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28 March 2021

A Gem in the Garden: Jennifer Jewell

Wildflower meadow in the Tano Point garden of Karen Still, designed by Surroundings Studio, Santa Fe New Mexico. Photo by Caitlin Atkinson, as featured in Under Western Skies (Timber Press, 2021), all rights reserved.

A riddle: What’s showy, full of bounce and vigor, praised for its beauty, occasionally high-maintenance ... depending on the type, and, in the worst of circumstances, merely possessed as a status symbol? Answer: a garden. “The commodification/objectification of the garden is as repugnant to me as the objectification of women, or people of culture, or the environment itself,” says Jennifer Jewell. The garden cultivates more than crops; it cultivates a relationship to our place and the wider natural world.” The Northern California-based gardener and author airs this fact weekly on her public radio program aptly called “Cultivating Place.” Gardening is not a dilettante hobby, she says. Every time you engage with your garden and its plants and other lives, you are changing the world physically, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually, and she hopes we are doing this for the better for our world – not to continued human or environmental harm. “[Gardens] are our fingerprints, our signatures, our reflections, our legacies—as individuals and as cultures.”

Q&A

Janet Mavec: How have you been coping with the pandemic?

Jennifer Jewell: While the shelter in place situation is born of devastation, one of its beneficial side effects has been the return of so many to the garden. I am lucky to have a garden; it is a small garden, but I am very lucky to have it. Given the nature of my work as a public radio program producer and gardener, I am able to do what I need to do and what I love to do from home with even more time in my garden or hiking around my region of interior Northern California. It has big skies, and I feel a great affinity for the oak woodlands and oak savannahs characteristic of this part of the state. I count myself very very privileged and lucky.

JM: What’s your favorite season?

JJ: Whatever season we’re in except fire season in our modern day. I love the slow, gentle unfolding of spring here, with green green grass from winter’s rain and the abundance and diversity of wildflowers across Northern California. I love the softening of fall after the really rugged heat and arid summer season. The turning of the oaks and chaparral to deeper bronzey colors after the sunburned grasslands of late summer.

JM: What’re your top 3 favorite plants?

JJ: I love fragrant old roses. I love their set seasonality. I love the sensual femininity of their blooms—pale pinks, whites, apricots, reds, you name it. That said, I also love (and have a profound respect for) any kind of plant that can withstand the summer heat and drought conditions here and still look great while doing it. This has led me to a new-found love in my adulthood of the native buckwheats (Eriogonum sp.), salvia, manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.), and the native oaks. These generally never fail to slay me with their strength and adaptability and drop dead gorgeousness.

JM: What plant gets no love (is underused) and why should we pay more attention to it?

JJ: This is a tough one, there are probably so many. But I would say first on my list would be all of those roadside verge ephemeral wildflowers whose blooms might not be spectacular but whose vibrant communities and flashes of color—just when insects need them—are worthy of being protected and not sprayed with herbicides under a false assurance of safety or tidiness.

Ponderosa Pine and Agastache, with blue grama grass meadow in the garden of Marry and Larry Scripter, Niwot, CO; designed by Lauren Springer. Photo by Caitlin Atkinson, as featured in Under Western Skies

JM: What’s the aesthetic of your personal garden? Tell me about it.

JJ: I have a relatively small suburban garden which makes me supremely happy and is manageable all on my own, albeit sometimes with the help of my partner, John (who helped me create each section of it—and hauled all of the needed soil—over several years). The front entrance garden is an almost all native-plant, drought-tolerant garden, and I had a vision for it before I even moved into the house. It is a long border of big native salvias whose arching stems of silvery foliage and pink blooms in the spring are interplanted with tall fountains of wheat-colored native deer grass and dark-green mounds of a native manzanita cultivar known as "Big Sur." These nicely rounded shrubs are completely covered with clusters of little pink bells in late January and early February right as the overwintering bumblebee queens need them. This entire border is backed by a hedge of iceberg roses, which might seem incredibly prosaic and sacrilegous to the native plants in front of them except that they bloom prolifically. I love their bright white flowers, and their foliage withstands the heat and dry of a California summer looking fresh and green with water only every 10 days or so. All of these plants are miraculous. I would say my aesthetic is “flowery, casual, welcoming" and following the rule that the best time to get a task done in the garden is when you actually find the time to do it. My garden is very forgiving of my sometimes haphazard but always loving ways.

JM: What’s the one garden tool you can’t live without?

JJ: Felco clippers; a small well-used, handheld hula hoe; and my Womanswork gauntlet leather gloves are right up there too!

Agave, Cacti and wildflower border along the historic adobe home in the Phoenix home of Virginia Cave. Photo by Caitlin Atkinson, as featured in Under Western Skies

JM: What’s gardens have you visited recently that you loved?

JJ: My partner John Whittlesey, founder and owner of the Canyon Creek Nursery’s mail-order catalog from the late ’80s to the early 2000s, left the mail-order nursery business when he was concerned about its environmental impacts. Beginning eight or so years ago, John began transforming his old nursery yard into the most amazing berm garden with six or seven large berms (8-feet wide by 20- or 30-feet long?) planted entirely with unusual natives and specifically bumblebee-feeding and supporting non-native-but-climate-adapted shrubs and flowers and vines and small trees and bulbs. The berm garden, as we call it, blooms from late February through to Thanksgiving, and John has documented six species of bumblebees native to our area. It is both incredibly beautiful in each season, and so gratifying to know that it attracts and supports these pressured species, along with millions of birds and other bugs, and deer, coyote, fox, and other neighbors.

JM: What garden has influenced the way you manage yours?

JJ: My mother’s garden. She tended a fantastic garden of vegetables and fruits, native and non-native flowers and flowering shrubs. I still remember her most glorious combination of fragrant herbaceous peonies interplanted with native coral bells (Heuchera sp.) and edged with native snow-in-summer (Cerastium sp.) at the entrance to her fenced vegetable garden. She had a great eye but a light touch, and a fantastic sense of humor combined with patience. She loved her garden with her whole heart. If I get frustrated or overwhelmed or move into any kind of comparison mindset with my garden, I remember my mother and her garden and release such silliness. The joy and fun are in the give-and-take with the plants and the place.

JM: When is the last time you hugged a tree? Or what’s a sign of respect that you give to nature’s green beings?

JJ: I wake up every morning and take my coffee outside and say good morning to the day and the plants who companion me. Every evening, I go out either with a glass of wine or a before bed cup of chamomile tea and say thank you and goodnight.

JM: What’s one of your favorite resourceful/inspirational books on gardening?

JJ: Mirabel Osler’s "In the Eye of the Garden"; Robin Wall Kimmerer‘s "Braiding Sweet Grass"

Naturalized/rewilded swimming pool with floating rafts of native wetland seep monkey- flower (Erythranthe guttata) in the home garden of Dennis Mudd, San Diego County, CA. Photo by Caitlin Atkinson, as featured in Under Western Skies

JM: What’s new or coming up for you in 2021?

JJ: I am really pleased that my second book will publish on May 11, the birthday of a beloved aunt who turns 86 this year, and the birthday of my maternal grandmother. The book, “Under Western Skies: Visionary Gardens from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast,” was conceived of by photographer Caitlin Atkinson, who, along with Timber Press, invited me to write the narrative text. It was great fun and such an honor to converse with gardeners and be immersed in gardens in meaningful conversation with their larger places. It will make a great shelf-mate to my first book "The Earth In Her Hands, 75 extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants.” Gardeners and gardens like these—and there are so many of them to be celebrated—grow our world a little better every single day. Thank you for being such a creative gardener human, Janet.

You can listen to Jennifer de-objectify gardens with her show, "Cultivating Place: Conversations on natural history the human impulse to garden." It airs every Thursday at 10 a.m. on North State Public Radio (KCHO/KFPR). The podcast goes live at the same time each week and is distributed nationally by PRX, Public Radio Exchange. Or pick up her two books, “The Earth in Her Hand,” and “Under Western Skies.”

Jennifer wearing Janet Mavec's Acorn Pendant Necklace.