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  • Jennifer Jewell


Valley Oaks in the Canyon.

Writer, Jamaica Kincaid in her home garden, Vermont, PHOTO by Rob Woolmington.

Dear friends,

It is the garden world that I live in, work in, and am nourished by. And what I know about the garden world is always best exemplified for me right in my own gardens - the literal one I tend as well as the virtual one I tend on Cultivating Place. For better or worse. And the work of digging out racism is ongoing and much needed in our garden worlds - individual and communal. Starting with this individual and these gardens I tend.

This week's events are sadly not new - brutality against Black people and people of color is as old as time, and thus even more egregious and horrifying. The events are surprising only in so far as we've made so little real progress against our complacency in the last 5 years, the last 10 years, the last 50 years. This is not new work, not new disparity, not new need or failure to meet it. But with vigilance, persistence and work by us all, I believe the work of this week can and will be held and nurtured by new, deep, strong, supportive, and extensive roots in the hearts and gardens of us all.

Above is the biography photo submitted by Jamaica Kincaid for her profile in The Earth in Her Hands. Her T-shirt is of course testament to the brutal death of Eric Garner in 2014. The concept of "de-colonizing" our gardens - by which is meant trying to see the ways in which stolen/enslaved/erased history is embedded in our garden history was one I very much wanted to explore and expand on in the book. An example to illustrate this concept is offered out by Ms. Kincaid: The plant we know of as the dahlia, is currently named for a Swedish botanist, Andreas Dahl. But is not a Swedish plant. It is native to Mexico and Central America. When Spain colonized Mexico, they sent samples of the plant back to Spain and in a botanic garden there the Aztec name for this plant, cocoxochitl, was replaced and effectively erased - along with its long and rich cultural history. As Ms. Kincaid writes: "The naming of things is so crucial to possession - a spiritual padlock with the key thrown irretrievably away."

Ms. Kincaid's seminal work on the systemic racism inherent in our modern horticultural world from the enslavement/ appropriation of people/land/plants to the erasure & possession through the process of re/naming and thus "possessing", was first a series of essays in the mid-1990s for the New Yorker and then compiled into her book My Garden (Book) (1999).

In these writings (among other topics), Ms. Kincaid, explores the concept of the centuries-old truth of racism and oppression in horticulture and the American garden. She poses a question in her writings and in our conversations for The Earth In Her Hands, along the lines of “what is a person who looks like me supposed to do with a story like this?”

Yellow Potato Onions - a Southern Exposure Seed Exchange heirloom strain dating back prior to 1790. They are held by Seedkeeper and co-owner and Education and Variety Selection Coordinator at SESE Ira Wallace. In our fall 2019 Cultivating Place conversation, Ira talks about her work to document the seeds of the African Diaspora for SESE.

Entrenched racism will plague our world - continue to be one of OUR biggest problems as a entire culture, until I identify it (as the white, education, economic and/or other privilege, and the silence, the willful deafness/blindness often born of these privileges that it is) in my own garden, until I dig it out and compost it for myself. Until I flip/own the question to be: “what is a woman like me GOING to do about a story like this?” As an "I" statement, speaking as someone who has been through 1 12-step programming and plenty of counseling in my life to date. Not to center myself, not to be a savior or fixer for anyone else, but as a way toward accountability.

I like to think of myself as a good human, but in my own garden I know there is work to be done. I can learn a lot more about the intersectional gardeners doing great work in this field, for starters. I can learn and share more about the fuller - longer - history of the plants I love and the people and places nurtured by them.

As a gardener and human, I have been trying to show up to this conversation since the program began in 2016, first when I had the great joy of speaking with musician/academic/gardener Daniel Atkinson about his garden life journey and his personal joy of finding seeds of the African Diaspora, (a term Daniel taught me), starting with those held in his own family and then getting curious from there.

But just one of the many things I have felt deeply this week is this: I cannot just show up to the conversation, or learn from and support the conversation, or hold space (post, share, sign, donate). I must do those and also embody this conversation/issue/work as MINE. As my work. Not as me helping someone else with their work, but my actual work. It's a simple shift in comprehension/subconscious mindset that makes a complex and enormous difference.

I understand that structural and often unseen racism IS my garden, my harvest, my seeds saved - for better or worse. And for whose benefit (seen or unseen)? And for whose loss?

I am/ We are the gardener(s) who must do this work, I must ask myself these questions, and answer them in fully aware integrity. Again, and Again, and Again. Until we get it a whole lot closer to right.

Staghorn sumac in winter dress, photo by Seabrooke Leckie, all rights reserved.

Leslie Bennett of Pine House Edible Gardens, who first spoke with me in 2017 about her work, spoke with me again in late summer of 2018 about a dream project she was launching: "My new project, Black Sanctuary Gardens, is about organizing for places of respite and beauty that celebrate and support our Black community to center Black and POC experience, aligning our energies to work with the land and our plant allies to feed the soul and feed the fight for justice -- here in Oakland and everywhere. If you haven't already, please find more info and DONATE today at"

With the gardener I want to be in mind, this is an every day show up listen learn and grow kind of practice. It is me asking myself: what more can I explore, how else can I lift/amplify/support/get out of the way for the voices and work of Black, Indigenous, Asian, LatinX gardeners; what more (much more) can I ask of and explore with my white guests? By way of one example, I need to make sure I am not talking about racism with gardeners of color and not talking about it with white gardeners; gardeners of color know all about it, I as a white gardener is the one that needs to learn to see it and to talk about it - thoughtfully, productively. With constructive criticism welcome. And I need to make sure I am talking about good intersectional, paradigm shifting gardening ways with all gardeners.

This is a long standing history of appropriation, enslavement, erasure, violence, avoidance, and ignorance. No matter when I started this work for myself in my own garden - 20 years ago, 4 years ago, or today - it will still be a long process of unlearning and learning better. Let's get started digging in.

Planned since I she and I spoke together for and at the New York Botanical Garden on March 13, 2020 - as the city and world was shutting down around us with Covid-19, Ms. Kincaid and I will be in conversation again next week for an episode of Cultivating Place that will air July 2, in advance of July 4.

I’m grateful for every gardener from a different experiential background than mine who has honored me with the trust it takes to be in such a conversation. You’ve grown me, I want to help grow the world - better.

Here's to the future we grow together, keep gardening.


and the Cultivating Place Team


On Tuesday evening June 9th, I will be in live conversation virtually at the San Francisco Botanical Garden with Leslie Bennett of Pine House Edible Gardens and Kara Newport of Filoli Historic House & Gardens, talking about horticulture, heart, and the future they see for women (and the world) in horticulture. To register: horticulture, heart, and the future they see for women (and the world) in horticulture.


The Earth in Her Hands: 75 Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants


And unsigned copies from: IndieBound:; Barnes & Noble:; and Amazon:



(just click the live link that is the green title of each program to get to the audio file and listen in....)


Leah Penniman, co-founder of Soul Fire Farm; author of Farming While Black, with whom I spoke in November of 2018. The entire focus of her work is around her commitment to ending racism and injustice in the food system.




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Me. Bio photo by Eddie Altrete 2019.



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