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Kathleen Connell uses a high tunnel to grow lots of fresh garden produce early in the season at her rural Sebeka home.

Sebeka woman uses high tunnel for garden greatness

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Gardening is an everyday miracle with a magical hold on Kathleen Connell of rural Sebeka.

Fresh strawberries and a few corn seeds first exposed a young Connell to the joy of growing things. At age 7 the East Coast native didn't have a clue about gardening when peering over a neighbor's fence to watch him work garnered her the gift of a few strawberries. She couldn't believe he got them out of dirt.

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When Connell was 8 a relative who kept racing pigeons tossed her a handful of corn seeds to plant. A plot with pigeon manure provided fertile ground for her first seeds to grow. She doesn't know how tall the corn really grew, she said, but it certainly was tall to an 8-year-old.

"It just unlocked the magic of gardening for me," she said.

Connell has unlocked a little magic of her own with spinach, lettuce, sweet peas and other green growing things sprouting in her backyard early this April. While most area gardeners are valiantly restraining themselves from planting seeds until frost is no longer a concern, Connell is ready to harvest some of her spring crop.

Connell and her husband, Steve, constructed a high tunnel by their home to provide shelter for produce to grow. The high tunnel is a free-standing structure with no foundation, she said. Steel ribs support the roof.

Watering is done with a sprinkler or a hand sprayer, she said. When the hot season crops come in she will use a drip irrigation system.

Connell can fit a small tiller inside the high tunnel, although she keeps tilling at a minimum because she doesn't believe it is good for the soil, she said. She uses a lot of hand tools such as a broad fork and a little push plow.

Building the high tunnel became a necessity for Connell to pursue her love of gardening in a cold weather climate. After experiencing a couple of years with frost every month except July, Connell considered moving farther south.

"But the reality is, this is where my family is," Connell said. "So I decided this is something I need to do for my mental sanity to have someplace to play when I couldn't play outside yet."

The first high tunnel that got Connell's attention was Dave Massey's at Northwoods Organic.

"You walk in his high tunnel and it's like a little Eden," she said.

"It's amazing."

She started attending workshops on the topic around four years ago, she said.

This will be the second season Connell has used her own high tunnel. Three to four times the yield can be obtained than in a regular, unprotected garden, she said. She's still experimenting with the technique needed to garden organically in the plastic structure.

Connell came to Minnesota after traveling around the United States as a young woman. She grew up in Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

"I ended up in Minnesota because it was one of the few places I found where people cared about each other," she said.

Connell raised her seven children on garden produce. After they were grown she decided she needed a career and became an organic farm inspector. At age 63, she's tired of being on the road so much and is reducing her inspections, she said. Now she wants to become a market gardener.

Connell is involved with Community Supported Agriculture. So far, three people have signed up to pay a set price up front and then receive fresh produce on a weekly basis June, July, August and September. Members also get a bonus box with whatever is still growing in October, she said. The up front payment allows her to buy seeds and materials without going into debt. Connell is starting small and has a limit of 10 members. This is new and she wants to find out what she can do before adding too many people, she said.

She also supplies food to Harvest Thyme Bistro in Wadena. Whatever produce is left will be sold at the new farmer's market at Down Home Foods in Wadena Friday afternoons this summer, she said.

Connell is continuing to learn more about growing in the high tunnel and what times and techniques are best for planting her wide variety of produce. She also plans to build a smaller high tunnel so she can grow fall-bearing raspberries.

The bounty of the garden is something that's provided for those willing to think a little bit, observe and apply some elbow grease, according to Connell. Wherever she's lived, whether it's in the city or the country she's always gardened.

"I just love the magic of growing things," she said.

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