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Q&A with Capstone Speaker Jennifer Jewell

Jennifer Jewell, Cultivating Place host and author of The Earth in Her Hands

Regarding her lifelong passion for horticulture, Jennifer Jewell admits, “I probably didn’t have a choice.” Growing up with nature-loving parents—her mother, a professional gardener and floral designer, and her father, a wildlife biologist—“from the womb on I was in a greenhouse, in a garden, or on a trail.” With less access to gardening during college, Jennifer focused on writing and literature. In the mid-nineties, while living in Seattle and starting her family, she reignited her commitment to it. “I just got the gardening bug…and it has kept on at that steady relationship level ever since.”

Jennifer is creator and host of the podcast and public radio program, Cultivating Place, which dives deeply into the human impulse to garden and the cultural conversation around horticulture. In Jennifer’s view, a confluence of various factors has “resulted in this bizarre perception that gardening is this very pretty thing that people with some extra money do, and nobody else does it—or it’s not worth talking about how anyone else does it.” This misperception is at odds with the diverse ways and reasons we garden. “I’m not a social scientist, but it’s very clear to me that every civilization and culture on the planet over time has engaged in this cultivation of plants and land around them for all these different reasons—for rituals, for medicine, for spiritual depth, for food, for utility,” Jennifer says, “and each expression of that is different in different times, in different cultures, in different places, and in different climates.” While so much of our mainstream gardening conversation perhaps addresses its most visual, accessible, or superficial level—for example, “in this climate at this time, how do you get the most and the biggest and the reddest tomatoes in summer”—Jennifer asserts there is “so much more to plumb.”

" . . . it’s very clear to me that every civilization and culture on the planet over time has engaged in this cultivation of plants and land around them for all these different reasons—for rituals, for medicine, for spiritual depth, for food, for utility. . . "

If you’re cultivating “with awareness and with an understanding that it is a valuable activity, very likely you are then getting into a greater understanding of where you live and what lives there with you,” Jennifer says. She uses her own experience as an example: “I know that I live on the lowest section of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, very close to where the Sierra meets with the Cascade Range coming down from the north. I know that I am over the Tuscan Aquifer, and I know that my soil is of this type.” She is familiar with the native plants, amount of rainfall, blooms, and butterflies she should expect at this time of year in her area. “The pipevine swallowtails, the mourning cloak, and some of the yellow swallowtails—these are all migrating through right now.” While it’s common in our culture to experience “plant blindness,” gardening enhances our environmental literacy, bringing about a greater understanding of our local environments. “It’s like this great dance,” Jennifer continues, “because the more you garden, the more you want to know those things—you are exposed to them, you’re out in the garden, so you hear this birdsong, you see that butterfly, you see that bloom.”

Jennifer’s first book, The Earth in Her Hands: 75 Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants, released in March 2020, and her presentation for this year’s Slow Flowers Summit, “Earth in Her Hands: The Power of Women Working in the World of Plants,” address the economic implications of gardening and specifically the role of women in horticulture as economic drivers. Jennifer found that the 75 women she profiled in her book brought particular skills to their horticultural work, including network-building, caregiving, and multi-tasking. There seemed to be a connection between “the valuing of the care-taking of people” and “the valuing of caring for the land and what sustains us in the land,” which translated into positive changes in the culture of their horticultural industries. In her Summit presentation, Jennifer will highlight the floral women from the book as “epitomizing this idea” and show how women in horticulture have “radiated out this economic and environmental and cultural health that has rippled out across our whole globe in many ways.”

Through how we think and talk about gardening, Jennifer believes we can change the perception “that gardening is somehow nice and very pretty but not very important,” an idea that is especially relevant when it comes to cultivating flowers. “Of all the sectors of horticulture, flower growing and arranging might be the most extreme version of where people say, ‘this is very nice but not very necessary,’” Jennifer emphasizes, “and I just don’t think anything could be further from the truth.”

She continues: “The importance of flowers to ritual, to habitat, to biodiversity cannot be underestimated.” The fact that the flowers we utilize for these reasons could be destructive environmentally and economically “is just horrific,” she says, but “local flowers can address all of those things—our own local economies, our local environment.” Again, the effects can be far-reaching: “The local flowers movement helps to reweave a global fabric of plant appreciation and care and culture—that improves everything.”

Slow Flowers welcomes our 2020 Summit contributor E. T. Perry. E. T. is a writer and editor based in New England. She graduated with honors from Vassar College in 2013, earning her BA in English and specializing in literature and literary theory. She is a lover of sustainable agriculture and self-reliance, and has experience gardening and farming, including on a flower farm in the Hudson Valley, NY. She has contributed creative writing, arts journalism, and literary criticism to a variety of publications, both in print and online.

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