Woodbury starts its first community garden — and fulfills one woman’s dream

As she kneels in front of her plot in Woodbury’s Community Garden, Ying Liang says that she always wanted to have her own vegetable garden.

“I would flip through catalogs and, you know, daydream about it. I would think about what I could plan but never be able to do it.”

Lack of space in her backyard and neighborhood association rules prevented Liang from growing vegetables at home. The IT professional of over 25 years said she had been asking the city for several years for some sort of community gardening space, and was excited to receive an email about one in 2022.

Liang wasn’t alone in desiring a garden space. A city survey of residents found that a community garden was one of the things most wanted by its population of just over 80,000. Until then, Woodbury had been the largest city in Minnesota without one, according to Simi Patnaik, director of the Woodbury Community Foundation’s Woodbury Thrives program.

Just next to Andy’s Bark Park, near Manning Avenue and Dale Road, Woodbury’s first community garden was farmland in 2021. In 2022, supported by Woodbury Thrives, the community garden was piloted with 16 plots, then fully implemented this year with 48 9-by-14 garden plots for community members to use. The garden was funded through grants offered by the state, according to Patnaik.

Patnaik said the community garden helps build on the organization’s three pillars of healthy lifestyle, mental well-being and social connectedness: It gets residents outside, learning about growing their own vegetables and interacting with other members of the community.

Patnaik and Woodbury Thrives chair Jodi Ritacca conducted a survey of garden users through email. Roughly two-thirds of the gardeners responded and revealed that 50 percent of them are immigrants and people of color. Additionally, 60 percent earned below $100,000 per year and live in multifamily housing.

“It’s about forming connections with the community,” Patnaik said. “And helping people meet the neighbors they might not normally see every day.”

200 pounds of tomatoes

On Saturday morning, Liang deftly clipped a handful of orange cherry tomatoes and gently rinsed them under one of the faucets in the garden. It’s the end of the harvesting season, and her yield has included squash, eggplant, red russian kale, lettuce, and a whopping 200 pounds of tomatoes. She says the tomatoes make her nostalgic.

“I am from China, so when I was little the tomatoes were marketed to us as both a vegetable and a fruit. We eat them like fruits.”

Liang emigrated to America in her high school years, and had always been disappointed in flavorless grocery store tomatoes.

“I’m at the grocery store and I’m looking at the tomatoes, and there’s just no way you can eat it. So bland, and it just doesn’t have that tomato taste. So when I grew my own, I thought, ‘Oh, that tastes like tomato.’”

A basket of produce Ying Liang harvested from Woodbury’s new Community Garden on Oct. 21, 2023. (Gabrielle Erenstein / Pioneer Press)

The roma and cherry tomatoes Liang grew are indeed far more sweet and flavorful than standard grocery store tomatoes. They make for a whole lot of sandwich toppings and soup she drinks cold out of bottles, too. Liang’s tomato surplus wasn’t just for her. She gave much of it away to family, friends, neighbors and even a piano teacher.

Liang has a similar childhood nostalgia for some of the other vegetables she grows and eats fresh, such as winter melons and purple starchy corn, which she can’t find at regular grocery stores.

“But I think I have it in my blood, wanting to grow something. You know, you look at a seed and you watch it grow and nurture it, and they reward you with this abundance. It’s just amazing.”

Liang has also enjoyed the garden as a way to connect with Woodbury’s community. She said she made new friends through meeting her fellow gardeners. She would water other gardeners’ plots when they were away, and they did the same for her. She connected with other gardeners via a Facebook group, which she hopes will take off more as a way for other gardeners to communicate.

Having previously worked only with flowers, she was able to learn more about vegetable gardening from other more experienced gardeners. Liang said she learned about how to properly support her plants, fertilizing, extending harvests and sustainability techniques.

“I met people from different cultures, who grow vegetables I’ve never seen or heard of before.”

Sharing expertise

Ed Myatt, one of the brains behind the Woodbury Community Garden, echoed the sentiment. Despite being a Master Gardener, one of nearly 200 in the state who undergo 80 hours of training by the University of Minnesota to contribute gardening knowledge to communities, he too had seen some vegetables for the first time during this year’s harvest.

“It was a real broad cross section of people, from places like Somalia, China and India.”

Myatt, a retired Exxon Mobile executive, is required by the Master Gardeners program to volunteer for 25 hours per year.  He said that on average, he volunteers 350 to 400 hours per year. When the garden first started up, because most of the gardeners were completely new, he helped them get started by lending tools and advice. The Master Gardeners also donated funds used to buy more tools for residents. After a few weeks though, he said he wasn’t as needed anymore.

“It became a community of gardeners because they started helping each other,” Myatt said. “I was amazed at how they came together.”

Even an 8th grade Girl Scout, Audrey Srefken, provided some expertise when it came to interacting with a very important denizen of the gardening world: Srefken taught gardeners about pollination and how to interact properly with bees, Ritacca said. Srefken gave a presentation about the gardeners and the bees to Woodbury’s City Council on Monday.

Ying Liang harvests produce she grew in Woodbury’s Community Garden. (Gabrielle Erenstein / Pioneer Press)

Liang worked Saturday on cleaning up her plot. The city has asked gardeners to clean up the plants and structures left after the harvest so the garden can be ready for next year. In April, Liang starts growing again.

Garden plot registration for 2024 begins Nov. 29 for Woodbury residents. Registration can be found on the “Recreation” section on Woodbury’s website: woodburymn.gov.

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