Conquering the Soil
DescriptionHorticulturist Abra Lee has worked as a county extension agent, as a landscape manager and horticulturist at two international airports, and as an arborist for the City of Atlanta. She was the 2019-2020 Longwood Gardens fellow. She’s also the author of an upcoming book on the history of African-American gardeners, Conquer the Soil: Black America and the Untold Stories of Our Country's Gardeners, Farmers, and Growers (2022).
She joined Smithsonian Gardens for an interview about her background and research. Here are a few excerpts:
How did you get into researching garden history?
I got into the historical aspect through my mom and my mentor, a gentleman named Ryan Gainey, who has passed away. And I started off—I was working at the airport in Atlanta as the landscape manager there. I was very young when I got that position; I was in my twenties. I remember going to Ryan’s house one day. I was with my mom, and I was talking about how I had imposter syndrome and I was struggling to figure out how I even am supposed to be the landscape manager at the world’s busiest airport. I was just feeling like, so fake about it. And he said, “You really need to know your history.” And I thought he meant my garden history from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon moving forward. Which he did. And my mom was saying, “no, he means your history. What is your garden history?”
And fortunately for me I grew up going to Barnesville, Georgia, the dirt road country where my family’s farm was, and I just never really looked at my family as anything but this farm family from rural Georgia. I didn’t look at it in the terms of the artisanship of the work that they did, in terms of the plants in the garden, and the luxury of that garden—how beautiful it was. And once I looked at that history and understood it, it helped me to move forward and start discovering beyond my family history, the history of my community and my culture, the black community in America.
Where did you look for sources on African-American garden history?
I started just looking through old family photos. And then from there, the Atlanta History Center. They have the Cherokee Garden Library. ...I mean, old school. I think we had smart phones then but they certainly weren’t what they are now. You’re talking ‘08, right? ‘09.
I would do speaking engagements on these things. Many times garden clubs—pretty much all the time back then—were a bunch of little old ladies. And they would come up to me after a speaking engagement and say, “Well, when I grew up in my little town in Tennessee or in South Alabama there was this person...” And I would follow that trail of breadcrumbs and sure enough that person would be there. So it was research, and it was word-of-mouth.
Were you part of a garden club at that time?
I was part of associations. The Georgia Perennial Plant Association and those plant societies. I mentioned earlier I was in my twenties at the time, my late twenties, and many of these people were old enough to be my grandparents. So it put me in this kind of situation where I stood out....I didn’t have a path laid for me, or someone to walk me through how to manage the landscape at an airport. It’s not like someone teaches you that. There was no predecessor to my job. I joined the plant societies because I was like, well, I know what they’re doing. And I know they know what they’re doing. So that’s how I was able to get a lot of knowledge from my elders.
Gardening at airports sounds like a very unique type of gardening.
It’s really more that at airports birds and planes don’t mix. They still want the beauty, but they don’t want something that’s going to attract wildlife like deer, or foxes, or birds that—and there’s no flat way to say this—that won’t crash a plane. So you have to be very conscious of that. However, in any other situation, of course you want the wildlife and Bambi and all that other stuff coming in.
It was really just me knowing the look that I wanted. …In my first internship out of Auburn when I was a horticulture student I worked for a place called Post Landscape. And they were famous for having beautiful landscapes and bringing tulips into Atlanta through apartments. And so I just assumed I was gonna go work at apartments. But what they didn’t tell me was that a few of their clients were homeowners. And these weren’t just any homeowners, these were people that were the billionaires in Atlanta.
So instead of me going to apartments I worked at their homes. And I’m saying all this to say, when you’re doing landscape at a billionaire with taste, at their home, it was like horticulture I had never seen before. Like, I couldn’t believe the luxury and the beauty and how pristine it was. And if anything it reminded me of [my family’s farm in] Barnesville; it reminded me of the dirt road country and how beautiful it was there. And I just wanted to bring that look to the airports. And that really was me hooking up with the plant societies. Kind of, really trying to mimic that. Like, trying to merge that grand look on a grand scale, and connect myself back to that luxury in the country.
Can you describe a traditional rural African-American Southern garden?
When I say traditional I mean a very historic look, where there is not necessarily the grouping of the plants by fives and sevens as you would see in a formal landscape. You see a very informal landscape. You see plants that are easily propagated and by that I mean cut from stems, reseeded. You see that in the look of their landscape.
You see the swept yard, something that they would have learned from their ancestors who were brought here in bondage from Africa. So, there’s a specific look to what they’re doing and there’s a specific purpose in many ways. It’s also something that’s very unacknowledged in a way… we acknowledge the Japanese gardens and the Chinese, but when you look at these rural southern gardens back then that were being established, people are really dismissive of them. And you know, essentially looking at them as impoverished gardens.
But when we look at those same gardens today, we ask people to repurpose, and upcycle, and use the materials around them, and plant the plants that are native to their area. And this is what those black people were doing. And at the time they were doing it, it was very much shamed. And here we are today. You know, look at us now just right back to what they were doing naturally.
… I’m going to describe the one I grew up in. Cause that’s the one I know best. Barnesville, Georgia. And when I say dirt road country, I mean there’s literally a dirt road to get to my aunt’s house that lived there my whole life. So the farm is there.
…You drive up, you’ve got the field to your right, the cow pasture. Then you pull up to the front door and you would have the yard. This is the gathering spot. People are sitting on the porch. You’re gonna see a lot of container plants; a lot of flowers lining the steps to the porch. You’re going to see literally the swept yard. I remember my Aunt Lois out there sweeping that yard. And when it would get muddy sometimes she’d lay down carpets. So, there’s literally this dirt path to the front door that she would keep immaculate. And even the little chickens, the chickens are running around freely. Again, it’s a farm. You go and sweep that path.
The yard is the area with the beautification part, but the garden is where she has her tomatoes. And it may be in this edged area. And I think it’s Richard Westmacott or Dr. Grey Gundaker that calls it “opportunistic” edging. So it’s not just only stones; she may have taken an old piece of iron to use as edging and create a border for this vegetable bed that sits in the yard.
And the yard sits in the farm: like, the garden, then the yard, then the farm. It’s like a bullseye is what I’m saying. For somebody that’s listening that can’t envision it, the farm is the outer ring. Then the yard is the middle ring. Then the garden is the inside ring.
…When I talked about those billionaire homes I was working at in Atlanta, all that action is happening in the back, it’s hidden. What’s happening behind my Aunt Lois’s house, the smokehouse is back there. That’s where you’re working on the landscape equipment. Like, that’s what’s hidden. But all this activity, all this movement, all the socialization is up front for people to see you. And it’s a part of the whole environment and energy of being on this farm in this black rural landscape. And you’re gonna have zinnias popping up. You’re gonna have impatiens. So, not flowers that you and I don’t know. But they’re popping up in a very opportunistic way.
It’s really also a very mobile landscape. I talked about the pots on her steps. She’s constantly moving those around. She’s constantly using wash pans and old ones and keeping flowers in there. So nothing is wasted. That’s why you’ll see a toilet planted with a tomato plant, or whatever it is. Nothing is wasted in these landscapes.
Have you found that public interest in gardens and horticulture has changed with the pandemic and lockdown?
Yes and no. …I’m gonna tell you when I saw it pop off, cause this is my 21st year in horticulture. My first job was at the Auburn University Greenhouses in the year 2000. When I saw it really start to shift was when Mrs. Obama, Michelle Obama, planted that White House Garden. That’s when I saw people go shoosh! “Let’s grow our own food!” And prior to that it wasn’t, I don’t feel like, a major thing in America. I feel like she started the renaissance and this pandemic took it to a new level… I saw community gardens pop up everywhere when she started that garden at the White House.
I spent my twenties and the majority of my thirties in airports, and working for the university extension service, and for the interior plant companies, and working as an arborist. So by the time I got to this point in my life, the pandemic point, I no longer am outside growing the flowers. Like, that was always my business. …At a very young age I was put into a leadership position. A team was doing the work for me, a team of black women. Mostly black women, some black men. And when I was in Houston it was Cambodian immigrants, Mexican Americans, and black people that did the work there. So they did extraordinary work at these airports I worked at.
As for myself, because I’ve been researching the past 10 years, this pandemic and people being more at home has shown a spotlight more on the research and the work that I do. Pre-pandemic, I was just talking to little old ladies in garden clubs. When the pandemic popped off, now I’m talking to you [Smithsonian Gardens]. This is shocking to me. My audience has always been 75 and up, like always, up until like 2020.
So, that’s how it shifted for me that I’m seeing the excitement and the energy that young people care to know these stories… I’m excited. I never knew that young people wanted to hear this. I just always thought it was me and, again, the elders. …I don’t look at it as a trend, I look at it as a cultural shift. People want to know. People that are in horticulture classes or teaching themselves how to garden want to know about [Black florist] Annie Mae Vann Reid. They want to know what she grew so they can grow it in their garden. So that really, really matters to me. ‘Cause her legacy will live on… As long as we speak their name they live forever. And it’s their time. It is their time. They won’t be forgotten on my watch, that’s for sure.
- Story contributed by Abra Lee, interviewee and Meg Biser, interviewer