Neighbors sow seeds for the future

Part 2 — The SAP Community Garden in the 21st Century

By Chris Kelly

Top Photo Credit: Photo by Regan Golden

Part 1 of this history, in the May Bugle, ended in 1998 with the future of the St. Anthony Park Community Garden in question. The lease for its land, owned by BNSF Railroad, was under threat.

Could the land be purchased? Responding to pressure from organized community members and elected officials, BNSF came to the table to discuss selling the land to the St. Anthony Park Community Council.


From the beginning, Sherm Eagles and Sue Conner of St. Anthony Park have been inspirational leaders in the Community Garden. Midwest Home & Garden featured them in their August/September 2000 issue.

Acquiring the garden land

Heather Worthington, then the council’s executive director, led the negotiations with BNSF.

“Railroads were not in the habit of selling their right of way,” Worthington said. “That took months and months. I just remember all we did was go to meetings with them over and over and over again to get them to sell us the property.”

Meanwhile, the gardeners cobbled together funding through city programs, neighborhood fundraisers, grants and gifts.

City Councilmember Jay Benanav kicked it off with a $40,000 challenge grant from the city, which local roofing company Ettel & Franz matched.

State Representative Alice Hausman held a fundraiser at her home, where community members dropped off personal checks. Additional grants came from the city’s Capital Improvement funds and local charitable organizations. In total, the community raised nearly $160,000 toward the purchase of the land.

Worthington was impressed by how the community rallied around the project. “I was handling the business transaction but was in constant admiration of the creativity that [gardeners] brought to the community building,” she said. “What was beautiful about that garden is it was a project that had universal support. People really came together—that is the best of us right there.”

In the end, the railroad and council came to terms around a reduced parcel that would preserve the garden, but not enable the larger park project the gardeners had hoped for. BNSF even made an in-kind donation of land to make up the funding gap for the total appraised value.

By June 1999, the SAP Community Garden had become the first in the Twin Cities to own its land: a great victory in securing the garden’s future, safe from industrial or residential development. Says Benanav, “I was obviously happy for the community and pleased that I could be part of something that will be there for a long, long time.”

Persevering

Acquiring the land resolved a major threat to the garden, but it wasn’t the only threat. The grit and determination of the garden volunteers would be tested again in the years to come.

In 2006, the City of St. Paul announced plans to extend the Pierce Butler Route. The city’s map showed a line running right through the garden space to link up to Highway 280.

The SAP Community Council rebuffed this effort in a resolution against the extension, prompting city and state representatives to declare that there was no active proposal for a west extension of the route: another victory.

By the 2010s, the SAP Community Garden was an established local institution, celebrating 30 successful years. It was a stop on annual garden tours. There was a waiting list for the 98 plots, with an annual lottery. The cost had risen to $30.


The garden’s original application form was published in the March 1982 Park Bugle, when plots were $10 per season. Today the cost is $40 per season. All 95 available plots for 2024 have been sold. Park Bugle archive.

But in 2013, smooth operations hit a snag when the Ramsey County assessor reclassified the land, removing its tax-exempt status even though the council is a nonprofit organization. Paying taxes as agricultural land would have made the plots prohibitively expensive for many gardening families.

The council and gardeners rallied to fight for tax abatement based on the charitable purpose of food donations coming out of the garden to local food shelves.

Feeding the community

For decades, local families and their neighbors had been enjoying fresh produce from these garden plots. As any gardener knows, it is hard to calibrate what you grow to what you can eat and preserve in a season. The garden encouraged growers to donate excess produce to Keystone Community Services’ Midway food shelf.

After the tax reclassification, the gardeners formalized this system. Three of the plots were now dedicated to growing vegetables for the food shelf (in addition to what gardeners were donating out of their own plots).

Lois Braun set up those first plots and has continued to plan the rotation and grow seedlings every year since.

“We focus on plants that are easy to grow and popular. The veggies that have to be harvested frequently are more challenging, but they also tend to be the vegetables that the community finds hardest to get and are also the most appreciated.”

As with all garden efforts, volunteers organize the growing, harvesting and donating. Today, food donations go to the Seal Hi-Rise Sunday Table, with more than 1,300 pounds of produce given last year.

“The people who are receiving the vegetables are right there and express their appreciation right there, in real time,” Braun says, describing how good it feels to make the donations.

Looking to the future

The 40th anniversary of the SAP Community Garden passed during the pandemic with little fanfare. But the volunteers and council can’t rest, as there is always more to do.

The water system failed in spring 2022 and was replaced in time for the growing season through heroic efforts of gardener (and irrigation professional) Joel Kreller.

The trees along the back fence reached their end of life and started falling over, prompting their removal in 2023, thanks to gardeners’ reserve funds and another generous gift from Ettel & Franz. Something new needs to replace those trees to buffer the neighborhood from the railway. Planning has already started, with discussions of native edibles—perhaps fruit trees and bushes, or pollinator-friendly plants?

So, don’t be surprised if you feel that tap on your shoulder— the gardeners will be rallying the community once again to help keep the northern border of south SAP green, growing and a center of community for years to come. 

Chris Kelly is a St. Anthony Park resident and Community Garden volunteer.

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