Do you dream of having your own vegetable garden right outside your door but have no time to bring that dream to reality?
Dina Kountoupes can help.
A signature piece to Kountoupes’s business, Harvest Moon Edible Landscapes, is its Full-Service Kitchen Garden package, which includes planning the garden, all the materials you need, weekly maintenance and the harvest from the garden delivered to your door each week.
If you just need a little something to get you started, Harvest Moon has garden kits that include the compost and soil, mulch, plants, seeds, installation labor and an hour of coaching time “and boom: instant garden,” Kountoupes said.
Kountoupes also consults with would-be gardeners to help them turn their yards into edible landscapes. The impetus for her 4-year-old business is her deep-seated desire to help people connect more with their land by taking advantage of nature’s systems and growing food.
She thinks of herself as a “garden educator,” and that’s pretty much how she began in the business.
Kountoupes came to the Twin Cities from Oberlin, Ohio, in 1989 to attend Macalester College, where she took courses in environmental studies and Spanish. After college she lived in Costa Rica for a while, working on organic farms and researching sustainable agriculture.
She also met Marty Ruddy, a fellow Macalester grad who was in Costa Rica serving in the Peace Corps. Ruddy and Kountoupes moved back to Minnesota, married and now live in St. Anthony Park, where Ruddy grew up.
After returning to Minnesota, Kountoupes worked as program director for Farm in the City near Dunning Field in the Midway area. Farm in the City is a children’s horticulture and environmental art education program that began at Dunning Field in the 1990s.
“It was so great,” she said. “We were basically not only doing community gardening with kids, but also doing cooking as part of the program and art. It was giving [the kids] such a sense of place. They were all from the neighborhood over by Dunning Field. To me it was absolutely a life-achieving, gratifying thing to see these kids connect with the earth, and so from then on, I was kind of sold on that.”
She went back to school at the University of Minnesota, where she received an interdisciplinary degree in environmental education and sustainable agriculture with a focus on gardening with children.
She worked in an extension program on schoolyard ecology explorations and wrote curriculum on how to get kids outside in the garden “and what to do with them out there,” she said. But then, “I got sick of writing in front of a computer and wanted to get back in the garden again.”
Kountoupes began working with the Permaculture Research Institute (PRI) in Minneapolis, helping low-income residents grow food in their own yards.
“PRI gardeners would descend on a yard, build a 10-by-10 garden, maintain it, take care of it, show people how to do it and harvest it,” she said.
Eventually she and a co-worker, Krista Leraas, decided to create a business, Harvest Moon Backyard Gardening, doing similar work. “We knew there was a demand and it was an amazing thing that we were doing,” she said. The business was created in January 2011, the same month Kountoupes gave birth to her second child, Georgia, whose name comes from the Greek word for “someone who works in the earth.” The business name changed to Harvest Moon Edible Landscapes this year, and Kountoupes is the sole proprietor.
Harvest Moon uses the concept of permaculture, a term coined by two Australian men in the late 1970s, Kountoupes said. “It means ‘permanent agriculture,’ ” she explained. “It’s about gardening mimicking nature’s systems.”
“Nature already has these ecological systems going. Trees go up and shade plants grow underneath the trees. Leaves fall and form mulch. Why are we taking everything out—including all systems—and planting and replacing with fertilizer and chemicals rather than letting it do its own work?”
Permaculture “keeps pollinators in the system, keeps worms in the system, keeps mulch in the system, keeps shade in the system,” she said. “Nature already invented all the systems for us, so you either tap into it or copy it. It’s way more economical and sustains itself and is more permanent that way.”
For example, Kountoupes counsels clients with shady backyards to plant food that naturally grows “understory,” like fruit—particularly currants and elderberry—and herbs under trees. Or plant the herbs right up next to the house because they can tolerate some shade and will be easily accessible from the kitchen.
That’s another aspect to permaculture, she said. “Don’t put your garden way over there. Put it by the house so you are more liable to go out and use it. It’s less work to get that food integrated into your life.”
Folks with an abundance of shade can grow the sun-loving plants like tomatoes and peppers in containers that can be moved into the sun. Or try growing items that need specific soil conditions—think blueberries—in large containers. They get the soil they need and are out of reach of rabbits.
Harvest Moon has partnered with Minneapolis synagogue Shir Tikvah and Seward Montessori School to create community gardens. At Seward, the garden was planted by students in the spring, and during the summer the harvests went to a local food shelf. Kountoupes would love to see St. Anthony Park Elementary School tap into land around the school to plant a “food forest,” where students can learn about horticulture and community.
Part of growing food is connecting to your community by sharing the harvest, she said. “You can’t help building community by working the land and growing your food.”