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#PLANTSARELIFE : Black Folks and Green Thumbs

by Kelly Washington

Plants and gardens provide consolation to many Black people who are experiencing some mental trauma attributed to the duality of COVID-19 and the cumulative effects of racism. The weight of both of these events on one’s mental health can be immeasurable and can take an emotional toll. While plants alone may not be the only remedy for mental health, having plants around can decrease anxiety levels and may reduce physiological and psychological stress. Plants have a calming effect on the mind, body, and soul. As a result, many Black people are turning to their backyards and dwellings to create green spaces where they can find solace, safety, community, and healing.

There is a common misconception that Black people do not have or desire a connection to green spaces. We are often associated with concrete jungles, ghettos, and food deserts. However, Black people are the originators of cultivating green spaces. While our history with the land is a complicated one, there is a cultural and ancestral connection to it that transcends foliage and food production. Becky Fair resident of Chatham (Instagram-@growsumthn), talks about continuing the award-winning gardening traditions of her grandmother.

Becky Fair– I live in a second-generation home. This home used to belong to my maternal grandmother, Leontine Lemon. My grandmother worked for the Chicago Housing Authority, but her love was gardening. She won many awards for her garden and has even been featured in the Chicago Defender. My grandmother would be in the garden every day, pruning, picking, and planning. When someone came over, you came to work and learn about gardening. I did not have to go to the store. I could get raspberries and tomatoes, eggplant okra, grapes, and cherries from the garden. It was somewhere special, and it was a safe place. Then I left Chicago when I was 17. I lived in the South for years. I was fascinated when I went down South because there were orange trees. I have never seen oranges on trees. That was where I first was introduced to hibiscus. The zone down there was so different from the area I grew up in. I planted everything down there.

Then I came back to Chatham in 2009 and brought what I was taught by my granny back to the grounds where she started it. My garden may not look like my granny’s, however, I feel her energy and a connection when I am tilling the land and turning over the soil. I think about my granny when I am growing collard greens, cucumbers, okra, brussel sprouts, corn, eggplant, I get gangsta with it and grow everything, even if I don’t eat it. I also grow flowers and have indoor plants! I do it all! It’s my safe space.

Everyone can start growing in their home. You can grow certain herbs and celery. Our ancestors used to grow many herbs for medicinal purposes. Let’s take it block by block, person by person. Every summer, my job is to figure out where I can start a new garden. I love volunteering in Black spaces that are food deserts. This allows me not only to learn but to give. I keep it close to home, and I also assist my neighbors on my block with starting and maintaining their gardens. Growing our own food is revolutionary! Starting a community garden where Black people are disproportionately affected by food insecurities and teaching them how to grow food to feed themselves and their neighbors is revolutionary! So Let’s Grow!

The misconception also exists because we are less likely to have access to safe park spaces, community gardens, forest preserves, and hiking trails in urban neighborhoods due to redlining, white flight, and other factors. What’s more, Black people are underrepresented in ownership of green spaces such as nurseries and plant shops. Nika Vaughn (Instagram-@plantsalonchicago) owner of Plant Salon (West Town, Chicago) which specializes in indoor plants, tropical plants, and aroids briefly speaks about how her love for plants started, what plant ownership means for Black people during these times, and seemingly being the only Black-owned brick and mortar plant shop in the city.

Nika Vaughn– I had no idea that there were so few other Black-owned plant businesses in this space. I know of a couple of Black-owned plant shops online, but not a brick and mortar. My business was originally a beauty space. We would do consultations and would also do hair and makeup on location for weddings. The lighting was right in the space, so I started filling it up with my personal plant collection. My plants loved it. I would do plant pop-ups, but I did not want to run a shop. That is until COVID hit, and weddings were postponed and came to a halt. I loved this space and wanted to keep it, so I had to pivot a little, and that is how I ended up selling plants from this space.

I’ve loved plants since I was little. My grandma is a serious master gardener. She’s in Long Island and has a nice garden. One of my earliest memories of my mom is when she would grow her geraniums. I would pull the petals off and lick my fingernails and put them on my fingernails. She would be livid! Throughout the years, we would do a lot of outside gardening. When I got older, and it was time for me to go to college, my first big plant purchases were three ficus trees. I wanted to live in a forest. It is very therapeutic. I think people are finding a lot of comfort in plants because it’s a challenge that’s rewarding, and you can see its growth, and when you have struggled with it, there’s community.

If something happens with a plant, you try again; there’s an optimism to it. It’s a good analogy for life, even with everything going on around us at the present moment. For Black people specifically, it is a community within a community. There needs to be more of us; there need to be more Black-owned plant shops. If one is thinking of starting his/her shop, do pop up shops! They could be done on your porch or in your backyard, and that’s one way we connect and grow our community. Another part of connecting with Black plant enthusiasts and gardeners is the language and metaphors we use. For example, we tend to talk about our plants in the same way that we talk about our kids. We may say, “Look, stop playing with me before you get put out!” You connect with the same vernacular. No one but us might vocalize it that way. That cultural connection is always there, and it’s comforting.

As appeared first in the Chicago Defender

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