On an early June morning, two boys in Spider-Man pajamas are wandering in a Lincoln garden.
A toddler rides in a cloth wrap around her mother’s waist, as she weeds and hoes.
Everyone’s shoes are muddy.
The plants are still babies, some seeds yet to sprout as the growing season begins.
It’s the very beginning of this garden spot, too. The Knyaw Community Crops Garden, tucked between a pair of bungalows with a hospital parking garage across 15th Street and the hum of South Street traffic a block to the north.
This once empty lot will soon be home to a harvest of cabbage and green beans, peppers and okra, cilantro and chives, bamboo leaves and morning glory and tomatoes.
Every morning and evening, members of Lincoln’s Karen community come here to tend the plants.
There are 30 plots, said David Grabarkewitz, executive director of Community Crops, but the gardeners share the bounty.
“It’s a communal space,” he said. “Everybody is growing together with no individual ownership, as opposed to the typical style where each gardener has a separate plot.”
Grabarkewitz grew up in Seward in the ’70s and ’80s. Nebraska has always been a great place to live, he said.
“And now it’s a great place for new Americans to live; how exciting.”
Lincoln is home to nearly 1,500 Karen people, refugees from Burma. Many lived for years in refugee camps before beginning to arrive in the Midwest more than a decade ago.
The civil war in their country was brutal, says Lanetta “Poe Poe” Edison-Soe, a Karen community member who works at the Asian Community Center.
Men were forced into hard labor or used as human metal detectors to clear fields of land mines, women were raped and then killed, tens of thousands fled.
In the refugee camps, humanitarian agencies helped with education and attempted to provide ties to home, including gardens, Edison-Soe said.
“But not all people can have one, because there is not enough space.”
In Lincoln, the garden space — a deep and narrow lot with a pump for water and a shed for supplies — belongs to Bryan West Campus, but will be leased to crops for a minimal monthly fee, Grabarkewitz said.
Blue Cross Blue Shield and Bryan sponsor the garden, Ace Hardware donated tools and a supply shed.
It’s an idea that first took root in 2017 when two staff members — Ben McShane-Jewell and Kelsey Varisco — began noticing the number of Karen immigrants applying for spots in one of the nonprofit’s gardens scattered throughout the city.
The pair, now former staff members, took the initiative to find allies to help create the first garden exclusively for a single immigrant group.
“This is a good opportunity for us,” said Pa Naw Dee, a community organizer with the Karen Society of Nebraska. “We used to garden before we came to the United States, but the climate is different so now we learn how to grow here.”
The father of two had a small plot in his Lincoln yard, but the opportunity to garden with others now draws him to this spot nearly every evening.
“We have a chance to work together with my family and with the community.”
Between 30 and 40 Karen families are participating. And like many of them, he is planting peppers, which are used liberally in Karen dishes.
“I like to have two or three kind of pepper,” Pa Naw Dee said, listing the heat rating from the seed packets. 1, 2, 3. Hot, hotter and hottest.
No bell peppers, said Edison-Soe.
“They are not spicy at all, so we don’t like it.”
Edison-Soe notes the variety of plants, many not found in the average American garden — long beans, watercress, a variety of small round eggplant and hibiscus — but all common in Karen cuisine.
In the large space on 15th Street, gardeners look to their elders for advice, she said.
“In our culture, because the elders have more experience, they are usually guiding them how to plant.”
That includes the use of branches and twigs to trellis plants like beans, tomatoes and climbing flowers.
“They use nature,” Grabarkewitz said. “Which is both spectacular and simple.”
By early July the trellis dot the landscape like miniature pieces of art, as the plants of June begin to grow toward the sun.
He’s already seeing tiny peppers on his plants, said Pa Naw Dee. “When I started a garden in my backyard, bugs were eating my plants. This year, I have good luck.”
Along with this space, Community Crops has started another new garden — its 11th — at 14th and D streets. The partnership with NeighborWorks, Alpha Kappa Alpha and the Asian Center has already attracted Karen youth from the center, he said.
“So we already have a satellite.”