Dick Larsen is not the guy you'd expect to be at the helm of a revolution. He's soft-spoken and slightly built. With his thick, retro, architect glasses and pink rock-a-billy shirt with two roosters over the left pocket, it wouldn't be surprising to see a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his sleeve, but there are none. A carpenter by trade and, now, the sole proprietor of The Vegetable Revolution, Larsen is a self-taught man. His workshop, located in Northeast Minneapolis, is bathed in sun pouring in from the windows that run the length of the space, crowded with heavy duty carpentry machines. The air is light with the smell of freshly cut cedar, which he fashions into cold frames, the starting point of his brainchild, The Cabbage Patch Garden.
It started with "a mild interest in gardening." His grandparents were farmers, he explains, as if somehow dirt and seeds are wrapped into the double strands of his DNA. Initially he thought about building raised vegetable beds in people's backyard but the logistics and labor (he's a one-man show, after all) were overwhelming. He tucked that idea away in a corner shelf where it percolated. But it scratched around his head and slowly grew into another vision: something about watering plants from below, something about using the soil to draw water upwards rather than letting it drain down from the roots. Turns out, this little sprout of an idea was "sub-irrigation" and it's been around for a long time. "In my own head, it was my own idea… if only for a brief time," Larsen laughs softly.
"What if it was even simpler?" he wondered to himself. "What if I come to a backyard and everything's prefabricated and I just set it down. That makes it a lot easier."
He started reading and his idea grew. "Once I researched the idea of sub-irrigation, I was just fascinated by it. Basically it just works on the principle of a reservoir underneath the soil and you create a wicking system. The water is just contained there and feeds the plants from below." The people at Inside Urban Green helped, nourishing his ideas with information. "And now that I'm into it, I'm absolutely fascinated. I'm reading everything I can about vegetables."
Now the idea that started as a raised vegetable garden has matured into simple, 2 feet x 4 feet modular, sub-irrigated gardens. Each cedar cold frame holds three smaller bins that have an empty void below soil. The void, or reservoir, is refilled with water as needed, every few days or so. Larsen offers a variety of spring, summer, and fall vegetables from lettuce to tomatoes to kohlrabi. He delivers (in his collector's Willys Overland truck) and sets up the gardens himself and even follows up with phone calls or visits to check up on how things are going. One Cabbage Patch gardener, Larsen's one-time step-daughter, has a garden that is already producing. "What did you do to get it to grow?" Larsen asked. "I just walked past it," the girl answered. It's that easy.
Luckily for Larsen, the market was ready for a simple, low-maintenance, vegetable garden. Word spread. A senior living center ordered two. "I recently – and this was a market that I didn't really expect – I dropped two of these off at a senior living facility and one was wheelchair height and one was standing height. By the time I got back to the shop, they'd called and said, 'We'll need three more. Our seniors absolutely love them.' Those are people who now live in a facility where they don't have gardens. They gardened part of or all of their lives and now they don't have it and they miss it."
Condo-dwellers, cabin-owners who only get to the lake once a week, roof tops, sidewalk cafes, schools and classrooms, busy people, novice gardeners. There seems to be no end to the places where Larsen sees his Cabbage Patch Gardens and the people he sees enjoying them. He expanded into building simple rain barrels, cedar ones that look like a sleeker, more modern version of traditional barrels. He trained another carpenter to build them and now, because Larsen wants to run his business like a cooperative, his trainee has taken over the rain barrel business.
"Our society needs to get back to some basics. Consumerism, I don't want to say it, but it can't last. It's like a bubble and bubbles don't last. If you can do a little bit and change the way you live…" Larsen trails off, imagining where his revolution might take the people around him. "Technology has taken us to this point but along the way we've kind of left certain things by the wayside that, you know, are really good things and one of them is having a vegetable garden and being able to grow some of your own food. You know, it's a good thing to do for the environment and you'll know where your food comes from."
He's had at least one demonstration at a local farmer's market for kids. The garden is, after all, its own eco system. With the plastic tent that can be placed over it for those who want to get started in the early spring -- or extend the growing season into late fall -- it becomes a little scale model of the water cycle replete with "underground" water table. And they look nice too. The cedar is not only attractive, but it's long-lasting; its modules can last many seasons. The dirt, which he gets from Kern Landscape Resources, simply needs to be topped off and reseeded, a service that Larsen is happy to provide at the beginning of each growing season. Larsen anticipates that growers will make back the money they invest by the end of the second growing season, if not sooner.
But ultimately, this is his long term goal: to help kids have access to healthy foods. He hopes to one day donate gardens to schools and for lower income families. He's even had his first donation from a client. "I took a little interest in Jamie Oliver and just try to throw my hat in that ring and to teach kids about gardening." He concludes: "If they have a garden, they will eat what they grow." And thus a revolution begins.
Rhena Tantisunthorn, a native of Washington, DC, grew up knocking back Shirley Temples and cultivating a love of food at the bar rail of her parents' restaurant. She's eaten her way through much of Southeast Asia when she lived in Thailand for three years. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University. She currently lives with her husband and daughter in South Minneapolis where she writes, edits, creates, and lives to blog about it. Her last post for Simple Good and Tasty was Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato.