Returning to Her Roots: An Organic Food and Flower Garden in Minnesota

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A path winds through Jennifer Behm's Minnesota gardens, where flowers mingle with vegetables.
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Emma, age 4, and Dylan, 6, chase cabbage moths.
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Jennifer fills her yard with birdhouses and flowers that attract and nourish bees and hummingbees.
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A bumblebee loads up on pollen.
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A simple cup and saucer serve as garden ornaments.
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Jennifer's dad's old gas can found new purpose in the garden.
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Jennifer rotates crops and uses companion planting to ward off pests in this flower and veggie garden near her house.
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Jennifer picks peppers every week and freezes the extras for winter eating.
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An 'Autumn Joy' sedum stands out in Emma and Dylan's succulent garden.
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Jennifer's husband, Dave Owens, built this tucked-in bench out of pine from the property.

Gardening is in Jennifer Behm’s genes, which becomes evident touring her 1?2-acre garden, overflowing with prize-winning pumpkins, multi-colored tomatoes and waves of native blooms. After returning to the northern Minnesota farm where she grew up, Jennifer is re-creating the gardens her mother once tended and raising her children close to nature, much like she was raised.

In keeping with these roots, Jennifer’s garden today is a family affair. Her husband, Dave Owens, built the sturdy trellis of landscape timbers that’s covered with gourd vines. Huge ‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant’ pumpkins ripen in her 6-year-old son Dylan’s pumpkin patch–his 206-pounder won second place in the children’s division at a local pumpkin festival last year. Pink, trumpet-shaped ‘Zebrina’ malva flowers remind Jennifer of her mother, as does a grove of black walnut trees that began bearing fruit two years ago, 20-some years after Sigrid Behm planted them. “I’m so grateful she gave me such a beautiful landscape,” says Jennifer, who credits her late mother with instilling a love of gardening in her.

Jennifer began growing her own vegetables and making organic baby food after Dylan was born six years ago. She quit working when her second child, 4-year-old Emma, came along. “Gardening is a very inexpensive hobby, a good family project, and it’s great for stay-at-home moms,” Jennifer says.

My big, fat chemical-free garden

Jennifer, who became a Minnesota Master Gardener last year, gardens organically, using a number of natural methods and the supplies available in her neighborhood. She fertilizes with aged cow manure she gets from a neighbor and hauls compost from the community compost site. She mulches heavily with grass clippings, packing at least 4 inches around each plant to suppress weeds and reduce evaporation in her vegetable garden. “By fall the mulch is nearly gone, and I can till everything in so there’s nothing to clean up,” she says. “It’s all organic food for the soil.”

Most of Jennifer’s flowerbeds are filled with native, drought-resistant plants that spread rapidly. She seldom waters. “If they can’t make it on their own, I’m not going to baby them,” she says. A Minnesota history buff, Jennifer loves native plants’ connection with history. “I grew up with the brown-eyed Susans and the ox-eye daisies–all the plants that are native to this area are the ones I remember as a kid, so I want them around now,” she says. “I remember smelling common milkweed when I was young. Living in the same place, I want to keep it just like it was when I was a child.”

Jennifer keeps pests away using companion planting–she tucks scented geraniums between broccoli and cabbage plants and uses aromatic dill and parsley to accompany other vegetables. “The bugs don’t like things that smell,” she says.

Jennifer also relies on her gardening experience and knowledge of the seasons. For example, she says that if she starts broccoli early enough to set it out by May 1, it has time to mature before many cabbage worms are out. And instead of planting in large lots, she spreads her rutabagas and cole crops (broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, collards and kohlrabi) throughout the garden so pests won’t find them as easily.

Dylan and Emma handpick potato bugs and rose chafers and flick them into bowls of soapy water. “I don’t ever get the urge to kill bugs with chemicals,” Jennifer says. “For me, it’s more important to be kid-friendly.”

Sowing seeds

Last spring, Jennifer started nearly 1,200 seedlings under grow lights. “I’m at the point where I can’t fit any more in the house,” she says. This past summer, she grew 30 heirloom vegetables and 100 heirloom and native flowers. “It was the frugality of gardening with heirlooms that appealed to me initially,” she says, “and I love the stories behind the seeds. ‘Miss Wilmot’s Ghost’ is about an old English woman who loved this flower growing in her garden so much that she carried the seeds with her and sprinkled them wherever she went. When she passed away, they named the flower her ghost because the flowers appeared everywhere.”

Jennifer trades seeds with others through the Internet gardening community iVillage GardenWeb and through the Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization of gardeners who have shared 1 million seeds since 1975. “Spending money on seeds isn’t necessary,” Jennifer says. “It’s so simple to save seeds from year to year, and then they’re free.”

Native plants can be tricky to start from seed, Jennifer says. From the GardenWeb, she learned to sow native seeds–purple coneflower, blue vervain, partridge pea, lupines, purple prairie clover, nodding onion and Maximillian sunflower–in milk jugs in December, setting them out on the deck until they begin to germinate as early as March. Jennifer sometimes buys seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery and uses the company’s catalog as a technical resource.

Bounty for everyone

Every year, Jennifer’s plants attract more wildlife into the yard. “As we added flowers and more nectar plants, butterflies, snakes, toads, frogs and birds came in,” she says. The family has counted seven bird nests, including bluebirds, house finches and chickadees.

Last year, Jennifer planted butterfly- friendly plants such as purple coneflower, swamp milkweed and Joe Pye weed. Emma and Dylan spend hours transferring monarch caterpillars from overcrowded milkweeds to less-crowded ones. Milkweeds are the only plant monarch caterpillars eat, and the family grows them all over their yard. The children bring several chrysalises into the house so they can watch the butterflies emerge 14 days later. With a butterfly book, they learn about them and about beetles that destroy some of the chrysalises.   

By November, the Behms’ larder is filled with provisions to last until spring. At 40 degrees, the root cellar keeps potatoes, pumpkins and squash fresh all winter. Shelves in the basement shine with canning jars–60 quarts of a tomato-pepper mix for chili and burritos, 50 quarts of string beans, 20 quarts of pickles, 50 pints of jams and jellies, and 20 quarts of crabapple sauce. Two freezers overflow with bags of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, broccoli, rhubarb and shredded zucchini. Dave brews beer with homegrown hops, and Jennifer dries basil, dill, amaranth, poppyseed, chives and baking beans, as well as catnip, catmint, spearmint, rose hips and rose petals for tea. In a few more years, a new orchard will provide apples and pears for pies.

“A lot of people wait to garden until they retire,” Jennifer says. “I can’t imagine that. There’s so much to learn that they’ll never catch up. I hope to live to be a really old woman so I have time to plant everything I want to plant.”

Margaret A. Haapoja left her teaching position at Greenway High School in Coleraine, Maine, to be a stay-at-home mom years ago. She and her husband have gardened at their Minnesota lakeshore home for more than 40 years.

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