Volunteer Spotlight: Chris Beckstrom, Downtown Gardener

by | Dec 14, 2021

Look for 1,000 bulbs next spring in this artist’s garden at Pedro Park.

Tell us about your downtown gardens

I maintain a garden plot at 7th and Sibley as well as at Pedro Park. I found there was so much competition to get plotsin other parks, but I could see Pedro Park needed help. The park design isn’t so highly structured, which let me use my own creativity and do as much or as little as I wanted. My plot has evolved over two years as I’ve improved the soil and experimented to see what would do well there. I like to observe how people use the space and what they respond to in the gardens. Next Spring you’ll see an explosion of bulbs– I planted about 1,000. Crocus, Darwin hybrid and Antoinette tulips, and I think about a dozen Fritillaria imperialis.

I’m a big cook as well. I grow things to eat and share. I always grow Kale in my gardens because I eat it and it’s beautiful. This year I had tall caster beans in my plot at 7th and Sibley. The birds loved them!

How did you get started?

In 2007 I moved downtown. I was leaving a huge yard on the East Side and I was lamenting having to take apart 10 years’ worth of work. My first step was to plant some of my grandmother’s iris bulbs in Wacouta Commons Park. The next Spring I got a plot in Mears Park.

My earliest memories are planting cornflowers in the foundations of the old cow shed at my grandparents’ farm. When I lived in New York City I grew things in pots on the fire escape. I lived near the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. This area of downtown with its 19th century buildings reminds me a bit of that neighborhood.

Gardening always has an element of time that expands and contracts. You’re always thinking 3, 6 or 12 months ahead. I have to make myself enjoy the present moment instead of just thinking about what the garden will look like in the future. For me gardening is as much a spiritual practice as it is a way to stay active.

What do you find rewarding about your gardening in the parks?

I spend a lot of time talking to people in the park. That human connection is as important as the gardening. It’s been interesting to meet so many people outside the neighborhood who want to come and help. That kind of generosity needs to be reciprocated.

I especially love sharing plants. The minute someone in the park talks about wanting to garden, I offer a cutting or a seedling. They usually accept it with enthusiasm.

What are some of your favorite flowers?

Of course, that’s like asking me to pick a favorite child. I do like fragrant flowers. I have peonies at 7th and Sibley. I have been an intrepid rose grower, even in Minnesota.

My background is in design and textiles. I love tall architectural plants like Allium. I collect and dry the seed heads. For Spring Art Crawl I’m going to use them to build a structure. Alliums are a great example of structure.

I enjoy the symbolism behind plants. Amaranth represents immortality. Rosemary for remembrance.

Nowadays gardening is my primary artistic expression. I love bold and unusual colors like striped tulips and all the so called “black” flowers. No baby doll pink for me. As a painter I am a colorist. Whether the palette is jewel tone or subtle, I’m always thinking about unusual combinations.

And then there are weeds. Some of them are so beautifully constructed. I have cultivated weeds for their seed heads. When I was in visual merchandising and display, so much of that included floral elements, including seed pods from weeds. I have, however, resisted creating weed topiaries.

I have created beds of just foliage – there can be such a story there. Let’s just say if I never see daylilies, hosta and spirea again that would be fine with me – they are so overused!

As a park volunteer what support could you use?

Compost! Urban parks always have compacted, depleted soil. I was adding compost this summer to get ready for the bulbs I planted this fall.

And how about your vision for Pedro Park?

I was involved in the initial plan all those years ago, so I’d like to see the full block as a park with even more opportunities for people to garden. The current quarter block design doesn’t offer enough opportunities for residents to be involved. As you know, successful parks always take private money and individual volunteers.

Inspired? Volunteer in Saint Paul parks!

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