Three people tend to a garden
The Big Garden staff harvest produce for distribution to local food pantries in July. Photo credit: The Big Garden.

This spring, the founders of Omaha’s Sacred Seed pop-up garden didn’t know how they would find enough people to help care for their garden. The pandemic prevented the usual group of volunteers from Omaha Mosaic, an advocacy and support organization for adults with intellectual disabilities, from participating.

The idea for the garden sprung up three years ago as Janis Regier looked at the newly empty lot from her window at Natural Therapy across the street. As word spread about the idea, individuals from nine organizations agreed to commit their time and professional resources to make it a reality.

The garden’s founding members worked three days a week at the 13th and Leavenworth plot this year. Neighbors from the area would pass by and began to ask if they could help, according to Project Lead at No Empty Pots and co-founder of the garden, Audrey Woita.

Woita asked members to sign up online, fill out a waiver, and bring a mask and gloves before working in the socially distanced garden.

By fall, more than 50 regular volunteers tended the garden regularly, and the garden had produced more than just fruits and vegetables; they had created a community of people dedicated to that land and its natural life.

The Sacred Seed pop-up garden at 13th and Leavenworth in Omaha’s old market was still alive with leafy greens, flowers and peppers on a cool October morning. The garden boasts a mix of organic produce, native Nebraska fauna, and visiting animal wildlife.

Following a national trend of increased interest in gardening this year, Nebraskans have grown green thumbs for a variety of reasons.

Supply chain disruptions have given people new motivation to address food insecurities. Forced isolation has prompted the desire to get involved in local communities. Extra time at home allowed people to notice and become curious about the natural world around them.

“All of a sudden they’re looking at a tree that they are really going to rely on for shade and realizing that there’s a huge crack down the side they’ve never noticed before,” said Kim Todd associate professor, extension specialist, and 10-year host of the NET program Backyard Farmer.

A lot of the emailed questions Todd received this year were from new gardeners or people just noticing the plant and animal life around them. Todd received 50% more questions per week than in past years.

Some of that additional communication stemmed from the fact that Backyard Farmer canceled its live phone panel of ecological experts on the Thursday night live shows due to COVID concerns in the studio. Viewers also interacted on social media and watched old episodes on YouTube.

The show also witnessed a significant shift in demographics away from its typically white, 50 to 60-year-old female audience this season.

“We’re seeing a shift toward some younger and male audiences,” Todd said. “Certainly a more diverse community is asking us really interesting, fun questions.”

Nick Mulhall, president of Mulhall’s, an Omaha-based nursery, said his company witnessed its own fair share of questions from new gardeners.

“We used to have 22 inbound phone lines in our garden and business unit. And those were full a lot this spring. So we actually had to purchase and implement an entirely new phone system to handle the phone traffic. It’s definitely in the thousands,” Mulhall said.

The questions ranged from starting vegetable gardens and buying houseplants for the first time to why gardeners should grow native Nebraskan species and what it means to make space for pollinators.

This interest is exciting because it signifies people are appreciating, growing, and preserving the natural world more, according to Mulhall.

“I think that in noticing, we all can’t help but want to protect those things that matter to us most,” Mulhall said. “That’s why we’re really working on making sure that we’re doing everything we can to make it matter.”

The Big Garden in Omaha canceled its usual in-person educational programs this summer but managed to educate 10 times the typical audience for its free Growing Gardeners workshops. The two-hour-long classes are now held on Zoom and can reach up to 200 people at a time, Jaimee Trobough, director of communications said.

Upcoming classes include topics like caring for chickens in the winter and brewing a cold-weather herbal remedy, fire cider.

Of the Big Garden’s approximately 180 plots, many are located on land owned by schools, faith communities and nonprofits. Usually, students or church members would grow the food and harvest it for their own community. Church members handed out homemade salsa while children snacked on veggies at school.

When COVID-19 moved many educational and religious organizations online, the Big Garden staff tended the plots left behind in Omaha, Trobough said. Eventually, they repurposed the spaces to grow as much food as possible during the pandemic.

“It was a real shift for our organization,” Trobough said. “We had to purchase a couple more vehicles in order to transport those crews to different garden locations.”

The garden donated at least 16,000 pounds of produce to local food pantries by late October. The need for food was great. The Omaha Together pantry alone served over four times their 2019 clients by March 2020, according to Trobough.

The Big Garden’s mission of teaching people to grow their own produce and re-localize their food sources was accelerated due to the pandemic.

“We saw earlier this spring, not just food supply chains, but many supply chains were interrupted,” Trobough said. “People weren’t able to find the things that they need to meet their basic, everyday needs. And we realized just how tenuous our food system is.”

People realized their fresh groceries relied on the food supply chain running on-time and without pause during the pandemic, Trobough said. Since then many have understood the importance of gardening skills and have looked to increase their knowledge.

In the social blackout of the pandemic’s first quarantines, gardening became a haven for positive connections and improved mental health for some Omaha residents.

“Turns out when people put their hearts into something, it’s an energy that stays in that space and has really healing important effects and impacts,” said Jill Wells, a Writer at The Nature Conservancy and self-identified helper at the Sacred Seed pop-up garden.

Wells personally enjoys the land as a refuge away from the stresses of this year. With the garden surrounded by concrete on all sides, she was surprised how quickly nature “figured it out” and wild animals returned.

“This male Goldfinch, he’d come and eat sunflower seeds and he would just scream at us the entire time. He is so happy about hanging upside down,” Wells said.

The pop-up garden offers a safe place for anyone to spend time, Woitasaid.

Countless young people felt able to freely take pictures in prom dresses and selfies with sunflowers. Older residents of the neighborhood took tomatoes and grapes for themselves, and Woita encouraged it.

Volunteers at the garden formed a special sort of friendship, bonding with whoever showed up by working side by side together, Woita said. According to her, they found the value in sharing a common goal.

“If we can surround ourselves with a shared purpose and some beauty and some nature and some food, it just starts to matter a lot less if I can only speak one language, and she doesn’t speak mine,” Woita said about the volunteers. “We’re definitely bonded by this thing that we all care about.”

UNL Journalism Major, Graduating 2021