While the struggle to be recognized by an America that is simultaneously anti-Black and patriarchal rages on, Black women are seeking to connect to the Earth. People often neglect to talk about the radical healing of gardening, especially in relation to the self-care of Black women. Amidst a global pandemic and relentless accounts of police brutality, many Black women need pathways to catharsis and rebirth.
Movements like second wave feminism and #SayHerName were created to promote the inherent value and mental health of Black women that have been historically erased and neglected. Author Alice Walker and scholar Layli Maparyan conceptualized the term “Womanism,” which is centered around Black women and rooted in spiritualism. It aims to "restore the balance between people and the environment/nature and reconcile human life with the spiritual dimension.”
In a world that tries to steal life from Black women in a multiplicity of ways, we can manifest energy and breathe new life into plants.
My 83-year-old grandmother Shirley Anderson says she remembers gardening when she was just 13 or 14. "I just came into the backyard and I wasn’t watering anything, just going around and making sure everything was watered and looked good and fresh," she says.
Eventually, grandma was planting everything and using her green thumb to make every plant grow. She passed on her gift to my mother, aunts and to me. Living in Stockton, CA, she grows hydrangeas, gladiolas, impatiens, geraniums, and more. She described digging through the soil as a form stress relief and watching something bloom as healing. It’s a therapy used by many gardeners.
New York-based gardener Kimili Bell Hill, popularly known on Instagram as @plantblerd—the term “blerd” meaning “Black nerd"—combined her love for nerd culture with her love of plants.
Hill started gardening at a young age. “I started as a wee little one," she says. "I would go out with my grandmother and my mother; they both had a green thumb. My mom had an indoor urban jungle before we even knew that is what it was called.”
“They both were avid outdoor gardeners," she continues. "So, I have a lot of fun childhood memories of being in the garden with them. My grandmother had a yard full of hydrangeas and all kinds of vegetables. I continued that tradition in my own yard."
Her Instagram account,@plantblerd, has found a loyal following. "I was like, you know what? Just for fun, I'm going to start this page and post a picture of a plant," she recounts. "I didn't even know that this whole community existed.”
The community Hill is referring to is the beautiful collective of Black women gardeners on Instagram. From @blackgirlswithgardens to @blackgirlsgardening and more, these pages share garden stories through the lens of the Black female experience. If Black women gardeners want to share their garden adventures within the gardening community, they can use hashtags. Hill’s @plantblerd page invites other gardeners to use #plantblerd to be featured on her page.
Maya Nicole, known as @thecultivatedsoul on Instagram, plays music for her plants. But not just any music—she treats her beautiful botanicas to soulful tunes from her record player. Located in Georgia, Nicole says that she’s currently growing monsteras, pothos, snake plants, birds of paradise and more. Like many gardeners, Nicole describes the special joy she receives from the irresistible urge to bring home a new plant, despite having many already. Some people collect shoes or books—Nicole chooses plants.
But not all gardeners need to be pros. NAACP Image Award Nominee, lawyer, and author of the acclaimed novel Grace Natashia Deón shares that for her, gardening is a new pastime. “I started gardening just as the [COVID-19 started spreading], so back in March when there were shortages of toilet paper and it was harder to get to the store," she says. "So, I decided I would start doing something to be more self-sufficient.”
Although Deón has just started gardening, there is nothing that this burgeoning gardner isn’t growing. “Red peppers, tomatoes—different kinds of tomatoes, like cherry tomatoes, your typical tomatoes, and something called 'chocolate sprinkle tomatoes.' I have a lemon tree. I have collard greens. We have okra, strawberries and roses” she lists off.
For Deón and many other Black women gardeners, plants aren’t just there for show—there’s a spiritual connection between them and their gardens. Deón told me that the garden helps her de-stress in ways she never imagined, “Following my Christian beliefs, I’m often praying, and praying, for me, is with a meditation while just kind of talking," she says. "When I'm gardening, I get a chance to keep present and focused and talk to my plants and see if they're okay.”
Deón expressed the elation she receives from gardening with her mother, who’s in her 80s, and her daughter, who helps to harvest. Recently, they ordered collard greens seeds from Georgia that don’t usually survive in California. However, their greens defied all odds.
“It just reminds me of so much history and so much of who I am as a Black woman and who my mom is as a Black woman—just being kind of out of place, but making it anyway," she says. "That’s why my collard greens that I planted with my mom from Georgia are my favorite.”
When Black women find balance and peace within the mindfulness of the garden, they can catalyze change throughout the world.