I am new to Nicollet Island, the only inhabited island on the Mississippi River. Every day, I step out onto my front porch and feel like I've arrived in paradise. I can hear songbirds and the clucking of chickens, and the occasional sound of a car. More likely, a scooter or bicycle may pass me by as I breathe in the springtime scents of flowing fresh water and growing plants. Brick streets and flower gardens surround historic Victorian-era houses, just steps away from the steep riverbanks of the Mississippi. Many folks like to bike or stroll around Nicollet Island, and it isn't unusual to see someone stop and snap a spontaneous picture of one of the Island's gardens or the facade of a pretty Queen Anne home.
When the apple blossoms are falling in springtime, or the red and orange maple leaves in the fall, it's easy to become enchanted into thinking you've been transported into some remote New England village, lost in time, circa 1900. It's quiet, except for the sound of a woodpecker. A neighbor's laundry on a clothesline moves gently in the sunlight. A rooster crows. A man wearing overalls crosses the street with a wheelbarrow full of prairie flowers. But bucolic Nicollet Island is in the very heart of Minneapolis' urban center, separated from downtown Minneapolis only by the river, and joined to it by a train bridge and the Hennepin Avenue suspension bridge. The Merriam Street bridge, which is an old iron-beam link to the historic storefront area of St. Anthony Main, and the second span of the Hennepin Avenue bridge join Nicollet Island to Northeast Minneapolis. Many Twin Cities residents don't even know that the Island exists, or they only know about the school (DeLaSalle high school) or the inn and restaurant (Nicollet Island Inn) that are just off of the Hennepin Avenue bridge. As a result, the residential end of Nicollet Island is a peaceful oasis for its inhabitants, and for a few bikers and joggers in the know, who take advantage of the Island's trails and scenery.
Above, lilacs and apple trees in bloom on Nicollet Island.
It's a rare day when Phil and I don't thank our lucky stars that we ended up on Nicollet Island. All of our neighbors seem to be artists, with beautiful gardens and interesting hobbies like painting, playing the mandolin, and handspinning local wool yarn. Lots of them have hobbies that have to do with food, our favorite profession and pastime! We're suddenly surrounded by cheesemakers, homebrewers, venison sausage makers, shortbread bakers, wild rice gatherers, and foragers of local wildfoods. And of course, we're within a rooster's crow of the urban farm/potager/heritage garden maintained by Peat Willcutt, Twin Cities local foods guru.
Right: Peat Willcutt transplants heirloom tomatoes and peppers into pots in his garden.
"Take all of these peonies, I want to get rid of them so I can grow peppers there," Peat told me, as I was transplanting some perennial plants from his garden to my own. On a small urban plot, Peat grows innumerable food crops, as well as keeping chickens, geese, ducks, quail, and rabbits, and he's giving up the ornamental plants in order to have more space for food crops. Many of the plants are heritage varieties, or plants suited to our northern, "zone 4" gardening year. Despite the cold winters, Peat successfully grows many plants out-of-zone. Due to the urban "heat bubble" phenomenon, many plants flourish here during the summers, and with good husbandry, they can overwinter successfully. When I asked Peat for a list of all of the food crops in his garden, he sat down and made a list of the fruit plants. As for the vegetables, for one thing, it may take him several sessions to list them, and for another thing, he's not done planting this year's crop yet!
Above, Peat & Ben's pet dove, Fatima, perches on the handle of Peat's watering can while he tends his Nicollet Island potager.
I will return to Peat's garden throughout the growing year to describe his farming practices, the plants, and the harvests, but what follows is a list (perhaps incomplete) of Willcutt's fruit trees and plants, again raised in a very small urban plot:
Apricot, Manchurian apricot, Kieffer pear, Gala apple, "other" apple, Whitney crabapple, black currant, red currant, & white currant bushes, 5 gooseberry bushes of 3 varieties, Elberta peach, approximately 250 alpine strawberry plants, as well as everbearing and June bearing strawberries; red raspberries, yellow raspberries, blackberries, Nankin cherries, Sour cherries, snow cherries; "Alderman," "Superior," and Damsom plums, mulberries, rhubarb, medlar, quince, and jostaberry.