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

On a northern Minnesota farm, a young mother passes down the love of gardening, native plants and time-honored growing methods her own mother instilled in her.

| March/April 2009

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.

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