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Celebrating women’s work in the world of plants

“I want to explore the ways this field is a more viable and creative career path for women than ever before and how the plant-work world is demonstrating greater social and environmental responsibility in large part due to women’s contributions.”

— Jennifer Jewell, “The Earth in Her Hands: 75 Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants,” 2020

Jennifer Jewell hosts a weekly podcast called “Cultivating Place: Conversations on Natural History and the Human Impulse to Garden” (www.npr.org/podcasts). Her podcast focuses on stories that emphasize gardens and gardening as essential for growing natural and cultural literacy.

In “The Earth in Her Hands,” Jewell taps into her 53-plus years of gardening, and her 10 years interviewing plant people and organizations from around the world, to profile women who work in diverse sectors of the plant world.

Jewell lives and works in Chico, California, so many of the women profiled in her book are from western states, including California, Oregon and Washington. Others base their work from other parts of the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia, India or Japan. The women represent diverse races, ethnicities, backgrounds and ages.

Each profile includes the featured woman’s work, her favorite plant or landscape, an account of her plant journey, and mentions of other women who inspired them. Altogether, the profiles weave a rich tapestry of the contributions that contemporary women are making through their work: collecting plants and seeds, designing ecologically sustainable gardens and landscapes, growing healthy edible and ornamental gardens, researching plants and microorganisms, creating garden-based art, and educating others about gardens and gardening.

Most of the women do work that spans two or more categories, and they are particularly passionate about sharing their work with others. Across the range of women in plant work, I noted a shared commitment to increasing accessibility to gardens and gardening for a broader range of people. Their collective goal is to break down barriers that have prevented some people from enjoying the benefits of gardens and gardening.

Several women are doing the work of connecting people to gardens through their cultural heritage. For example, Leslie Bennett of Oakland, California, designs and installs gardens for people of color by including food, flowers and medicinal plants that are relevant to their background and experiences. Her Black Sanctuary Gardens are aimed at providing physical and spiritual sustenance, especially for Black women.

Similarly, Leah Penniman’s Soul Fire Farm in New York and her book “Farming While Black” are “dedicated to reconnecting African-heritage people to the land after centuries of land-based oppression and alienation.”

Fionnuala (pronounced fin-oo-la) Fallon, an Irish gardening columnist and flower farmer, advocates for “decolonizing” gardens by highlighting Ireland’s historic and heritage plants in her writing and the plants she grows for local florists.

Cara Loriz of Port Townsend, Washington, Ira Wallace of Mineral, Virginia, and Rowen White of Nevada County, California, and are all working to protect organically grown, native plants and heirloom seeds in their respective regions by educating and working with seed stewards.

White, a Mohawk woman, is involved in the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network, an intertribal group that focuses on preserving seeds that are important to Indigenous peoples.

Wallace, of African descent, runs the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and co-founded the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s restored home in Charlottesville, Virginia. The festival is a “celebration of Jefferson’s legacy and the contributions to American cuisine by enslaved workers, while promoting gardening, sustainability, local food and the preservation of heritage plants.”

Other women are working to increase access to gardens and gardening for a range of urban dwellers. One example is Yolanda Burrell, who founded Pollinate Farm and Garden in Oakland to promote urban agriculture. Her edible plant nursery and urban homestead emporium provide supplies, resources and educational programs on urban farming topics such as growing edible landscapes, raising backyard chickens, beekeeping and food preserving.

Working from a different perspective, Eliza Blank of NYC founded The Sill, an indoor plant business, in order to “revolutionize the way city-dwellers, especially younger ones, can find, buy, be successful with, and enrich their lives with a diversity of long-lived indoor foliage plants.”

Other efforts to introduce young people to gardening include Ava Bynum’s Hudson Valley Seed education program, which works with local public schools in New York to build gardens for students to grow and harvest food.

In Maine, Severine von Tscharner Fleming founded a group called The Greenhorns with the mission of “recruiting, promoting and supporting the rising generation of new farmers in America.”

I could go on, but my word count requires me to only mention briefly that other women in Jewell’s book are helping to increase access to gardens and gardening through their work in horticultural therapy, and through their research, their art, and their advocacy roles in public forums.

I have been inspired by reading “The Earth in Her Hands.” I think we all need to feel like we’re a part of a larger community, and this is certainly harder today than ever before. I’m uplifted by the number of women who are doing innovative, important work in many horticulture-related fields. As Jewell observes, “Their work illustrates how the many challenges of our world can be met through cultivating an interdependence with plants.”

Do you know a woman who is working in some way to increase access to gardens and gardening? If so, I’d love to hear from you for upcoming columns featuring women’s work in the world of plants.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.

My gardening work this week

We’re harvesting huckleberries in Bandon. We’ll make huckleberry jam and freeze the rest.

I’m adding compost to my raised beds to enrich the soil for fall/winter crops. I’ve sown seeds for overwintering broccoli and cauliflower, as well as spinach, lettuce, Swiss chard, peas and beets for fall crops.

I’m planting fava beans as a cover crop in my tomato bed. Legumes are great for replenishing nitrogen in the soil that tomato crops deplete.