women in the plant world: ‘the earth in her hands,’ with jennifer jewell

I’M A WOMAN who’s made a good portion of her career in the field of horticulture, specifically in the journalism end of the plant world. But until I read the new book “The Earth in Her Hands: 75 Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants,” I hadn’t really visualized myself as part of something quite the way that I see in its pages.

A lot of gardening, and especially writing, is done on one’s own as a solitary pursuit, but the book brings to life a sense of community and common purpose among the women portrayed, despite their different career choices—from research scientist to floral designer to operating a seed company and more—and despite the fact that they hail from around the globe.

Jennifer Jewell is author of “The Earth in Her Hands” (affiliate link) and is also the creator of the popular “Cultivating Place” podcast, produced with North State Public Radio in Chico, California. We talked about some of the women profiled in it, from seed experts Renee Shepherd and Ira Wallace, to Annie Hayes of Annie’s Annuals mail-order plant nursery, to activists like Vandana Shiva and in a different way, Debra Prinzing.

Read along as you listen to the March 2, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

women in the plant world, with jennifer jewell



Margaret: This was a heroic effort, 75 profiles. [Laughter.] Wow.

Jennifer: Yeah, it was heroic, but it was relatively easy because I see all of these women as being sheroes of mine, as that word is very appropriate in this setting. And so it came with some ease as well.

Margaret: O.K., well I’m glad to hear that. We should be sure to say for local listeners here where I am, that you’re going to be visiting soon, and that you and I and fellow garden journalist and author Marta McDowell, who’s well known for her books about the gardens of Emily Dickinson and so forth, will be appearing with you to celebrate your new book March 19th at 6:00 PM in Salisbury, Connecticut, at the White Hart Speaker Series for Oblong Books. [Reservation information.] And so that’s going to be fun. We’re going to be talking together about some of the things from the book.

So the mission of the book—and I should say thank you for including me in the book [laughter]—but the mission of the book: What did you set out to do?

Jennifer: Well, Timber Press originally came to me and said, would you be interested in writing a book on the current state of women in horticulture? And I went away and thought, of course, yes, that sounds great, but why? And how do you narrow that down? And we came together to craft some parameters that included: they had to be living women. And based on what I’m interested in, in my podcast conversations, I wanted their work to represent what you were referring to in your introduction, which were greater intersections with other fields of interest or cultural and environmental concerns around the world. And to somehow be pushing the envelope of what horticulture means and how we see it and how we talk about it. And all of these women, including you in my opinion, have done this.

Margaret: Well, so you wanted to showcase them and you asked everyone, I think you asked everyone the same questions and then kind of, right? I mean-

Jennifer: Yeah. It was a process that I really asked people, I invited people, to participate because I really needed them to commit to the time and attention needed to go through a multi-step interview process, wherein I sent them a set of questions, they wrote me the answers back, which was some amount of time for very busy women. And then I did a follow up interview with each of them to get more out of that, and go deeper.

A couple of the questions that were really interesting to me were how they saw some of these intersections, how they saw women’s roles in these different areas of horticulture shifting over these last 25, 30 years. And finally one of my favorite questions, which I think you and I’ve talked about before, is that final one where I ask each woman to give me a sense of women who inspired her and then women who are coming up in the field that they think the rest of the world should know about.

And that way I was able to cast a little bit of a broader net, because to choose 75 women, Margaret, was really hard. And there are so many more that could and should be in this list. And so it’s an invitation for people to add their own names and amplify those voices.

Margaret: Well, and that little kicker you asked each of us about—other inspiring women—I loved, that was one of the parts of each profile and reading the book recently that I love the most because it got me. “Oh, right. Oh wow. I remember her. Oh, her book was so great. Oh, I visited her garden 20 years ago…” You know what I mean? It was like, and then there were all these people that I’d never heard of, and I immediately am like Google searching like a mad woman to find out who’s that? Who’s that? That person sounds really interesting. So it was this who’s who, but it was also this, all these tributaries to other who’s [laughter]. And it was really, that was one of my favorite parts. Yeah. So fun.

I was, in the back of the book as in most books, there’s a little author bio kind of thing and a picture of you and it seems like you didn’t have much choice yourself, based on your mother and your father on what you’d be doing.

Tell us about your inspirations that you grew up with. I’m asking you the questions now [laughter]. Tell us about mom and dad.

Jennifer: My mother was a professional gardener and a garden designer, florist, big native plant lover, especially in her floral and garden-design work. And I grew up, I was born and raised at 8,000 feet in Colorado, and so it was tough gardening terrain. And my father was a wildlife biologist. All of my extended family came from the Northeast or England, but my parents had migrated West for my father to do his PhD work at the University of Colorado in Fort Collins or Colorado State University, Fort Collins.

And so this idea of gardens and plants and native ecosystem environment was definitely part of our just everyday conversation and what we spent our weekends doing, and our vacations hiking or… So it was definitely part of my upbringing and the language I learned, but not, it wasn’t something that had to happen. So that was nice that it organically happened for me that I just, and you know this feeling Margaret, I just got that gardening bug.

When I first started gardening at my own little space in Seattle, Washington, in the Ballard neighborhood with a young family, I just—it was the thing I woke up every day thinking about like, what’s going to grow? What can I plant? What am I going to do in the garden today?

Margaret: Yes. And it was interesting then. I mean, I knew my own, I had a grandmother who gardened and she was my inspiration and again, in the back of the book I read yours—that you had these two parents who connected you with nature and so forth. But then to read all these other women and what got them going and so forth, it was also very interesting. And they’ve taken a real diversity of career paths. I mean, there are scientists in the book, there are all kinds of… I mean, there’s a real wide range of people. Yes?

Jennifer: Yes. Which I, that was one of the first things that I did when I was trying to compile my list, was trying to… I did a funny little like gantt chart of what were the fields that I considered to be teaching us or informing us about what gardening and plants are. Where did we learn? And how did we pick up information even when we didn’t know it?

So there’s garden writers and gardens photographers and plant hunters and breeders and, but then there are the more less obvious things, like garden photographers, and how they frame a picture and how those pictures then inform us on what is beautiful or what relates to what.

And then the public policy and administrators were really important to me, to see those levels of how are we getting policies in place on any of these areas. And the herbalists and traditional ecological knowledge-holders in these places, and the culturally resonant voices in the field today, were just so exciting to me.

Margaret: Yeah. So it is a real diversity and of ages and again, locations, ethnicities. I mean it’s a mix of people, a real mix of people.

There were many familiar faces in the book, familiar to me, and also, as I said before, many unfamiliar ones that I was glad to “meet” in this pages. Familiar often meant people I’ve ordered plants from [laughter], who I feel like I know or I actually have met some of them. Like Ira Wallace [above], for instance, and maybe you can tell us—she’s been to my garden, I was a original customer of the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, I’ve known them forever. But Ira Wallace for instance, tell us a little bit about her; she’s in the book.

Jennifer: So Ira Wallace has been a guest on my program in a seed-keepers’ series that I did, and her work with the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange down in the Southeast is really interesting in terms of heritage plants, plants of the African diaspora, and plants specifically well-suited to the Southeast climate. She also, though is really interesting in that she is instrumental in putting on an event at Monticello there, at Thomas Jefferson’s estate in Charlottesville, Virginia, called the Heritage Harvest Festival in the autumn. And I think I’d have to go look it up, but I want to say that’s been going on for maybe seven or eight years.

Margaret: Oh yeah. At least. Yeah, I would agree. [Update: It was founded in 2007.]

Jennifer: Yeah. I can’t remember exactly when it was started, but Ira was instrumental in getting this started and trying to provide a forum for a diversity of people to come together in this very interesting space, which is both rich with history and very, very complicated with history. Those are some… she’s also on the Seed Savers Exchange board or has been in the past, and so her voice is really informing a lot of what we know about heritage seeds today, even if we don’t know that her voice is there informing it.

Margaret: Exactly. And then speaking of seeds, so Renee Shepherd [above]: She, for I want to say 35ish years maybe, has been a seed-company person. And she has first, I think it was Shepherd Seeds, and I think she sold that, and then it’s Renee’s Garden seeds, is that right?

Jennifer: She is fascinating. Her stories about the industrial seed world sort of larger scale, and just how few women were in that field and really still are on international level, was fascinating. And to hear her stories about being, for instance, at trials of food crops that were being grown out for seed. And the different ways that she approached how she evaluated a trial, versus how the men in the environment at that time were evaluating them, really made it clear to me.

This was like a perfect illustration, Margaret, of how whether it’s gender-related, whether it’s a acculturated, I don’t know the answer; I am not a sociologist. That’s not why I was here, but was interesting in terms of having women at the table in any field, shifts how things are perceived and how they are valued. And they changed the conversation just by pure representation of different experiential backgrounds.

Margaret: Yeah, so someone who, someone else I feel like I know—a familiar face, who in fact grows a lot of things, especially ornamental things, from seed to share with us and ships plants around the country, is Annie Hayes, Annie’s Annuals [above]. And she sells annuals and perennials and biennials and so forth. Many of listeners will know Annie’s Annuals, they may not know Annie Hayes. I think she’s been doing that for 18 years or something. So there she was, and she’s different, effusive and so energetic and…right? I mean-

Jennifer: Yeah. I mean, her enthusiasm and her descriptive ebullience is just contagious. And she really changed—like at a time right around 2000ish, that period right there—she changed a mail-order nursery concept. And she certainly changed what was a successful formula for a retail nursery, as nurseries were consolidating—the specialty smaller ones here in the West. And they were consolidating and growing bigger plants that had to flower [at purchase time in the nursery], and they were becoming owned by larger corporate names. Annie Hayes was very successful at finding a niche that relied on small plant sizes, seed-grown varieties, hard-to-find but common plants in many cases, especially in the beginning. And now she has just a fantastic selection of well-grown, well-trialed annuals and interesting perennials.

Margaret: Yeah, other familiar faces included, of course, because I’ve been a garden writer a long time, some garden writers, and among those there were some great quotes. For instance, one from the prolific garden writer Amy Stewart [above]. She says:

“Get us out of the lifestyle section and as far away from a home decorating as possible, we’re talking about how we interact with the plant kingdom, not how to choose a throw pillow.”

And I laugh, especially because I worked for Martha Stewart for so long, and I also love and appreciate the value of knowing what’s a good, just-right throw pillow.

But I love that quote. It’s like, we’re in all these fields and we’re connecting to plants in all these ways, not just aesthetically.

And another from the writer Jamaica Kincaid [below]. She says:

“Plants contain the world. The garden, better than any college education, gave the world to me.”

And that just makes me shudder. I just loved that. So there were also these statements from each of the people, the 75 women that you profiled, which was kind of fun.

One, actually it was Amy Stewart I think, who in her little “other inspiring women” list at the end, she praised another woman who’s in the book, Debra Prinzing, founder of the Slow Flowers movement, for having had this idea and sort of a one-woman… admiring her for what one woman can accomplish, devoting herself to the cause of American grown and seasonal flowers. So tell us a little bit about Debra [below], because she’s a standout I think, too.

Jennifer: Well, and that interconnection that you just mentioned really happened so frequently with these women, where one would have an idea that then triggered one or two of the others or crossed over in some way. So there really was this interconnected web, even with women who sometimes didn’t know each other. Now Amy Stewart and Debra Prinzing did know one another and it was Amy’s “Flower Confidential” [book] and this expose on just what the environmental and physical costs to our world were, of our incredibly over-imported flower industry in the United States.

And a couple of things happened at that same time. You saw Erin Benzakein [of Floret Flowers], whether it was a direct inspiration or not, there was this collective consciousness of: we need more locally grown, organically grown flowers. And Erin Benzakein sparks this flower-farmer revolution across the country. And Debra Prinzing then starts this phenomenal Slow Flowers Society and movement, starting with a book about a 50-mile bouquet and how do we source our flowers? How do we find out where they came from? Just the same way that slow food had sparked this interest in our food.

And asked all of us to just have a little bit more awareness and accountability as to where we spent our dollars, and what industries we were supporting. So that we were less complicit in industries that were harming people and environments and economies around the world.

Margaret: Right. Some other examples are “amazing what one woman can accomplish” kind of things. And I suppose everybody in the book has a little bit of this, but there was a plant pathologist, I think she’s actually a young woman named Kristin Wickert? Is that right?

Jennifer: Yes.

Margaret: Among her things that she’s worked on in her PhD, for instance, she focused on a native biological control for the incredibly invasive tree of heaven; for Ailanthus. Right? So it could be that kind of a route that’s determined and hard. It’s not easy but determined and the stick-to-itiveness, the patience to keep pursuing it.

Or there was another one, I wonder if you could tell us just about for a couple of minutes. Vandana Shiva [above], the environmental health and social-justice advocate from India who’s especially a preservationist. I think of her as a preservationist of biodiversity and seeds, an activist there.

Jennifer: And she is listed as an inspiration to a lot of the women in the book. Her work starting in India, after some serious environmental devastation and crises of contamination—a big fire in agro-industrial chemical plant that was producing fertilizers for fields really inspired her to act and to take a lot of research and protest and action forward in the world. And what she, as she was catalyzed by this event, she became very aware of how her country’s growing population—not like increasing population, but the people who grew things on the ground—had become entangled in this just incredibly crippling web. In a bad way web rather than good way web of being indebted and tied to this agro-industrial complex, in which they had been told that they needed to add, plant these seeds to have increased productivity, but these seeds needed to be fed with these fertilizers, which then killed the soil and polluted the water.

And it became worse and worse and worse. And she really went to the mat, as it were, to save these traditional growing methodologies and techniques of the people in her place. And it became a global call to re-energize and reaffirm traditional ecological knowledge, starting from where she was. And it starts for her at the seed and the soil level.

And so for instance, she took someone very large to court over the patenting, the patenting of a particular plant and said, “You cannot patent this. This is a living naturally occurring biological plant.” And it was the neem plant, I believe.

Margaret: Yes, it was.

Jennifer: And she won, and that was precedent for the whole rest of the world to see and say one woman can accomplish a lot with her heart and her head in full alignment.

Margaret: Yes. Well she’s a real warrior, Vandana Shiva, and she’s really the hero of virtually all my younger seed farmer and seed breeder friends; she’s one of the people that they admire the most. So she’s someone that I think a lot of us well.

So with the transcript of the show about “The Earth in Her Hands,” your new book, Jennifer Jewell, I’m going to again tell local readers and listeners how they can come and visit with us at the event at the White Hart from Oblong Books and in March. And I appreciate your taking the time and you’re about to head out on tour all over the place aren’t you?

Jennifer: I am. So I’m hoping to enjoy meeting so many people out on the road and talking more about this because it’s just, it’s really energizing to me as well.

Margaret: Well, and we’ve only hit on a few and there are 75 in the book, and each one is an interesting story, so there you go. Lots to talk about. Thank you so much.

Jennifer: Oh, thank you so much Margaret. I appreciate it.

(Photo credits: author photo by John Whittlesey; Annie Hayes, by Marion Brenner; Jamaica Kincaid, by Rob Woolmington; Debra Prinzing, by Missy Palacol Photography; Renee Shepherd, by Caitlin Atkinson; Vandana Shiva, by The Seeds of Vandana Shiva; Amy Stewart, by Sarah Milhollin; Ira Wallace, by Eze Amos Photography.)

enter to win ‘the earth in her hands’

I’LL BUY A COPY of “The Earth in Her Hands: 75 Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants” by Jennifer Jewell for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page:

That last question that Jennifer Jewell asked all 75 women in her book–who inspired you in gardening (or inspires you now)?–tell us your answer. If it’s a woman or women, even better, but tell us who got you started in your connection to plants.

No answer or feeling shy” Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but an answer is even better. I’ll pick a winner at random after entries close at midnight Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Good luck to all.
(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the March 2, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Lucy says:

    Growing up in NYC in an apartment we never had a garden, but I I had a love for the outdoors and nature. When I became a teacher in the city leaves and seed pods found on weekend hikes were shared with my students. From there I became interested in nutrition and where food came from. I applied for grants and developed curriculum to provide my students with hands on experiences growing vegetables.
    When my family moved to the suburbs gardening became a passion.

  2. Christa Little-Siebold says:

    My mother was my first teacher in gardening since in her womb! Since then many other women all the way to my current flower farm boss.

  3. Laura Fincher says:

    I’ve had quite a few people encourage me to garden. Probably the one I learned the most from was Peewee Stewart, who is about 78. I got to know he and his wife Gail when I lived in Tanner, AL. He shared some of his plants, and his knowledge with me.

  4. Joan says:

    My grandma inspired me by growing things I’d never seen, like purple beans. Once I finally got my own garden, she and I would exchange letters about which varieties she planned to grow. This was way back before the internet, when it was more of a mystery to discover new varieties.

  5. Nancy says:

    I grew up in the deep south at a time when every southern “lady” considered taking care of the garden was part of her household responsibilities.. So it came naturally to me, but as I spent most of my adult life north of the Mason Dixon line, I recognized different attitudes about gardening practices and eventually became very research-focused on how best to garden and maintain a healthy ecosystem. So in a sense, I have come full circle. Would love to read about the lives and practices of other women.

  6. gloria says:

    My Italian grandparents-They grew or made most of their own food-
    I still see the rows of canned string beans in the cool basement, and taste homemade apple and tomato sauce. So much came froom their own garden and local farms. We were healthy before people wrote books about fresh food.

  7. Heather says:

    I was introduced to gardening by both of my parents. We all worked together in our vegetable gardens and also our ornamental gardens. My mom was always creating new gardens. As I grew older, I connected with my grandmothers through gardening as we had fewer things in common and gardening was a common thread. Now that I’m almost 2 decades into my career as a professional gardener and owner of a garden center, I’ve worked in hundreds of gardens and always love coming back to my own, especially when I can share that experience with my children.

  8. Bookboxer says:

    My dad always tried to have a garden, in spite of never being truly successful. He’d get a few tomatoes each year and that would be it, but he was inspired to try again every spring. So, here’s to you Dad! I try every spring, too!

  9. Becky says:

    In the mid ‘50s we four kids were confined to our yard because of a neighbor’s case of polio. To keep us busy, my mother got a load of plants for us to create a large rock garden. I’ve been gardening since then-a long time.

  10. Ann Graham says:

    My gardening inspiration? – my mother. She was an incredible rosarian. But she was always kind enough to allow me to “play” in the dirt and help with her beloved roses.

  11. Linda Brown says:

    Walking in my Grandmothers garden at the age of 4-5
    That was my inspiration! So much magic in there! I am 66
    and still see and hear the magic! Thank you for the lovely article..

  12. Stella Neves Elbaum says:

    As a dyi Gardener, I’ve been a work in progress fir over 30 years. I would love to get this book, to share with my grandkids and my fellow gardeners here in North Stonington, CT.

  13. Dena says:

    I started my gardens upon moving in over 30+ years ago… Over the time as the kids who have grown up in the neighborhood have enjoyed my gardens over the years on their walks by the flowers, berries & vegetables :)

  14. BVaeth says:

    My grandmother, although she didn’t live to see it. She had a green thumb and raised a beautiful garden every year. But for some reason, I didn’t start gardening until I was in my 40s and since then have become addicted.

  15. Rebecca Hansen says:

    No matter where we moved as a kid, my mom gardened both indoors and outdoors. It seems to have been the backdrop of my childhood, and provided a consistency that was lacking in other areas of my life.

  16. My mother inspired me to learn and pursue gardening when I was very young. She loved her flowers, mostly zinnias, marigolds, and sweet peas, and enlisted the help of my sister and me at a very early age. We would plant them from seed (down in Alabama) and eagerly watch them grow. I’ve loved gardening all my life!

  17. Susannah G. says:

    My mother, father, and some inspiring trees: her roses, delphiniums, lily of the valley, spring bulbs, pansies, Marguerite daisies, Rudbeckias (hirta, triloba), along with rhubarb, for her pies; his vegetable garden in an empty field next door, with a grape vine he’d supported on a fence. (the fresh corn on a cob, tomatoes . . . ) The beloved large, wizened apple tree in our small backyard, a vestige of a farm (our house was at the rural edge of the early-suburban outskirts of Rochester, NY). A towering American Elm in one corner of our front yard, near the sidewalk, and, in the opposite corner, a balsam tree, a seedling from our grandmother’s woods in Maine, reveling in the lack of competition for sunlight. Also, visits to the city’s annual Lilac Festival in Highland Park, designed by Frederick Law Holmstead.

  18. Tanya says:

    I moved a LOT after college, but at some point I got interested in knowing the names of plants, and in learning about herbs. I started taking plant ID and horticulture classes. The more I learned about the “latest” ideas, the more I thought back to my Aunt Betty, who was always taking a “slip” of a plant wherever she went and then putting it directly in her lush soil. She had big trees and used lots of leaf mold to feed her garden, used a rain barrel to catch roof runoff and water her plants, planted flowers and edibles together.

  19. Carol says:

    My maternal grandmother taught me about plants when I was a toddler while my grandfather told stories about the faeries in the garden. Now, I teach children how to grow plants at an elementary and middle school greenhouse.

  20. mary yates says:

    This is a gotta-have book! having help build a community garden here in Gilroy, CA, I know the name of some of these women from doing research to buy seeds to plant. I can hardly wait to see the whole list and I certainly hope that Diane Ott Wealy is among them as the founder of the Seed Savers Exchange! Thanks for bringing this to our attention. It will be a gift I give to several of my female gardening friends!

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