“Seeds wait to germinate until three needs are met: water, correct temperature (warmth), and a good location (such as in soil). During its early stages of growth, the seedling relies upon the food supplies stored with it in the seed until it is large enough for its own leaves to begin making food through photosynthesis. The seedling's roots push down into the soil to anchor the new plant and to absorb water and minerals from the soil. And its stem with new leaves pushes up toward the light: The germination stage ends when a shoot emerges from the soil. But the plant is not done growing. It's just started. - "Biology of Plants: Starting to Grow," MGNet Missouri Botanical Garden
As a 20-something single mom, I thought that only the Martha Stewarts and P. Allen Smiths of the world had the resources to garden, and that after slavery black people mostly grew houseplants, like my mother. That all changed when I was a full-time Johnson & Wales University student living in the projects downtown trying cook balanced meals for my kids. I made a promise to them that our next move would be into a house and that house would have a garden. It took seven years but we did it, with a new husband in tow. Together, we picked a house in North Charleston with a big yard and after a couple months of mowing grass, I convinced him to help me dig it all up.
A black comedian perfectly summarized the fish out of water feeling I had in my first Clemson Extension Tri-County Master Gardener class, a speck of pepper in a BIG bowl of grits. Ninety-nine percent of my classmates were retired and white with a lifetime pedigree in gardening. Up until that point I’d give myself a solid B- in gleaning vegetables that other people planted. We had already dug up our yard and code enforcement would start asking questions soon, so I stayed quiet and steeped myself in as much land-grant university gardening jargon and techniques one brain could store. Despite the obvious differences, we all possessed the desire to engage our neighbors in the art of gardening. Even with knowledge, I was challenged because most of the prescribed gardening practices cost money that I didn’t have.
A friend told me that her mother-in-law gardened with grocery store scraps. That, plus a trip to a permaculture garden in Walterboro, led me bury my head in books and the interwebs on a search for ancient gardening traditions that I could afford. Google searches, blog posts and a transformed front yard, unleashed my intersectional feminist Wonder Twin powers - form of compost tea. I approached gardening as if it was one of the baking techniques we studied in culinary school and growing food soon felt like ancestral muscle memory. Azaleas were replaced with a salsa garden, cucumbers, sweet potatoes and herbs. The herbs and flowering plants attracted so many pollinators that our space could easily be mistaken for an Ambien commercial.
If I can build soil, entice bees and butterflies and bring dead and dying plants back to life, what else can I do? I’ve been in a “mass beautification” phase ever since, where every individual yard, office space, shared greenspace and vacant lot is viewed through oasis-tinted lenses. The Lowcountry boasts such an impressive selection of edible and ornamental trees, shrubs and flowers that more folks should be outside cultivating a seasonal tapestry of scents, shapes and colors. An investment in yard work can stimulate everything from community to curb appeal to crime prevention. We train people of all races to garden like a forest – using wood chips, leaves, straw and other yard waste to build soil naturally.
Seventeen years ago, I was the 29-year-old dormant seed that needed water (necessity), a Coastal Plain climate and Lowcountry soil to germinate. Today, I am the co-founder and CEO of Fresh Future Farm in the Chicora-Cherokee community of North Charleston. My Pee Dee co-workers warned me about the Geechee people I’d encounter on my trek to Charleston. Ironically, Gullah chef BJ Dennis helped me appreciate the reflection of my own West African roots in the okra, cowpeas and lemongrass plants that populate our raised beds. On September 23, we’ll celebrate our third anniversary by leading an introduction to gardening class. Working with other women of color and getting paid to grow, sell and teach my neighbors regenerative gardening has to be the best ‘veggucation’ ever.
Germaine Jenkins is the founder of Fresh Future Farms, a nonprofit food justice program that includes gardening education, a fresh food store, community garden maintenance and more.