg shells

Left over / day old / moldy bread products (no butter please!)

My family knows that Mom will have a fit if she finds a banana peel in the kitchen trashcan. Roses love bananas.

We add this kitchen mix to the compost pile daily and ALWAYS cover it with dry leaves or fresh green material such as garden trimmings and grass clippings (IF they are chemical free). It is amazing how fast those banana peels, potato skins, and broccoli stems break down and become completely unrecognizable! Eggshells take longer, so I generally try to break them up before putting them in the pile. If there hasn’t been rain for a while I occasionally water down the piles, but not very often. Once in a while I shovel some partially finished compost and/or garden soil over the top of everything to give it the microbes it needs to break down. That also ensures there are no odors from the pile for neighbors to complain about. Keeping the fresh additions from the kitchen COVERED is key to having an odor free pile. It keeps inquiring animals at bay as well. Also you won’t attract flies or bees when the fresh stuff is kept adequately covered.

Above, the compost process begins in earnest when kitchen scraps are mixed with yard waste in Bin # 1

A mix of green(kitchen waste) and brown (yard waste) materials is ideal. I use everything from the garden EXCEPT weeds with seeds. I have learned the hard way that weed seeds will make it through most backyard composting systems. These piles are not usually large enough to generate the high heat needed to kill weed seeds. I am also very careful about which spent flowers with seeds I put into my compost piles as well. Your garden will be entirely black-eyed susans, for example, or purple coneflowers if you put the flower heads with these seeds into your compost. I generally cut off the flower heads and then throw the stems and leaves into the compost. Otherwise I just pull up over-zealous plants when they’ve finished blooming and pile them in a dark corner under the evergreens in the back of the yard where they are out of sight. There they break down but don’t get enough light for the seeds to germinate.

Bins number 2 and 3 show us the various stages of waste becoming soil.  Bin number 3 below is full of healthy happy compost just waiting to spread its organic fertile magic!

As for brown material, hay without seeds will work, but is expensive. I have sometimes used oat straw that has seeds in it, the kind used for Halloween decorations, particularly if someone gives it to me free. If I’m sure the pile will be completely composted, then I feel okay about adding it to the compost pile. The sprouts of oat seeds from the straw are easily identifiable and pull up readily if a few of them make it through the composting process. But, I wouldn’t want them all over the garden, so I don’t use oat straw as mulch.

Once a summer I do a major turning of the piles. This is when a strong husband comes in handy. But I have done it myself, it just takes a little longer, since I have to do it a bit at a time, not all at once as hubby prefers (“Let’s just get it over with!”)

Margaret's compost system is the most functional home composting method that I've ever seen.  Notice how the posts are all slotted which makes moving and scooping the pile very easy.

Making compost in Minnesota has the advantage of the freeze / thaw process that helps break down organic matter without any help from you at all. It takes about a full season to make really good compost. Once you have the cycle started you can easily keep it going and will be supplied with compost pretty much throughout the growing season.

I have three compost bins that my husband built for me at least 20 years ago. They are about 4 feet across and 5' deep. They stand side by side with removable boards in the front of each bin, and also between the bins so that turning material from one bin to the next is not too difficult. I always keep fresh material separated from the 1/2 completed compost, and from the aged compost, so three bins are needed.

Once a bin is emptied by using the compost for potting-up spring plants or spreading it on the gardens, I turn the next most finished compost into it. This aerates the pile and gets it cooking. Then I turn the least finished compost into the just emptied bin and start a new pile. Composting fits naturally into the cycle of growing and life in the garden.

Try it you’ll like it!"

From the kitchen to the garden and back to the kitchen, Margaret's compost system is easy to build, fun to use, and it makes the best dirt around, just have a look at

Margaret's gardens

to see for yourself!

Kids Grow Justice

In our fair cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the gap between the haves and have-nots is so striking that it can literally be tasted. The difference in food selection and availability between low-income neighborhoods and wealthy neighborhoods is painfully obvious. In this world, far to few folks acknowledge that access to healthy foods is a basic human right.

Now's the time for us to stand up together and work for a better future, where healthy food is available and accessible to everyone.

Food Justice

When we give our bodies good food, we feel good.  When we feel good inside it shows on the outside.  Folks who feel healthy have less stress and more freedom.


Without good food, our bodies suffer.  Near term problems like belly aches and low energy become long term health threats such as diabetes and heart disease after years of eating nutritionally valueless food on a regular basis.

When whole neighborhoods are starved of decent, healthy food, the entire community is damaged in an ongoing and self-perpetuating way.  Parents who themselves were raised on convenience store food in-turn feed their kids the same processed foods.  Communities routinely loose wealth due to health care costs that are crushing to the personal finances of their under-nourished unhealthy residents.   These communities can get caught in a downward spiral of community destruction, after all if you can’t afford your health care bills, how could you possibly afford healthy food, and without healthy food, how could you possibly avoid health care costs?


Walking through the convenience store isles in any low-income neighborhood in the city will quickly prove the point.  Rarely are fresh vegetables to be found in these types of stores, and the bulk of the products on the shelf contain artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives.  When taken into account the fact that for many low-income families the neighborhood convenience store is the only accessible or affordable food source, a vast injustice becomes obvious.  The low-income folks in Minneapolis and St. Paul have a severe lack of access to something that should be the right of all folks everywhere, the human right to healthy food.


Ryan Broden (a.k.a.) Brody, is the Academic Enrichment Coordinator at Little Earth of United Tribes, an American Indian community in South Minneapolis.   Brody works with the youth who live at Little Earth, tutoring, organizing activities, and developing positive relationships with the kids who stop by the Ed Center to hang out.

Brody invited Giving Tree to come in and get directly involved with his program and the youth clients he serves.  Together we began planning and planting gardens with the kids.

Sometimes we have to remind grown ups that gardening is supposed to be fun, but these kids needed no coaching to find the fun in getting their hands dirty. We planted 3 gardens together throughout the growing season.  First we planted a traditional native food garden consisting of what are known as the three sisters: corn, beans, and squash.   Next we added compost and butterfly attracting native prairie plants to the grassy garden growing in front of the Little Earth Ed Center.


Soon after these projects were completed we organized a composting project with donations of food waste and wood chips from local businesses.   After a day of making compost bins with the kids, it started to rain and we went inside to cook up a healthy stew.

The staff at Little Earth has worked diligently over the past few months not only on the potential for growing good food, but a strong contingent of impassioned employees have organized to grow awareness of the impact of diet on health within Little Earth.


The work of this team of healthy eating activists has begun to drive up the demand for healthy food choices within the community.

With all of this energy infused into the process, the final garden project of the season took on a new life as our largest group of kids yet came out to turn compost into the earth, and plant seeds in the ground this fall for next spring's harvest.

Fermenting the Harvest!

Organic gardeners are health conscious folks, and there's no more healthy a way to preserve your bumper crops then through the use of fermentation! Giving Tree Gardens would like to empower folks everywhere to take their health into their own hands, through the magic of vegetable fermentation - an ancient human cultural tradition.

Fermenting With Wild Abandon!

Cabbage is our friend.  The cabbage plant is a cultivar of the wild mustard green.  Cabbage and all of it’s Brassicaceae family relatives including kale, cauliflower, kohlrabi, collard greens, brussel sprouts, turnip, radish, rutabaga, bok choy, broccoli, and more all have growing on their surface a bacteria called lactobacillus plantarum.  This beneficial organism is exactly the right microbe to help the human body digest and get the most nutrition from our foods.  Lactobacillus is responsible as well for the tangy unique taste that sauerkraut and kimchi offer.  So our friend the cabbage, and all of it’s relatives, freely offer us all of their delicious healthy nutrition, that's what I call POWER KRAUT!


Of course any northern gardener whose grown kales, or cabbages knows these beauties keep growing strong well past frost.  The fact that these amazing plants are able to feed us through the cold weather in both fresh and fermented forms make the brassicaceae family of plants a natural companion of humankind.

Kimchi For a Better Tomorrow

Listed by Health Magazine as one of the top 5 most healthy foods in the world, kimchi is an easy to make human-health-aid.  A traditional Korean ferment, kimchi is an extremely adaptable recipe.  The recipe that I present below is one of my favorite flavors of kimchi but it is very important to note that kimchi is best made from whatever your personal favorite vegetables and spices happen to be.


5 pounds of your favorite vegetables


(I often use green and red cabbage, carrots, and kohlrabi)

1-2 big onions

4-5 chili (or your favorite flavor of) peppers

3-4 cloves of garlic

6 tablespoons of fresh grated ginger

3 tablespoons of sea salt



Chop your vegetables to whatever texture you prefer.  I like to chop them to into fairly thin slices. Place the chopped veggies in a mixing bowl and mash them together with salt.  By mash I mean that you need to break up the cell walls of the vegetables so as to begin to squeeze out the vegetables natural juices therefore forming a brine.  I use my hands to squeeze the veggies, or sometimes I use an empty jar to smash and squish them.  Once you can begin to see juices squeezing out of your veggies, set them aside for a moment.


Now it’s time to spice things up.

Make sure you’re using fresh spices and not any pre-chopped or prepared spice mixes as these often contain anti bacterial agents that could harm


the beneficial microbes that form our ferment.  Next you’ll want to shred your spices together.  I use a food processor as these powerful spices make me cry when I shred them by hand.  Blend up the onions, peppers, garlic, and ginger together. 


If you're starting to fear that this is going to be way too spicy of a dish, consider that the hot spicy flavors we’re adding here will mellow and become much more tame as fermentation occurs.  I’ll often add horseradish root, and more types of peppers to the spice list, really it’s hard to over-spice kimchi. 

Once you’ve ground up your tear inducing spices, you’ll mix them together with the juicy vegetables, and then it’s time to pack them in a jar or vessel.


Potential vessels for your kimchi include: glass jars, ceramic containers, and in a pinch you can use plastic containers.  Never store your ferments in metal containers as the metal will cause chemical changes to your brine that will ruin your kraut.  The best container will fit the amount of kimchi that you produce without much room left over.  I’ll often use a variety of small jars to accommodate a large kimchi production.

Once your vessels are chosen, you need to begin to tightly pack the kimchi into your jars so that the veggies become submerged under the salty brine.  Push the kimchi down firmly into your vessel with your fingers or an empty jar until the jar is almost full, and a layer of brine covers the vegetables.

Covering your jar can be accomplished in a number of ways.  You can use a cloth covering held with a rubber band, or I prefer to use a plastic or metal lid that fits the container.


Now that your kimchi is packed tightly into a covered lid, find a home for it in your kitchen.  I put mine on top of the fridge because this provides a nice evenly warm temperature.  You may want to choose a more in the way sort of spot for your first kimchi’s as fermenting kimchi requires some attention and maintenance.

No matter where you place your filled kimchi vessel, you’ll want to check on it daily for the first couple weeks.  Once a day take the lid off of your vessel.  If you choose a tight fitting lid, you’ll notice air pressure release out of the jar when you twist it open.  This is from gas that is naturally released during fermentation.  As the gas forms in your ferment, air spaces will develop throughout the jar.  Each time you check on your kimchi, you’ll want to squish the veggies back down until they are once again covered in brine.


After only 3 days of fermenting, your kimchi will begin to develop a tangy flavor.  This unique taste will let you know that your kimchi is ready to start eating.  Taste your new ferment on a daily basis each time you check in on it.  I’ll sometimes allow ferments to sit on top of the fridge for a few months, all the while I’m tasting the different stages of growth that occur as the microbes develop in my jars and making sure to squish the kraut as needed to keep it submerged under brine.  As soon as the flavor strikes my fancy, I’ll put the kimchi jar into the fridge to slow down the fermentation process and preserve the flavor that I’m enjoying.

Flavor, sustenance, and health are a few of the benefits everyone can reap from fermenting their own foods.  When folks decide to grow their own healthy foods, and share their recipes freely, the entire human culture benefits.  With all the hoopla in this country surrounding health care reform, it’s high time we all became empowered to make ourselves healthier, stronger, and more independent.  Kimchi, kraut, and all your favorite garden ferments are an easy, effective way of growing our own health, on our own terms.

Giving Tree Gardens, Seward Co-op rain garden project featured in The Underbelly Of The Sun Blog!!

Russ Henry (aka Rooster) owner of Giving Tree Gardens toured the gardens at the Seward Co-op with Ms. Katey Sleeveless, musician and blogger at The Underbelly Of The Sun. The two talked all about Rooster's gardening inspiration, all his great plants, attracting birds, butterflies, and bees, and how community gardens can deter crime and supply a neighborhood with comradery as well as fresh organic produce. Click here to have a look!


Salad Bowl Garden

Early this spring while the snow was still melting, I noticed how the water pooled in a low spot in my lawn. A large puddle formed that thawed to a thick slushy consistency during the day and froze into a chunky icy mess each night. One night while walking to the garage, I slipped and had a close call with the ground, and it was right about then that my determination grew some roots. I decided that as soon as the thaw was over and the ground was workable, I’d set out to reshape the land in my backyard to accommodate and work with the available melt and rainwater.

Folks all around are digging rain gardens these days. Not only can we use rain-gardens to filter the water run-off from our properties, but when we use native plants in our rain-gardens we can create bird and butterfly habitat in our own back yards. As I sat inside the warm house rubbing my bruised knee and plotting against that slippery back yard mess, the thought occurred to me that if I was going to go to the trouble of making a rain-garden habitat for the birds in my back yard, I might as well go ahead and make some habitat for my family and myself as well. After all food plants tend to require a lot of water, and so I thought why not feed two birds with one hand and stock a rain-garden with my favorite edible plants. Seeing this garden take shape in my minds eye, suddenly I realized what it was I was about to create.


The salad bowl garden slices and dices a few basic gardening concepts and tosses these together with some spicy gardening techniques to create the yummiest garden you’ve ever grown.  Rainwater conservation, habitat creation, and food production are a few of the key ingredients for any earth friendly yard.  When these concepts are combined with the use of seed balls, living mulch, and plenty of compost, the salad bowl garden begins to take shape.


In my yard choosing the right place for the salad bowl garden was the easy job, on one end of the yard, the pooling water showed me a natural low spot, and on the other end of the yard, a drain spout comes down off my roof and spills storm water out on the lawn.    With the help of some dedicated friends, we first removed the sod, we then simply dug out the low spot a little further and drove a trench through the earth from the low spot to the drain spout.  As we dug away creating a low trench through the yard, all the excavated soil was place along the sides of the trench thus creating a swale with tall, sloped sides.  We excavated the low areas a little deeper then they’d need to be so that we could layer six inches of compost over the whole space to create a rapidly draining and fast growing garden.



Once we shaped our salad bowl, it was time to start planting food, and habitat.  Seed balls made of clay and compost and impregnated with vegetable seeds, combined with, some favorite native perennials, potatoes, asparagus roots, some lettuce greens plugs and herb starts made the planting menu for the afternoon.  We planted more then enough plants to rapidly fill the space in with the idea in mind that the more we packed into the garden, the sooner we would be able to harvest.  This is the garden technique that I call “living mulch”.  I find that my gardens grow much more quickly if I get enough plants in the ground to cover the earth and quickly shade the garden soils.  Just like any forest, prairie, or wet-land, the earth should be completely covered with plants in order to retain the most moisture possible and quickly penetrate the ground with roots from a wide variety of plants that will nourish and support each others growth.

Experience in the salad bowl garden leaves me able to attest that cabbage, collards, and kale grow much more quickly in the lowest most moisture rich parts of the garden, but if you ask the birds and butterflies, I’d bet they’d tell you how fast the Blue Indigo and Butterfly Weed grow in those low spots as well.  I’ve already seen great results in this garden from combining native perennial plants with my food crop plants.  The native perennials drive roots down that pull moisture up from below the surface to help feed and nourish the food crop plants growing around them.  At the same time the shallow rooted food crops grab up the available surface moisture and help pull it into the ground to feed the deeper-rooted perennials.  This is a win-win situation if ever there was, and an easy earth friendly way to increase your food yields at home.

In the three months since planting, this garden has yielded 10 pounds of potatoes, 5 large heads of cabbage, beautiful bunches of broccoli and cauliflower, and more lettuce, spinach, kale, and collard greens then I can shake a crouton at.  We’ve also been using thyme, cilantro, and rosemary from this bountiful salad bowl, and there’s more to come with tomatoes, onions, peppers, artichoke, and kohlrabi yet to ripen.  As if that weren’t enough reward, we get to watch butterflies and birds already making a happy home where unloving lawn grass once grew. My neighbors probably think I’m nuts, but I just love standing out in the rain to watch the water trickle down the drainpipe and into the new garden.   

Container Gardening

Container Gardening

"Are you doing any gardening this season?" This is often the first question out of my mouth when meeting someone new in the springtime. Far to often, I get a response that goes something like “I would but I live in an apartment”.

As an avid gardener who has himself lived in a few different apartment buildings, I’d like to once and for all dispel the myth that apartment dwelling folks can’t garden.

 Container gardens have always been an excellent way to bring the spirit reviving power of plants to folks who live surrounded by concrete. This month’s volume of The Seed is dedicated to bringing the garden to the gardener, as we showcase, the Giving Tree Gardens approach to container gardening.

Plant Profile: Aloe Vera

Aloe barbedancis

Why run to the drug store when you could heal your minor burns with the nearest house plant?  An aloe plant is a sheep in wolves clothing.  Though it looks tough on the outside, this african succulent has a soft, healing heart. 

Recorded human use of aloe vera dates back to the 16th century.

  Though it came originally form Africa, the cultivation of aloe long ago spread through China, Japan, Jamaica, Russia, and the Americas. Useful in healing small wounds, burns, and helpful in treating high blood glucose levels, the medicinal uses of this plant are still being discovered today.

This tropical cactus will grow with ease in a houseplant container.  Just give it a sandy potting mix and water once every two weeks.  One thing to consider with most house plants including aloe is letting them grow outside for the summer.  I'll transition all my houseplants to the porch or patio slowly so as not to sunburn the leaves that are used to growing indoors in low light conditions.  Aloe is especially sensitive to sunlight and if transitioned outside too soon it will easily burn.  I give mine one hour of direct morning light every day for a week, then I'll step it up by one hour each day week after week until it's fully ready to be outside all the time.  The growth and health that results from this patient process is well worth the bother.

I consider it a blessing worth working for to have a plant with such amazing healing powers growing nearby.


Planter boxes, pots, and container gardens come in as many shapes and sizes as humans can imagine.

Choose your favorite look and set a theme for your home or patio by using similarly styled containers throughout your space.

I love terra cotta for its simplicity and sleek lines. I use varying shaped terra cotta pots throughout my home to create a visual context and flow, like a melody for the eyes. 

 In order to add a little spice to the mix, I use different styles and types of containers in addition to the terra cotta throughout the house.

No matter what your style, make sure that the container you plant in has a hole on the bottom. Proper drainage is key to allowing soils to dry between waterings.

Any potting soil that stays constantly wet, will start to go rotten and develop unfriendly fungi. If the container that I’m using is exceptionally large, I’ll often use a plastic pot turned upside down at the bottom of my big container to take up some space, improve drainage, and make the planter lighter.


 Potting soil is the sustenance for our precious plants.

Like any fine food, potting soil is best made from scratch.

I find potting soils that include freshly composted materials never need to have any fertilizers added to them in order to keep plants happy and healthy.

When I need to make a batch of potting soil in a rush, I’ll use a blend of three ingredients in equal proportions, the first of which is farm-post available locally at Kern Landscaping in St. Paul. Then I’ll grab some pre bagged potting soil, and CoirBlock. The farm-post is an excellent source of plant food while the CoirBlock made from shredded coconut hulls can replace the use of habitat destroying peat-moss products. Together with the pre-bagged potting soils, this mix will provide a nutrient rich, water retaining, fluffy textured soil, which will provide for a full season of growth.DESIGN

Laying out the design of your planters and containers is a fun challenge that can be a source of enjoyment and learning year round. 

The easiest trick to making your planters stand out is to build in contrasting textures and colors. 

I’ll use spiked, ferny, and broad textured leaves all in the same container.  I love combining dark purple or red foliage with bright golden green flowers or leaves.  Repeat or reverse these contrasts in several pots throughout your home in order to bring out more of that sense of melody. Often I’ll choose a tall plant for the middle or back of a planter and then I’ll place shorter plants around the base of these.  Cascading or drooping plants blur and soften solid lines when used at the edge of planters.


Choosing great plants for your containers is as easy as choosing great plant stores to shop at.

  I grow everything from tropical palms and bananas to rosemary, kale, and sweet potatoes in my planters at home.

Have fun throughout the year and change some of your planters out seasonally.  Start with pansies and leafy greens in the spring then replace the pansies with heat tolerant annuals for the summer time.  As your leafy greens fade in the heat of the summer, change them out for herbs or funky tropical houseplants.  When the tropicals and annuals are threatened by frost switch them out for kale, pansies, and mums in the fall.  Follow up with a mix of evergreen boughs in the late fall for all winter long beauty.

Don’t be afraid to stuff your planters a little too full of annuals.  At the beginning of the growing season, I’ll use more plants then I’ll ultimately need and then thin them out as they grow.  This way I’ll have full planters for much more of the season then I otherwise would.

Call me impatient , but I think our northern growing season is too short to waste waiting around for our pots and planters to fill in.

Containers also present an excellent opportunity for northern gardeners to grow some otherwise not so hardy plants in our Midwestern back yards.  Friends of mine have grown zone 5 and 6 hardy

Japanese Maples

in large containers which they wheel into a garage for winter storage.  Bringing marginally hardy plants into a closed garage for the cold season is an excellent way of keeping lovely and delicate plants alive through our harsh winter.


I’m such a green thumb that I’d probably go a little nuts in the long Midwestern winter if I didn’t get to surround myself with houseplants.  In addition to your usual suspects of spider plants, pothos, aloe vera, and sword plant, I like to grow herbs, orchids, palms, tropical pines, and just about anything that will thrive indoors throughout the wintertime.  Some of my favorite houseplants have been handed down to me from family members, and friends such as a couple of Asiatic begonias gifted to me by a local business owner who hails from Cambodia.  Consider mixing two or more houseplants in the same container to create an intriguing blend.  I love the mix of my tall, spiked sword plant with some short round leaved sedum. 

Grow your own food, or raise a cash crop at home by setting up with a few grow lights from

Midwest Supplies

.  Many folks find they can raise fine herbal crops, or grow amazing tropical flowers inside through the long winter with a little help from some man-made sunshine.  I’ve seen Minnesota homes with tropical ginger and tomatoes growing inside in February.  This miracle of modern convenience isn’t for everyone, but if you have a very low light apartment, you may consider a grow light to help brighten your space.

No matter your living space, container gardening can help bring a full and verdant feeling to your home.  If you’ve been holding back your urge to garden because you’re landlord won’t let you rip out the lawn or parking lot, then wait no more.  Container gardens are one excellent way of greening up your urban environment.

Let Freedom Grow

Sharpen your shovels, and turn your compost pile, Spring Has Arrived! Nation wide, gardeners are busy preparing for the upcoming growing season, and from the look of things, this year will be a time of garden expansion throughout the land.

Even in this troubled market, seed sales are a boom industry raking in 20-30% gains over last year’s sales. Gardening is the new favored pastime of many a cash strapped American family. Presenting an example to the world, First Lady Michelle Obama’s even getting in on the action, as she put her strong arms to work digging a Victory Garden into the White House lawn!

This profuse blooming of garden interest is just what the world needs right now. The U.S.D.A. is about to release a new Plant Hardiness Map that details what anyone with a lick of sense has by now accepted as fact, the “inconvenient truth” that the earth’s climate is rapidly warming. Vegetable gardens and local composting efforts are two of the best ways for folks to work at home toward a healthier, happier planet.

Freedom from chemically grown, dangerous, over priced food, the freedom to enjoy the beauty and bounty of life on earth, and the freedom to live with respect for planetary ecology are all a part of my garden harvest. Together we can reclaim our planet and our lives from the carelessness of generations past, to give our children and grandchildren hope for a healthy life.

Seeds of Change

Economic news must be a little hard for the average C.E.O. to swallow these days, that is unless the C.E.O. in question is luck enough to be running a seed company.  As National Public Radio reported in February, Burpee Seeds, one of the nations largest distributer of vegetable seeds, claim that they expect seed sales to increase 20 to 30 percent this year alone, while organic seed sales will be up as much as 46%.  Cucumbers, snap peas, and tomato seeds are flying off store shelves.  Surely high food prices are at the base of this upsurge in demand.  If you haven’t hit the garden stores yet, then get off the computer and run to your favorite local nursery before the selection is “eaten” up.   Now is the time for Minnesota gardeners to get out and purchase their veggie seeds.


Buying seeds in the spring can be a lot like shopping for food on an empty stomach.  For any green starved winter weary Minnesota gardener the tendency to over shop for seeds in the spring is an easy trap.  Don’t worry though if you get home and find you’ve purchased enough seeds to fill the whole block, seeds save very well in the packs that they came in, or any other paper envelope.  Just keep them in a dry dark cupboard and check your supply before you head to the garden store next spring.

 Victory Through Freedom

When Michelle Obama flexes her strong arms, the world pay’s attention.  Recently the First Lady has used some of her political strength to help turn over a new leaf in American life.  Recently, Michelle Obama teamed up with a crew of D.C. area school kids to plant a victory garden in the White House lawn. Some of the seeds planted at the White House descended from plants cultivated by Thomas Jefferson, who saw himself as a farmer first and viewed an agrarian society as the creator and protector of democracy.  Freedom, democracy, and big juicy tomatoes are just a few of the rewards of the gardener’s life, hats off to Mrs. Obama for leading by example.

It’s Heating Up


The U.S.D.A. is about to tell us all what we already know.  It’s warming up around here.  While the findings haven’t been officially released yet, experts who helped to revise the Plant Hardiness Zone Map say that we can expect to see a sharp extension of plants northern ranges in this year’s map.  Gardeners everywhere use the Plant Hardiness Map to judge their plant selections.  When you turn over a garden store tag for your favorite tree, shrub, or perennial you should find a listing for zone hardiness.  Here in the Twin Cities area we’ve been officially listed in zone 4 since the zone map was first created, though any experienced city gardener can attest to the heat island effect that allows Minnesota urbanites to grow items such as zone 5 hardy Japanese Maples in our back yards.

While some local gardeners find short-term gains in plant selections, others may rightly be worried about long term troubles as local eco-systems are thrown out of balance by rising temperatures. According to a study published by the Minnesota Sustainable Communities Network, 22 years ago as many as 4,000 moose roamed the woods and grasslands in the northwestern part of the state. By 2003, the number had dropped to only 237. Scientists believe the culprit is higher temperatures sparked by global warming, making the moose more vulnerable to parasites.  The study goes on to say that average winter temperatures in northwestern Minnesota have climbed around 12 degrees during the past 40 years as average summer temperatures have increased by four degrees.

 Treat Garbage Like Dirt


Here’s a quote from BioCycle magazine, August 2008:

"The only effective method to prevent methane emissions from landfills is to stop biodegradable materials from entering landfills. The good news is that landfill alternatives such as composting are readily available and cost-effective. Compost has the added benefit of adding organic matter to soil, sequestering carbon, improving plant growth and reducing water use - all important to stabilizing the climate. Composting is thus vital to restoring the climate and our soils and should be front and center in a national strategy to protect the climate in the short term."

Now I’m not a scientist, so I’ll just have to trust the compost crazed folks at BioCycle when they say that composting will cut down on greenhouse gasses entering the atmosphere.  As a gardener though, I can surely attest to the notion that garbage is valuable.  I’d never seen results in my gardens from chemical fertilizers like I have from compost fertility.  Compost not only provides nutrients as any fertilizer should, but it also provides microbial life that lives symbiotically with garden plants, and an excellent soil texture for roots to easily and rapidly grow through.  If you start composting your own food and yard waste at home you’ll be doing yourself and the rest of the world a big favor.

Not all of us have space for a compost pile at home, and so the innovative folks at Linden Hills Power and Lighthave been working out a way to help make composting more accessible for everybody with their new “Green Tub Club” program.  Linden Hills residents can now sign up to have a green compost tub dropped off at their curbside.  Simply place your food and non-recyclable paper products into the green tub and put the tub out on your regular garbage day.  The city of Minneapolis will pick up the garbage and take it to a commercial composting facility.  This is an excellent example for the rest of the city, and with a little encouragement of your city council person, your neighborhood could be next.

Compost, and home vegetable gardens are two of the most effective methods that any home gardener can employ in the fight against global warming.  Without a planet to live on victory in the garden would be pointless.  Gardeners, let’s plant the seeds of freedom and change together, so we can all enjoy the fruits of our labor for generations to come!

A Farm in the City

Formerly a city garbage dump in the middle of a low-income San Francisco neighborhood, the site that St. Mary’s Urban Youth Farm now occupies and beautifies, was once a blight on the community. In the mid 1990’s neighbors along with local gardening activists organized to turn this wasted land into a community asset.


Cheerful and informative, Naomi Goodwin, director of St. Mary’s Urban Youth Farm was kind enough to talk with me about the goings on at the farm, and the story she told was one of transition.

Since 1995 when ground was broken on this garden, the space has served to improve the health and lives of the community. Despite recent funding shifts away from community gardening projects, area residents have continued to recognize and benefit from the farm’s bounty. Youth volunteers work alongside trained gardeners to produce food that is sold at discounted rates in local farmers markets. The young volunteers are trained in skills that they can utilize and market the rest of their lives, while the community receives the benefits of affordable locally grown organic produce.


Birds, butterflies, bees, and other local fauna find a home

in the native plants that hold the hillside in place, all the while compost bins overflow and the blades of the windmill turn lazily in the soft breeze. Walking into this garden was like seeing a dream come true. 


Several local organizations work with the land at St. Mary’s. While various groups of volunteers tend to the crops, others work to keep the beehives buzzing.

Naomi impressed me with her sense for the overall health of the space. “We have so many volunteer’s here that sometimes things get out of balance.” Naomi explained, “We used to get a lot more migratory birds stopping by the pond, but since more of our land has gone to food production, and less to native plants, the system is out of balance and we aren’t providing enough habitat to entice them here as much.”


The full vision for the space has not yet been realized. Physical changes such as adding a water pump to the windmill. Once the windmill is pumping, then water from Isle creek pond, which sits in the middle of the farm, can be used on the crops. Organizational shifts away from agency to agency competition for land use and towards a more collaborative approach are also needed before the farm functions to it’s highest potential.

Despite this room for improvement, St. Mary’s Urban Youth Farm is an example of excellence in landscaping. Transitioning this space from a dump to an urban farm has proven to be an enormous benefit to the community. Gardeners everywhere can learn from these neighbors good work, and those of us lucky enough to have our own little corner of the earth to shape, should heed the good example of the folks at St. Mary’s. Wherever we can we need to turn open urban space into an educational growing space, and a habitat for earthlings of all stripes.


In Minneapolis and St. Paul our yards and parks give us green space on nearly every block. I hope for all our sake that many more of us here at home begin to recognize our unique responsibility as citizens of these gorgeously green cities to preserve, and maintain the lush vibrancy of our home towns.