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Watch now: A book, a garden and the ELL students at Lincoln Northeast who found a space to belong

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Tagwa Mohmed remembers harvesting ripe, red tomatoes as a child growing up in her native country of Sudan. Gardening there was just part of life, and her family planted everything under the sun.

"Any kind of vegetable," she said, "we would plant."

Seedfolks community garden 5.11

Charlie Wortmann helps Tagwa Mohmed (center) and Pyoe Aye lift a wheelbarrow to fill a garden bed with dirt outside Lincoln Northeast High School.

So Mohmed — with her green thumb and blue gardening gloves — naturally fit in with the other English language learners moving soil, shoveling mulch and planting marigolds and oregano in the garden boxes at Lincoln Northeast High School on Wednesday.

A garden by the students, for the students.

The idea came to Brooke David and her ELL students at Northeast last year after they had finished reading Paul Fleischmann's book "Seedfolks." The novella tells the story of a Vietnamese girl and a group of immigrants who turn a vacant city lot into a community garden. But not just any garden — a garden that represented each character, with crops from their home country.

The students at Northeast wanted to bring a similar project to their school.

"Each country knows about gardening," said Mohmed, who moved to the U.S. in 2018.

So they got permission from Principal Keri Applebee and added partners along the way: Civic Nebraska, which runs the school's Community Learning Center, the Kiwanis Club and Northeast's Food, Energy, Water and Societal Systems focus program.

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The students then spent the year researching what it takes to care for a garden, in addition to learning about food scarcity and the impacts of food deserts.

They picked what vegetables and herbs they intended to plant: sweet peppers, hot peppers, thyme, cilantro, chives, broccoli, cauliflower, cherry tomatoes, basil, sage, cucumbers. Flowers in their own separate bed to act as pollinators and to repel insects.

"Some of the vegetables come from recipes they've made with their families, and so it's just an opportunity for them to share those traditions with us," David said.

And they figured out where to plant everything, too: on the south side of the school, where the garden will get plenty of sun.

Then on a hot May afternoon that contained hints of summer came the fun part.

Seedfolks community garden 5.11

LNE students gather various plants and markers on an organizational chart while planning a community garden outside the school.

With drills and hammers and the help of staff, Kiwanis members and Civic Nebraska, students erected four garden boxes with wooden frames and corrugated-steel walls. With shovels, they scooped mountains of dirt and mulch into wheelbarrows. And with careful precision and planning, they planted the herbs, seeds and flowers (consulting the homemade map at all times).

"They researched how many (seeds) we can put in each square foot of our garden, like spinach, for example, they know that they can put nine seeds in that space, so they made a map and everything to figure out how many they needed to purchase," said Bailey Feit, coordinator of the FEWSS focus program.

The garden is empowering to the students, Feit said, and a way for them to connect to the school and a community they might be totally new to. 

"They're going to want to come here so they can see all of the hard work they've put in," she said.

There are plans to expand the garden in the future with a greenhouse and additional garden boxes.

And come harvest time, there are plans to share the spoils with the community.

"We're hoping we can have family community nights to harvest the vegetables," David said. "This will just be a place for the community to gather and learn from each and get to know each other."

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Contact the writer at zhammack@journalstar.com or 402-473-7225. On Twitter @HammackLJS

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K-12 education reporter

Zach Hammack, a 2018 UNL graduate, has always called Lincoln home. He previously worked as a copy editor at the Journal Star and was a reporting intern in 2017. Now, he covers students, teachers and schools as the newspaper’s K-12 reporter.

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