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Come spring, these South Philly gardens will grow even more foods that celebrate the culture of Burmese and Bhutanese immigrants

A haven for Asian immigrants and refugees gets preserved and prettified.

ZarZo Lian, a leader among Philadelphia's Chin people, of the Burma community, tends her produce in the Growing Home Gardens.
ZarZo Lian, a leader among Philadelphia's Chin people, of the Burma community, tends her produce in the Growing Home Gardens.Read morePhoto by Matt Stanley, for SEAMAAC

Even as winter’s chill comes creeping in, the promise of a more abundant spring is whispering across some special garden plots in South Philadelphia.

Early last month, work began on the improvement of Growing Home Gardens, a 10-year-old community garden project with plots on the 700 block of Emily Street and the 500 block of Mercy Street. The work includes long-overdue garden-bed improvements, new fencing, a new watering system, seating, and other sprucing up.

All community gardens hold an important place in the hearts of their growers and neighbors. But for South Philly’s Nepali Bhutanese immigrants and ethnic minorities from Burma — including the Chin and Karen people, many of whom arrived in America as refugees — tending these gardens has a special meaning indeed.

“It’s like a mental healing,” said Naw Doh, 54, a community leader and Burmese Karen immigrant who came to the United States in 2002. “It’s a meeting space. We talk together. It’s like a country place, a gathering place.”

“A lot of the gardeners are refugees who have faced loss and trauma that is most extreme,” said Joel Arnold, community planning coordinator for SEAMAAC, the nonprofit immigrant and refugee advocacy organization that manages the gardens. “Having this space that they know is dedicated to them is a really great way to build community.”

SEAMAAC, the Neighborhood Gardens Trust, the city, and some other nonprofits have joined forces to ensure the gardens remain a resource for these residents.

Although the gardens had been used by the immigrants and refugees and their families for the past decade, they didn’t have official protected status, said Arnold. That became more of a concern as development in the area grew.

Over the past several years, the Neighborhood Gardens Trust, a citywide nonprofit land trust — with assistance from Councilmember Mark Squilla — began working with the city Department of Parks and Recreation, property owners, and developers to acquire the land either by title or long-term lease. The goal, said Jennifer Greenberg, the trust’s executive director, was to “permanently protect the garden so it could be used without fear of being taken for commercial or residential development in the future.”

“There would have been a profound sense of loss for gardeners who had come to rely upon these lands to grow food that is part of their native diet,” she said.

“It was a place for them to start to put down new roots in Philadelphia, the United States,” she added. “I have heard stories about how elders, grandparents, are able to teach traditional agriculture to their grandchildren. There’s a kind of passage of knowledge across generations.”

The funding for the improvements that began last month will total $108,000: $53,000 from the state Department of Community and Economic Development for Emily Street, and $55,000 for Mercy Street from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the city, and the nonprofit McLean Contributionship.

The work may increase the number of plots in the gardens — currently 103 — that growers pay $25 a year to cultivate. For that modest sum, the plot they rent can have a notable impact on their lives.

“A lot of gardeners grow things you can’t find in the stores in Philadelphia — or, if you can find it, it’s very expensive,” SEAMAAC’s Arnold said.

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has a long-term relationship with the Growing Home Gardens, finding local sources of seeds and seedlings for culturally significant produce the likes of which are used in dishes from the gardeners’ homelands.

Those include white garden egg eggplant and Ho Chi Minh hot pepper, purchased through Truelove Seeds in Philadelphia; Kermit eggplant and Bangkok hot pepper from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine; and other varieties of produce, hot chilis, herbs, and greens from other seed companies, according to Justin Trezza, PHS community gardens program director. The seeds are provided free of charge.

For these gardeners, being able to grow these crops can be a deeply meaningful experience.

“Having that little four-by-eight plot of land to grow their vegetables is powerful,” Trezza said. “You see women going out together [to work in the garden] and the men as well. It’s an opportunity to socialize and connect, grow food, and maintain the identity that people too often lose when they immigrate to the United States — or to any country, for that matter.”

For Naw Doh, the bitter melon, chile, Thai basil, and long beans he grows go into Ta K’Paw, a favorite dish passed down from generation to generation. Historically, she said, it has kept her people from starving in hard times.

ZarZo Lien, 41, a member of Burma’s Chin people, is a social worker with SEAMAAC as well as a chef, businesswoman, and community leader.

The Growing Home Gardens are vital, important, she said, because they allow the immigrants and refugees to save money and eat healthy but they do even more than that.

“It makes them happy,” she said. “It brings back memories of my country and working together as a family and friends in unity.”