Edible Omaha

NEIGHBORHOOD DIRT: Friendships and Valuable Lessons

NEIGHBORHOOD DIRT: Friendships and Valuable Lessons


Friendship and Valuable Lessons
Teens Thrive in the Garden
Story and Photography by Mike Brownlee

On a warm spring evening, Ana Carlson indiscriminately picks at weeds in her plot at the Teen Market Garden in Omaha. With fickle determination, she casts aside unwelcome guests from her rows of ornamental flowers. Despite the arduous task, she can’t help but flash her big smile. “This is the most pleasant environment imaginable,” she said.

Ana is one of four members—along with her sister Elena and siblings Emma and Maureen Kalkowski-Farrand—of the Teen Market Garden, an entrepreneurial program that teaches teenagers about gardening as well as business. Founded in 2009, the program is an offshoot of the Gifford Park Community Garden and the Gifford Park Youth Garden, both located near 35th and Cass streets in Omaha. The Gifford Park Teen Market Garden takes up about an eighth of an acre at 3208 Cottage Grove Avenue. Along with the plots, the area features three compost tumblers, a shed, water drums and a fire pit for monthly hotdog cookouts.

The program is the brainchild of Cynthia Shuck and Kate Bodmann. The neighbors were part of the community garden and youth garden—Kate started the children’s program in 2004—and thought a next step was necessary. “We needed something for the kids to graduate to,” Kate said.

Cynthia continued, “We wanted to figure out a way to engage teenagers in a productive way.” Kate became pregnant shortly after launching the teen garden and has taken a lesser role with the program. Cynthia now runs the program with her boyfriend, John Barna, as assistant director. “These kids are worth the investment,” Cynthia said. “So I donate my time.”

Within the group, the teens have paired up: Ana partners with Maureen, while Elena and Emma work together. The later pair grows vegetables, and their plots feature onions, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, peas, beans and radishes. Maureen grows herbs, while Ana raises ornamental flowers including strawflowers, zinnias and white daisies.

Long before flowers bloom and vegetables sprout, the group meets weekly in February to devise a business plan that includes projections of costs, expected profits of their crop, marketing and market research. They discuss what they’ll grow and where they’ll sell their produce. Each must present ideas and concerns in front of the group, creating dialogues on how to run the business. Cynthia, cofounder and director of the program, goes with the teens to area grocery stores to, “find out who the competition is; what they’re selling.”

Both sets of sisters have participated in the Teen Market Garden since the beginning. The four were part of the youth garden and said they excitedly moved on to the next challenge. “The small business aspect sounded like something that’d be a good idea to learn about,” 18-year-old Ana said. “I’ve always liked gardening, and I thought it’d be nice to have a plot of my own.”

Her sister agreed. “I wanted to become more independent with our gardening,” Elena, 16, said. “I wanted the opportunity to learn for myself—have some say in what I plant and what I do with it.”

Come early May, seeds are in the ground and from there, “it’s just weeding, watering and picking vegetables and flowers,” Cynthia said. “And then, later on, going to the market.” During the season Ana, Elena, Maureen and Emma, along with Cynthia and John, stop by the plots for an hour and a half most Tuesdays and Thursdays to work in the garden. They water their plots almost every day. The Teen Market Garden selections are ripe by August or September. The last two years they’ve been at the Saturday Midtown Crossing farmers market, but plan to move to Wohlner’s Midweek Market on Wednesdays in Midtown this year.

In their time with the garden, the four girls said they’ve learned a number of valuable lessons. Documenting goals—writing something down—is a must. Business partners have to communicate. The more time spent plying a trade, the better the outcome. “The more work you put in the better it’ll come out,” Ana said, discussing the hours spent pulling weeds, laying mulch and examining the business plan. She’s also learned, “If you put 50 tomatoes in one plot it won’t turn out well.” Ana flashes that big smile and laughs—she found that out firsthand in 2009. Elena has developed social skills in her work at farmers markets. At their booth, each girl must interact with people, making the pitch that their products are desirable.

Emma, 15, pointed to the benefits of financial literacy, weighing the cost of an improvement against the expected revenue from their product. “And I’ve learned gardening is a lot more work than it appears to be,” she said. Kate said the entrepreneurial work gives the teens resources that will benefit them for years to come. “This isn’t just something that kills their time but teaches them a skill,” she said.

“We hope this is a program that can affect life change now and in the future.”

The Carlsons will be gone next year off to college. Maureen, 17, will be a senior at Central High School in the fall and likely has just one more year left at the garden.

Cynthia and John agreed they had hoped the program would have a few more kids by now, but they continue to recruit and hope to attract more teenagers to the garden. Until then, Ana continues to pluck weeds with her friends. The sister pairs have known each other for a decade.

“As we got older, it became harder to see each other because of schedules,” Maureen said. “But now we have a regular time to see them every week. We can talk and catch up while we work. And when you’re out there weeding on a 100°day, it’s nice to have your friends out there with you.”

Despite those warm summer days and the sometimes difficult work, the friends agreed the end result makes the work worth it. “It’s a really nice feeling to look over your plot and see the plants living, thriving and know it’s because you took care of them,” Maureen said. “The best thing is, after working so hard, to see the garden flourishing,” Ana added. “It looks so beautiful.”

Mike Brownlee is an award-winning reporter for The Daily Nonpareil in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He and his wife are growing bell peppers this year, their first foray into gardening. Wish them luck.


Find the Teen Market Garden on Wednesdays 4pm–7pm at Wohlner’s Midweek Market and Fridays 4pm–8pm at the Gifford Park Neighborhood Market.

To volunteer or donate, contact Cynthia Shuck at 402.980.4190 or Dalilabush@cox.net

To learn more join Teen Market Garden on Facebook

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