Rest, Repose and Race: Leslie Bennett and Black Sanctuary Gardens

“Why must people insist that the garden is a place of rest and repose, a place to forget the cares of the world, a place in which to distance yourself from the painful responsibility that comes with being a human being?” This question was posed by writer and gardener Jamaica Kincaid in the New Yorker in 2001. It’s one worth pondering always, I suggest, but right now, with questions of race and privilege and disconnection and breath being whispered, spoken, screamed across continents and oceans, it feels pertinent.

Leslie Bennett, Oakland based landscape designer and founder of Pine House Edible Gardens, is a voice I’ve looked to as I’ve asked this and other questions of myself and the garden at this time. Leslie and I met a few years ago in 2018, in what feels now like another world. We spent the last few hours of a sunny spring afternoon in a garden she’d designed and still maintains in the hills south of San Francisco. I was blown away by Leslie’s intelligence, talent and passion. Here was a woman who deeply understood land as healer, garden as reflection, soil as home. (Leslie was one of the gardeners featured in my book, The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos and Plants)

At the time, Leslie had just received a small grant to design and build the first publicly accessible garden in the Black Sanctuary Gardens project. BSG is a project initiated by Leslie that funds and creates gardens in collaboration with Black women and communities – making space to rest, heal, gather, collaborate, be inspired and nourished. I caught up with Leslie recently to find out more about BSG and to ask her to reflect on Jamaica Kincaid’s words because I knew I’d want to read her response.

I love the above question posed by Jamaica Kincaid – it’s one I keep coming back to right now. I wonder what your response to it might be?

I love this quote too and think she is questioning a perspective very much couched in privilege, and specifically white privilege at that.

People of all backgrounds, from all over the world and over many centuries have gardened and continue to garden, for many different reasons. From what I’ve seen and experienced in different cultures, the reasons for gardening and really, the spirit of gardening, is often more about being connected than stepping away.

Whether the garden is a place for growing food to support family and community, a common space to gather with family and friends, or a place to commune with plants and nature – to me, a more accurate and powerful way of framing our gardens is this:

Gardens are places where we connect and gather strength from nature and each other in order to face the painful responsibilities that come with being a human being.

Leslie Bennet in a garden she designed south of San Francisco. Image from The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos and Plants (Thames and Hudson, 2018). Photography: Daniel Shipp

Resting and reposing are definitely parts of the garden experience I value and want, but it does not stop there. I think it’s helpful to look at the bigger picture of why we (that is humans generally) garden, and I think it is ultimately about connection, not distancing.

Meanwhile, the stories often told about gardening in many American lifestyle magazines tend to reflect the white dominant culture’s focus on individualism and hoarding of wealth, presenting ‘the garden’ as a place for (mostly white) people to get away from it all and relax, surrounded by creature comforts. I’m not immune to that way of being in the garden either, but I am convinced there is more to the garden than that – it’s up to us to choose to expand that notion for ourselves in how we put our gardens to use and relate to them.

As our societies continue to change and grow, I hope the media will also make the choice to present gardening more fully and authentically across a broad range of value systems.

Can you please tell us about Black Sanctuary Gardens? How and why did the project come about?

After ten years of creating professionally designed landscapes in the Bay Area, amidst the greatest concentration of wealth and possibly the greatest income inequality on earth, it feels imperative to me to counter the current and not just do what comes most easily within the current social structures – i.e. make my living creating expensive landscapes for mostly wealthy white people. While I enjoy all my work, have wonderful client relationships, and am excited about helping everybody to connect to the land, it’s important for me to be able to reach a broader group of people with my services and, along with supporting myself, my family and the folks that work with me at Pine House, to support my community too.

There are specific histories and policies, most of them explicitly racist, that have resulted in so much land and money being in the hands of white people, and so little land and money being in the hands of Black people.

I can’t change that history and my impact on current systems is only as big as I am – but I can choose to direct my own skills and resources to support those who I think need it most, and from whom so much has been taken.

I believe in the power of gardens to heal, restore and connect people with what we need most to thrive, and I think we all should have access to that. In the absence of government leadership in the areas of resource redistribution, reparations, etcetera, I wanted to create some structures within my sphere of influence that would help to counter the current by directly supporting Black people. Through the Black Sanctuary Gardens project, I’m able to direct my own skills and resources in landscape design and installation, as well as funding I’m able to access, in order to make healing, restorative, transformational garden space for Black women and communities around me. 

My vision for the future is one where Black people are fully free from oppressive racist systems and get to live our best, well-rested lives, surrounded by plant abundance and beauty of our choosing, in our own home and community gardens. Black Sanctuary Gardens is about creating places of respite, beauty, and connection that centre Black people’s experience and humanity.

The first Black Sanctuary Garden project, for East Oakland community leader Nwamaka Agbo. Photographer: Rachel Weill

When we first met in 2018 you had just received a grant to create your first black sanctuary garden. How has the BSG project evolved since then?

I created the first Black Sanctuary Garden in early 2018 as a collaborative and partially funded project between myself and a Black woman leader in my local community. We built a garden for her East Oakland backyard that she uses with her family and shares with her community. Our next project was in collaboration with Alena Museum (an artist collective and organization that supports Black diaspora culture here in Oakland) – with the goal of creating a publicly accessible BSG space for our local Black Community to use. We raised almost $24K for this project (which we are still holding in a dedicated bank account) including a local arts grant, but unfortunately, shortly after raising the funds, Alena lost the lease for their West Oakland space as the owners decided to develop it into luxury housing. Amidst Oakland’s gentrification, it’s been very difficult to find another site, but we’ve been looking! Black churches, abandoned lots, community ventures, etc. We are still seeking the right spot but getting closer to finding it, and hoping to announce about it later this year.

In the meantime, I also had a very difficult pregnancy with my second child and have spent the last year caring for her. When she turned one, I decided to build a (self-funded) garden for myself and my family in early 2019 – our new home garden has been a real blessing as we’ve lived through the Covid-19 pandemic and shelter in place orders this spring. And I’m excited to have my own portrait taken in our garden next week and add it to the BSG garden portrait collection!

A portrait of Nwamaka Agbo in her East Oakland garden co-created with Leslie Bennett through the Black Sanctuary Gardens project. Photographer: Rachel Weill

Now that my baby is 18 months old and I’m back on my feet, the project with Alena is getting back into gear and I’ve been focusing my energies on raising funds and developing the next private BSG garden sites for Black women in Oakland. This has been very much on my mind through the Covid-19 pandemic. The impact of the pandemic on Black communities has been so pronounced, on top of the already existing disparities that exist around access to healthcare, housing, living wage work, green space and more. As we are all stuck at home, increasing access to nourishing, inspiring home garden space for Black women and their families especially has been very much on my mind and very much a priority.

What is your future vision for Black Sanctuary Gardens?

I’d like to grow the project so that I can be creating more fully funded gardens for Black women and communities each year. I started out in 2018 with the goal of one garden per year, but would like to do more like three to five of them per year. I’d also love to collaborate with other local designers, contractors and vendors to increase the scale of the program.

Along with the actual garden creation, I’m really excited about the aspect of documenting Black women in their gardens. I think there is a real shortage of imagery that shows Black people relating to garden spaces. My contribution to this is the second part of the BSG project – whereby we take portraits of Black women in the gardens we’ve created with them. The aim is to create beautiful authentic imagery of us Black people in relationship to plants and outdoor spaces.

The BSG design/install team in the first BSG Garden, for Nwamaka Agbo. (L-R) Leslie’s husband Linval Owens (who has his own gardening business but collaborated with Leslie on the project), Lonna Lopez – a designer on the Pine House team who co-designed the project, and Linval and Leslie’s son Samuel. Photographer: Rachel Weill

How can people help support BSG?

Right now, by donating money. In time and as the project grows, it would be helpful to have access to administrative support, larger/regular funding sources, etcetera.

It seems like BSG has great potential to grow roots and spread its limbs far beyond Oakland. What are your thoughts on its potential to influence/shape thinking and action within the landscape design/garden industry?

I think there is so much potential for the garden accessibility and equity aspect of BSG to grow within the gardening and landscape industry as a whole. For me it was a matter of deciding to use my business to serve a more inclusive community that specifically includes Black people, using individualized support to address socio-economic barriers caused by systemic racism, that reduce access to my services. I think anyone in this field of work can and should decide to do that! 

For example, with my business at Pine House, I operate within an equity framework that entails offering a limited number of projects at discounted rates each year, especially for Black and Indigenous people, as well as folks with disabilities living on fixed incomes. I also charge a 2-4% equity tax on all my standard non-discounted projects, and use the funds collected from that equity tax to subsidize garden design and installation work for those Black clients that choose to participate in the more public, artistic effort that is the Black Sanctuary Gardens project.

I think many garden designers, landscape architects and contractors could incorporate models similar this into their business as a way of directing their practices toward actively building a more equitable world (whilst also doing the rest of the work required to dismantle white supremacy).

Is there anything else you’d like to share about Black Sanctuary Gardens?

Black people are out there gardening already! Black Sanctuary Gardens is about connecting our communities to resources and infrastructure that make gardening easier and more rewarding, with more of us visible in our gardens along the way.

Donate to Black Sanctuary Gardens / Follow Black Sanctuary Gardens and Pine House Edible Gardens on Instagram / Visit Pine House Edible Gardens website