October 29, 2020

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Home Improvement

Minneapolis family’s garden offers a musical respite during a difficult summer



a group of people posing for the camera: Christina and Stephen McHenry and their daughters, Eloise, 6, and Harriet, 10, above. Hope Nordquist and Kai Brewster, top, performed on the McHenrys’ front steps recently.


© Star Tribune/Star Tribune/Photos by JEFF WHEELER • jeff.wheeler@startribune.com/Star Tribune/TNS
Christina and Stephen McHenry and their daughters, Eloise, 6, and Harriet, 10, above. Hope Nordquist and Kai Brewster, top, performed on the McHenrys’ front steps recently.

As her neighbors settled onto lawn chairs and blankets before the night’s entertainment, Christina McHenry talked about the show often put on by her family’s wildflowers, which were spread out like the people around her front yard in south Minneapolis.

“We’ve seen monarch butterflies, honeybees and a hummingbird all there at once,” she said.

The Metro Transit graphic designer, her mortgage-lender husband, Stephen McHenry, and their grade-schooler daughters Harriet and Eloise welcomed a wide variety of people alongside the pollinators in their yard this past summer.

The McHenrys live two blocks south of W. Lake Street, near where a post office was torched and heavy rioting occurred in the aftermath of the George Floyd tragedy in May and June.

Just a few weeks after this summer’s chaos, the McHenrys invited singer/songwriter Dan Israel to perform a pass-the-hat-style concert on their front stoop. To spread the word, they used the same GroupMe app thread they previously used to report fires, weapon sightings and parked cars with out-of-state plates.

“We just went on there and told everyone, ‘Hey, how about a little music to bring something positive to the neighborhood?’?” Stephen recalled.

It worked.

That impromptu gig turned into a series of informal concerts held about every other week, each with the family’s shady and billowy front yard for a setting — and with the clucking chickens in their equally lush backyard sometimes adding to the music.

The McHenrys’ garden was selected by a panel of judges as one of six winners in the Star Tribune’s annual Beautiful Gardens contest, chosen from more than 380 nominations from readers. In this most unusual year, the contest was changed a bit; we invited readers to nominate gardens that are beautiful in spirit and contribute to the greater good.

During the show we attended in late August, singer Hope Nordquist — who usually performs in theatrical productions as well as clubs — treated about 50 well-distanced neighbors to a familiar mix of songs from Adele, Taylor Swift, Johnny Cash, “Hamilton” and Disney’s “Moana.”

One older neighbor brought out a kitchen chair to sit on while sipping a Leinenkugel’s and listening to the music. The family next door watched from their porch.

Others showed up with their dogs and toddlers, many of whom zigzagged playfully around the tall wildflowers while also weaving in and out of standard quiet-audience decorum.

The neighbor who literally passes the hat for donations during shows— $5 to $20 tips go a long way for musicians in these gig-less times — is Jon Lewis, who is used to that job as executive director of the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra board.

The events in the McHenrys’ flowery yard have had a discernible healing effect on Lewis and other residents, he said. “It’s nice for everyone to bond over live music, instead of bonding over us all being terrified about our neighborhood blowing up.”

Another neighbor, Sten Severson, works as a sound engineer at the Children’s Theatre and provides small amplification equipment for the yard shows.

“It’s a nice case of different neighbors pitching in however we can,” Lewis added.

Chickens and musicians

In her letter nominating the McHenrys’ yard for the Beautiful Gardens contest, Christina’s mother, Kay Miller, wrote: “The family works together to tend this garden which is welcoming to all. The garden is small but it is such a happy, welcoming and beautiful place. Neighbors love to be there. Beautiful flowers abound, and organic vegetables are raised and shared among neighbors who might need them.”

Christina is also heavily involved in the nearby community garden outside Lyndale Community School, where their daughters attend.

There, fourth-graders help plant everything in the spring and then harvest it all in the fall as fifth-graders — though not this year with the pandemic. A lot of the produce has been given to food shelves instead.

“Especially for city kids, it seems like valuable lessons for them to get their hands in the dirt,” Christina said.

The McHenrys’ own home garden has grown steadily over the past decade to include a wide array of pollinator and ornamental plants, including lavender, yarrow, fleece-flower, thistle, baptisia, lilies, geraniums and columbine.

Among the edibles in their home garden are herbs, Swiss chard, strawberries, peppers, watermelon and even hops, which they have given to Dangerous Man Brewing in the past for a special community beer. That’s all on top of the handful of eggs that appear in the coop every day.

“They’re super-easy to take care of,” Harriet McHenry, 10, said of their chickens, as she rounded up Guppy, one of the six chickens that she and Eleanor, 6, named.

Their mom later downgraded “super-easy” to “easier than having a dog, once you get the coop built.”

For the host family, the yard concerts became like just another seed planted and cultivated in the garden.

With the summer riots long passed but still plenty of other 2020-generated challenges to endure, the family has kept the yard concerts going into late October, with such music-scene mainstays as Jeremy Messersmith and Connie Evingson among the performers. There’s at least one more show — the 11th in the series! — still in the works.

“After the first two, it was like, ‘Well, I guess we have a series on our hands,’?” said Stephen. “Why stop?”

Christina concluded, “Especially with [the pandemic] and everyone stuck at home, it seems worth the effort to add a little beauty and sense of community around your neighborhood and your home.”

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658

@ChrisRstrib

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©2020 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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