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Kickstarting a Parking Lot Garden

The city of Duluth is remarkable and singular in so many ways that you might as well call it “exotic.” It sits on the bluffs of the North American mid-continent rift, overlooking the icy-clear-blue waters of Lake Superior. The city is as narrow as it is long, stretching its wings for 26 miles along the shore, hanging on steep wooded hills that some people like to compare to San Francisco for its similarly hair raising precipitous streets. Along the entire length of the town, the neighborhoods are crossed by 42 named streams, 17 of them cold and clean enough to still harbor rainbow trout, all contributing their waters to the greatest body of freshwater in the world, the Atlantic Ocean. Duluth and its sister city of Superior, sitting on the other side of St Louis bay, are the Twin Ports, the largest seaport on the Great Lakes.

Up until the 1950s, the Twin Ports and surrounding regions were able to feed their population almost exclusively with local farming, despite the challenges of short growing seasons and the restrictions imposed by long and extremely cold winters. It all changed with cheap oil and the “green revolution,” which made it easier and less expensive to produce food on a massive scale year-round under warm climates, then ship it over long distances.

Today the Northland production share of our food supply barely reaches two percent, with the other 98 percent carted an average of 1500 miles with only three days’ worth of stockpile in the stores, leaving us perilously at the mercy of an economic downturn, an energy crisis or any other major catastrophe, unable to feed ourselves.

We think it is imperative to begin reversing this trend, not only for the security’s sake of our food supply, but just as importantly, to reinvigorate the local economy, infuse it with fresh cash, create jobs, and become the stewards of our own destiny once again. Of course, we are not talking about producing everything locally. Imports will always be with us, and even as the climate-warming trend continues we will not be growing our coffee anytime soon–and who wants to give it up? Or chocolate, or wine, or oranges. Still, we should strive to produce everything possible locally and rather than simply importing, we could imagine a trade going in both directions. We do not want to go back to the food selections of the beginning of the 20th century in Duluth, which limited fresh vegetable options to potatoes and cabbage in the dead of winter. We have become accustomed to enjoy a great variety of vegetables and fruits year-round. This is where Duluth Grill comes into play.

We are raising money on Kickstarter for an orchard and rain garden in our back parking lot. We have already raised enough money for phase one (the orchard) but are now looking to build a rain garden. The garden will protect the designated trout stream of Miller Creek, beautify the neighborhood, and provide fresh, local produce. We recently received a generous offer of $5,000 in a matched grant from local waste disposal companies Hartel’s / DBJ, which means that every dollar spent will be matched by them.

Our orchard will feature plants and fruit trees such as Siberian kiwis, Cornelian cherries, aronia berries or honey berries that are seldom familiar to the denizens of Duluth but which nonetheless are hardy enough to withstand our sub-boreal climate zones, and it will produce year after year an abundance of delightful fruits and vegetables that will in turn enliven our menu while making it truly unique.

Our urban farm operation (on the restaurant’s roof, in raised beds on the parking lot, in the front and back yard of the owner’s townhouse, and the soon to be orchard, all taken together) cannot begin to tackle the quantity of produce needed on a daily basis in our busy kitchen – which already buys an average of 35 percent of all its products from local sources, year-round. Rather than growing tomatoes or carrots, which would barely make a dent in our output, we put most our of efforts into high market value produce that can be grown intensively in small areas, such as fresh herbs, edible flowers, and baby greens, or into perennials that require less intensive labor such as fresh fruits, rhubarb and asparagus.

An important aspect of our farm work is to try to expand the choices of what can be grown in Duluth with our short summers and long, cold winters. Like many other aspects of the region, Duluth’s climate is unique as a result of our particular geographical location. We are part of the Great Plains basin, in a corridor between the Appalachian range on one side and the Rocky Mountains on the other. We look at the North Pole above us; to the south, the Gulf of Mexico looks at us. This peculiar configuration gives us the largest differences of temperature from summer to winter and from one moment to another than any place in the world. We experience winters similar to Siberia and summers as hot and humid as the Gulf. Lake Superior, with its waters at a constant 39ºF, moderates the local climate. A mile wide band of land along the north shore of Lake Superior, in which Duluth sits, is a climate zone warmer than inland, and the lake cold waters have a noticeable cooling effect throughout the warmer months.

Growing plants with their own particular microclimate in a parking lot or a roof with their own particular is a challenge; growing those plants in a parking lot in Duluth is a whole new challenge of its own. Knowing our climate is the platform from which we can look at similar environments in other parts of the world and find plants that will expand the diversity of what we can grow here, such as the Siberian kiwi or service berries. We will never reach the great variety of vegetation that can be grown in the tropics, but we have our own plants, such as the Aronia (chockeberry) which has one of highest content of antioxidants known, and we can certainly expand greatly beyond the typical Northland orchard of pears, apples, cherries and plums, bringing a diversity of flavors, shapes, colors, textures, beauty and resilience.

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