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Omaha Magazine

Flourishing Initiatives: Omaha’s Community Gardens Cultivate Strong Cultural Roots

May 23, 2023 03:32PM ● By Sara Locke
Flourishing initiatives Omaha Magazine June 2023

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Listen to this article here. Audio Provided by Radio Talking Book Service.

With the ground warming and planting season well upon us, Nebraska’s urban farmers are tending their plots, acreages, and gardens with gusto. While many have the privilege of simply walking into their backyard to find tenable soil to produce their favorite fruits and vegetables, it isn’t that simple for the majority of Omaha’s citizens. While food deserts have yawned across Omaha’s history, a growing number of organizations, foundations, and entrepreneurs are working to put everyone on equal, and fertile, ground. 

Healing and the Inheritance of History

Healing Roots founder Clarice Dombeck understands that gardening is about more than bringing her community closer to the earth. It’s about bringing the community itself closer. Closer to one another, to sustainable access to nutrient dense foods, and to their culture. 

“Gardening and farming is ancestral to me,” Dombeck said. “Being a Black, biracial woman, my family was formerly enslaved. As enslaved people, we farmed. We kept gardens, raised animals, we foraged. I would say that Healing Roots really started with my ancestors, especially my grandmother. My grandmother was born in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, and was brought up as a sharecropper. My family worked land that someone else owned, and made a living doing so. Eventually, my grandmother moved to Chicago, and then Omaha. I would say she is the person who brought gardening into our family, and into my life. She always had a beautiful garden. She always grew peppers, tomatoes, peony bushes.” 

A Growing Solution 

When COVID hit, Dombeck was earning an undergraduate degree and working as a server. When the restaurant where she worked shut down during quarantine, she used the opportunity to dig deep and get her hands dirty.

“I suddenly had all of this time on my hands I wasn’t used to having, and I thought, ‘Okay, if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it big,’” she recalled. 

She expanded her backyard garden to include a medley of flowers, vegetables, and watermelon vines—learning to cultivate and nurture the vibrant additions on the fly. She put her habits as a student to excellent use and soon learned what it would take to yield a bountiful harvest. 

“All of my friends and neighbors saw my Facebook posts about my garden, growing all of this beautiful, fresh food. I always had an abundance, and it brought a lot of attention,” Dombeck said. “I decided this needed to be more than just for me—I could do a community garden.”

In 2021 Dombeck connected with Manuel Cook, director of urban planning and design at community development nonprofit Spark, who tipped her off to eight available garden beds peppering a historic stretch of North 24th street. 

“Manuel said that he was looking for someone to activate the community and to bring this project to life,” Dombeck said. “It was really divine that we connected in that way.” 
Dombeck had just graduated with a degree in Black studies and sociology when the Spark team approached her with the project.

“That was when Healing Roots really started. It was a Facebook group, and as a group we were able to connect with The Big Garden,” she explained. “They donated a lot of plants, people were giving us seeds, and our group was growing.”

Since then, Healing Roots has flourished—offering canning and preservation workshops, working within the Hope Center’s after school program, and providing access to an online and in-person community that supports collaboration and communication through crop sharing, task delegation, and recipe swapping. 

Ancestral Harvests

Healing Roots is an African Diaspora Garden, connecting growers with the ingredients that have impacted their families and cultures as far back into history as can be traced. 

“I have found there is a lot of misconception about soul food and African American cuisine,” Dombeck noted. “There’s this idea that our food is unhealthy or that it’s not nutritious. All of the greens (that are used in soul food) are superfoods. The greens we grow are just as healthy as kale and spinach. We grow mustard greens and collards, green tomatoes, and Paul Robeson tomatoes; all of our varieties are deeply connected with our history.”

Taylor Keen understands the importance of safeguarding ancestral practices, customs, and cuisine. A member of the Omaha Tribe and Cherokee Nation—and Founder of Sacred Seeds Native American Garden—Keen was compelled to act as the genes of heirloom and native seeds continued to dwindle, or disappear altogether.

“It’s about educating people about the long indigenous agricultural practices that have existed for thousands of years,” Keen said. “The way we ate, the way we planted is very different from European farming techniques. It’s about soil health, understanding the older indigenous agriculture systems, and the ‘Three Sisters’ planting systems.”

Keen has focused his efforts on propagating a number of native seeds—including the ‘Three Sisters’ of corn, beans, and squash, which all nurture each other—and reviving those on the brink of extinction. Through a partnership with local seed ambassadors, Sacred Seeds grows Arikara Sunflower (the fourth sister), Arikara Melon, Cherokee Okra and White Corn, Arikara Sunflower and melon, and Cherokee Trail of Tears Beans at farms and grow houses across the Great Plains.
Understanding the medicinal, historical, and cultural significance of heirloom and native plants and growing techniques is only the first step in providing protections. While Keen and the Sacred Seeds team emphasize the importance of educating the public on the connection between seed and cultural preservation, maintaining the garden requires diligence and hard work—and for those who offer their time and sweat, the experience reaches far deeper than the topsoil.

The Cost of Digging Deeper

An annual grant competition aiming to support projects and initiatives that improve a neighborhood’s appearance and livability took note of the pivotal role community gardens are playing in how residents are eating, connecting, and contributing to one another. Blazing Star Seed Cooperative received a $3,303 grant to promote the preservation and distribution of locally relevant seeds in 2022. Westgate Neighborhood Association received $4,680 to support their community garden. The Union for Contemporary Art received $4,750 for The Abundance Garden, which provides a free farm stand and hosts regular workshops on garden planning for seed saving throughout the growing season. 

Community gardens and the teams of planners, designers, educators, and workers who keep them bountiful are doing more than cultivating sustainable access to healthy resources; they’re creating social sustainability. Organizations like Healing Roots, City Sprouts, and The Big Garden are a collaborative growing effort, not only in terms of the abundance of freshly grown produce they generate, but in the opportunity to connect participants with the knowledge and support of a community that cares about making a positive impact.

Cultivating Community

For those who are new to gardening, or to the concept of breed preservation, the Omaha Public Library is the place to start. 

This year marks 10 years of the Omaha Public Library’s seed share program, the Common Soil Seed Library. The program allows all library patrons (that means library cardholders in good standing) the opportunity to “check out” up to 15 seed packets a month. A first-time growers packet has been curated to make growing easy, and the library contains hundreds of varieties, from amaranth to zinnia and everything in between. Patrons are encouraged to save and donate seeds back to the library at the end of the growing season, but donating seeds is completely voluntary. 

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here. 

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.


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