So it’s not quite winning the lottery, but the Schoenherr family of Woodbury, Minn., did get lucky in being selected to have their front yard transformed into an “Edible Estate.” In the coming weeks the family of four — spouses Catherine and John and their children, Aaron and Andrea — will be working with artist Fritz Haeg and a cadre of volunteers to create what Haeg calls “a diverse organic productive pleasure garden out the front door.” The fifteenth in a series of Edible Estates that Haeg has created around the world, this one brings the eight-year project to a close, and is a homecoming of sorts for the artist, who grew up in suburban Minneapolis and is now based in Los Angeles.
Some 100 families from all over the Twin Cities metro region offered their lawns and their labor for the project, responding to a call for participants that went out two months ago. Haeg noted that the Schoenherrs are just what he’d hoped for: They live in an outer suburb; their front lawn is large and highly visible, with lots of sun exposure; and they have gardening skills. And while that last qualification only came about recently for the family, their energy, enthusiasm and sheer ambition will prove as valuable as years of experience digging, tending, and harvesting.
Interestingly, it was 24-year-old Aaron’s work toward a statistics degree at the University of Minnesota that led the Schoenherrs to grow their own food. “He was required to develop a project that didn’t involve people, so he created different scenarios growing plants, which he discovered he really loved,” says Catherine. “I recalled Harry Truman’s quote, ‘the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it.’ So I asked John if he’d be interested in renting land to grow vegetables, and he jumped on it.” That was just a year ago — before then, the family’s food-growing was limited to a couple of tomato pots, a raspberry patch, and some strawberries.
After a summer tending their 35-by-80-foot plot, the gardening bug had taken hold. The family enjoyed spending time together working as adults, and Catherine in particular found that “working with my hands, getting dirty, watching a dill seed that you can hardly see become a huge plant that you make pickles with — all of that is magical. A lot of good work and good energy comes out of that.”
By the end of the year she was growing hydroponic lettuce in their basement: “Food you grow yourself tastes better. I want more of that in our lives.” The family was planning to forego the rental land and set up some 30 straw bales, the newest trend in home gardening, in the backyard for the current growing season (some of those bales will now be part of the Edible Estate on view to the public).
John points out that their rental plot last summer is about the same size as their newly established Edible Estate, and they won’t have the daily commute, some 40 minutes total. “I look at this as an opportunity to create a place where we can meet with neighbors and share food,” he says. “It also keeps our family working on things together — the kids are out of the house, so it brings them back.” (Aaron lives in St. Paul and 22-year-old Andrea is a dance instructor in Woodbury.) Catherine is looking forward to creating a section of the Edible Estate for children — a supplement of sorts to the Little Free Library already standing in the yard, which is popular with youngsters at her neighbor’s home childcare business.
If there’s one aspect of the project that attracts John above all others, it’s the “very strong possibility” of including a community bread oven in the Estate. As with the straw bales, this project was already in the works, inspired by a class he took at Grand Marais’ North House Folk School. “Other people in our neighborhood also bake bread, so we hope to pull this off.”
Both John, an engineering manager at 3M, and Catherine, a part-time massage therapist and artist who makes bracelets with reindeer leather, are big supporters of the Folk School. Catherine calls it her “home away from home”; she’s learned how to spin and weave there, as well as make paper, sausage, and pickles, and helped her father teach canoe building — all skills that could play into the Walker exhibition Domestic Integrities A05, opening on August 8 as another component of Haeg’s six-month artist residency. “I believe working with your hands and making things changes who a person is,” she says.
Despite the dramatic transformation to come, she is not worried about standing out in Woodbury, which, as she noted in responding to the Edible Estates call, is “a place I affectionately call Beigeville.” Instead, she views the undertaking as an opportunity to show one of many alternative ways “to live and be in the world. As a family in suburbia, our front yard will say, ‘here’s another option to think about.’”