Right now I feel a lot like many other citizens in the United States. We’re uncomfortable and horrified. Luckily I live in a state that has attempted to respect my privacy, and I respect the rights of others to do whatever the hell they want within reason, but I’m now a woman, thinking about my own status, and whether or not I have the rights that I feel I do. Being a woman comes up a lot in my work, but now, the woman question looms larger.
Remembering that there is no ERA Amendment I’m disgusted that my equality seemingly doesn’t matter. It disgusts me more that there are still women here who feel that this is ok. But what does my opinion matter, I’m just a woman.
This post is just a few things I’ve held back from the public about ugly issues we have in our field. (At least things I’ve come across.) Feel free to add your own in the comments about things you’ve seen or experienced. There is nothing unique about this stuff, but we should talk about it more in a productive way. (If you feel better messaging me privately, please do so.)
My Top 10
List of Uncomfortable Snapshots from my remote corner
in the world of horticulture!!!
1) “But you’re a girl!!!”
It’s happened more than once that after having introduced myself to well-known plantsmen or nurserymen stating that I’m “Sean Hogan’s seed propagator” their response has been to immediately respond with an exclamation about my gender.
“Well hey there plant genius! You ARE good at ID’ing things.” Though I’ve not yet said this, I will the next time it happens—and it will.
To say that this feels a bit disparaging and belittling is an understatement. There are other women in horticulture and I know it. If you’re a man and this is your reaction, then what are you doing as an ally to help us?
One plantsman who did this to me at an event followed up and apologized, but I let him know that he was not the first man to do this (and he wasn’t the last). He later sat with me, we had a very productive conversation, and he really just had wanted to say that it was great that I ran around “with the boys”. He actually apologized and I really appreciated that and the talk we had.
As someone who has spent her whole life running with the boys, having this conversation with someone so well-known felt odd, but it says a lot about our industry. He really did want to help me and he was happy that Sean had lifted me up.
2) The Cult of the Male
No one can deny that the consumer audience for most home gardening is primarily made up of women. Home is the realm of the woman and she likes to nest. This is a stereotype we know well. It’s one that’s been carried forward in new ways with younger generations. My generation was earthy and got into food, now we have pollinators and houseplants, but we have more gardening than ever and the field is getting more diverse in many ways.
Yet, many of the experts are often men—or sexy women. (Though not always! I know a few women online who are brilliant and they don’t have to show their midriffs and diamond tennis bracelets constantly.)
The filthier and funnier a woman is on social media, the more I believe and trust her. Creative content can be just as much fiction as non-fiction and selling lifestyles still irks me SO much.
Yet women want to see themselves out there, and there is plenty of fluff to aspire to and to identify with even though this mimetic process is just part of mimetic desire. Advertisers use this a lot. The masses don’t know what they want. Individuals will imitate others in order to find a sense of what they want. We begin to desire what others desire and we learn to imitate those desires to make meaning in our lives and to belong. These are trends folks. It’s part of the human experience. Keep that in mind the next time you suddenly find yourself following a trend that you keep seeing “around”. #plantparent #aroids
I still think that we’re getting better at this, but then again, I’m not quite sure how I feel about being a woman right now. Media literary really needs to be more of a thing and I think we’re realizing that slowly.
3) “But you look too exotic to be descended from white people from the South.”
If you’ve ever looked at anyone and decided that they’re white after they’ve told you that they identify with another “darker” group (that they’re part of), or if you’ve ever asked someone “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” because they don’t look totally white, then you’ve crossed that line. I’ve spent my whole life being judged by people who apparently know more, or better than I do, about my own identity. Just stop.
Luckily it’s a lot better now in Oregon, but old people said dumb things to me when I was a kid. I’d forgotten about that until I went to the South. When an old man said the quote above to me, it brought back horrible memories of my childhood and how I felt ugly and not quite white enough. No one deserves to feel that way.
And yes, some of these people have worked in the same field as myself.
According to one local professional gardener I supposedly would “get along great” with her neighbors who were privileged white folks who had a second home in Tuscany.
Uhh, Captain Obvious here but, I can barely afford to travel and my culture is not the same as two Americans with no family living there as expats. (Ahhhh privilege. But what the hell do I know!?!) Oh and Sicilians are JUST LIKE Tuscans. Totally.
So long as I have people calling me “exotic” because I’m not quite white, that says we as a nation have some issues with prejudice. Two sides of my family stretch back to BEFORE the American Revolution, and yet, I love my Sicilian heritage because that family is NOT the one that treated us badly for being mixed. Yes, I’m descended from some of the whites from the South who came to Oregon to make this a slave state, and it’s complicated for me. Part of me actually LOVES the American South, but it’s complicated. I love my Italian heritage since it’s what was safe for me to know. I didn’t grow up with a lot of my other family around at all.
And neither I, nor anyone else, need not ever explain that to you.
4) Buzzwords like “Colonialism”
Before you go after my friend on Instagram for posting a photo with a palm tree in Portland, check your history. Online activism (and fanaticism) has run rampant and armchair activism is not exactly helpful. I mean seriously people, look at what’s going on while you’ve had your phones glued to your people paws all day long.
While I’m very much a liberal, and I love my native plants and likely know a lot more about them here in Oregon than the average online troll, I also know that not all plants were STOLEN. Believe it or not but there was this thing called the Silk Road, and once there was the Venetian Empire. They TRADED for plants. They did in Ancient Rome too. Not everything which is moved around is based upon Colonialist behavior. Here in the Americas it’s a different story, yes, but when you’re bitching at my friend for posting a Trachycarpus and you’re a millennial who is wasting jet fuel living your bicoastal life between Manhattan and Los Angeles you need to check yourself before you post.
Maybe next time you should read up on Asian-American history in California, Oregon and Washington and find out more about the history of nurseries here. What if these plants were introduced and sold by immigrants? People brought plants (on their own) from Asia too. My family brought a fig tree cutting with them from Sicily so that they could have food to eat and sell. Many immigrants brought plants here as a way to try and survive. It’s cute how angry and self-righteous you can be when you’re trying to harass and “call out” someone with a lot more followers than you have, but in so doing, you’re simplifying a complex and sometimes beautiful history of many peoples. No, I am NOT an apologist, I’m just trying to be a bit more rational. I’m a descendant of the Moors and the Spanish Inquisition so don’t even try your Colonialism bs with me.
Know your history! Do your research! And the world cannot be saved by replanting everything everywhere with native plants! My family farmed on that island called Manhattan. As much as I’d love to tell you to “get off my lawn” so that we can give it all back, I can think of a lot more pro-active ways to be using my free time while I’m at home.
5) Status: the haves, the haves a lot less, and the have nots
Plant snobs. Rich people. Estate gardens. Botanical gardens with deep pockets and “tradition”. Aspirational gardening. Plant groups that focus more on status and travel than actual plants. This is my world.
I knew this going into my jobs, but when I work, I think about the great people, the supportive kind ones, the people who are plant people community builders, who care about plant communities and conservation. I think about the people who genuinely are building better gardens, responsibly. Most of all, I think of the horticulturists and botanical experts who just study and know the plants well and how and where they grow, and how to grow them best. Many of us learn our pests and diseases well. We’re nerds. We’re professionals. I’m proud of what I do.
But, outside of plant professionals, I’m the help. I should just shut up and make plants for the wealthy. Believe it or not, but I get treated this way a lot and it sucks. I’ve already voiced how poorly I’ve been treated at work in the past, and those individuals should be ashamed. But the garden is classist for many folks. It always has been. Think long and hard about the origins of “real estate” and consider the Western estates of the realm.
Once again, it’s just entitlement. Many of us are truly just serfs at heart but we pretend otherwise. While I have said aspirational, I can insert some of us are just pretentious.
I wish it were not so but to own land is a privilege. For some, they flaunt this powerful status symbol and demand esteem for their gardens. Sure, I get that you worked hard for what you have, but your “issues” are not welcome in my life and I don’t want to waste my time bowing down to you.
But at heart I’m a bit feral and a pagan so I just don’t get a lot out of they system to which many subscribe. Luckily, I’m privileged enough to state that I can do that and I’m grateful for the help I’ve been given by my family.
Kind of funny too how few Americans know anything at all about the estate system and yet it has a lot to do with what we’re living through right now as a nation. I wish we had legislators and leaders who actually talked about issues with some kind of historical content or factual truth but we get sound bites and lots of idiots pounding their chest (and robes) like the proselytizing freaks that they’ve become.
6) Keep the politics out of the garden—throwing the dirt at one another
Yet another perspective on privilege comes from this attitude. Interestingly, many of the greatest gardens all over the world were created to show strength, power, knowledge, and intelligence.
Don’t tell me that we’re not political when we garden. Every choice that we make, from being an organic gardener to being obsessed with our lawns says a lot about our politics and our beliefs whether we like it or not. Through our gardens we often show the world around us the values which matter to us.
We want to keep traditions, or we want to break with them. It is all political but it doesn’t have to be—so long as we’re present and aware. Mindfulness can help a lot in this sense.
Gardens can be therapeutic too. I tend to think much more about this but don’t be deceived by your own anxiety. Arranging and rearranging to assuage your anxiety is not exactly therapeutic to anyone other than yourself. I grew up in that kind of environment and it was more traumatic to me as a child, but that experience has deeply informed my awareness as a horticulturist.
7) Yes, I birth the plants
Ok, maybe not exactly like this, but I’m pro-choice, and I’ve grown a lot of plants from seed. This includes sporing ferns—just not this one.
As a young woman in her early 20s I had an abortion. The father was a man I loved, and always will. He was my college sweetheart, the son of Christian missionaries, but we couldn’t be parents when I was on medications that would have given us a special needs bundle of joy. Years later I discovered I could have died if I’d remained pregnant since my swelling disease was not yet diagnosed. I made the right choice.
I do not regret my choice. It has been difficult enough having lost my health and my professional future at that age. I can only love the person that I was then, and embrace her now in my memory of that time. It is enough. I was enough. I am enough.
While I will always be sad about not being able to have children, my situation was my own. It made my parents think long and hard about their religious beliefs, and they were pro-life for me, since I was their daughter, and at the time I was physically not well. We made the right choice for our family.
But like many people in horticulture, many of us LGBTQ+ types, I’m still a nurturer, I’m an aunt, and I very much love and respect all life. To think otherwise is asinine.
And unlike many hypocritical religious citizens who feel that they have the right to force their beliefs on others rather than respecting our difference of opinion, I have been a foster parent. While I don’t want to inflict those judgmental zealots on the most vulnerable population in our nation, I know for a fact that they already do not want to help the children already living in our foster care system.
It’s just devastating to have slid backwards like we have as a nation.
8) Groups of White Male Planthunters or Otherwise
Just stop. Please. Check yourselves at the door and get some diversity in there. You are people in positions of power and leadership. If you’re in a group pic, and you notice that the only BIPOC folks are locals you’ve hired to carry your stuff and show you around, just DON’T. If you have the power to be representing this field for ALL OF US, then represent ALL OF US. If you don’t feel that there is enough diversity, then make it YOUR LEGACY to make a difference to change that.
Sure, a photo of a group of white men may have made the rounds on social media not long ago, and ok, some of them may have been gay, but I expect more from them.
When women commented about where are the plantswomen and the public garden stated that they would post their pic too if a group of them showed up it was another embarrassing moment for public gardens in this country. Any public garden administrator should know better and I hope that whomever deals with that account was given some training and that the garden rectifies and redeems itself by encouraging a more diverse field of BIPOC and female plantspeople.
I see photos of overseas trips and cringe. If you can’t see the nineteenth-century look to most of these images, then you’re part of the problem and not the solution. I know that other leaders will come forward, but many men have the opportunity now to make changes. Just by saying this I’m speaking for many others who fear speaking out. Doesn’t that say something? Can’t we set a better example? Isn’t that what leaders do?
Yes, I understand funding. I know about the history of white female heiresses acting as patrons. They loved to live vicariously through the adventurous males of yesteryear. Oh to be great white saviors!
Maybe we could just embrace this as having happened and talk more openly about moving forward in a more constructive direction. Sure, patronage still goes on, but a bit of transparency and honesty can go a LONG way.
9) Listen more, but use caution
While I’m known to be chatty, I love to listen and learn. As a woman, I’ve come to better understand how that can make me appear passive. It has allowed others to think I’m more pliable than I actually am. Maybe they see me as even more agreeable. A woman recently over-identified with me and seemed to become quite upset when I didn’t react to her request the way she obviously assumed that I would. I read and reread the exchange and her authoritative assumptions. I didn’t respond at all as she had wanted. It did not end well and I feel sorry for how she decided to behave.
Yet if I’d been a man. If I hadn’t been the help. Dear universe, I’m so sorry that I didn’t just put all of my life on hold for a request from someone I don’t know.
There is gatekeeping occurring. I suppose many are well-meaning liberals but the self-righteousness insistence that we be the inheritors of their ever-so-amazing legacy is kind of painful.
My generation, and those younger than myself, are being left with a cultural dumpster fire. If we’re not willing to operate in the same way, aspiring to an imaginary and generationally self-imposed way of doing things, than we are somehow ungrateful shits.
Listen more. Accept the way things are more—even if you don’t like them. Change is the way of life. We are not the inheritors of your great legacies. Please stop putting that on us and listen to what we want and what is happening to so many of us. Lift us up. Share more with us, but please acknowledge and accept, times have changed and our lives are NOT like yours.
Difference, diversity, AND adversity can all be wonderful and nourishing things. The constant call to “sameness” honestly freaks me out. Don’t place that anxiety onto us. We have enough going on already.
10) Appropriation and Otherwise
A few years ago I attended an Open Garden tour in a more rural part of the PNW. It was put on by the Master Gardeners in that area, and that program is overseen by a larger group that’s statewide. I’m not one to really complain on tours since I know how difficult they are to arrange, but in this case, I wrote a letter. I was that white woman who wrote that letter.
As someone who loves her region, and is more than aware of our history of racism, this garden ornament was one which I suggested could have been removed whilst the public was present. Controversial pieces chosen in private garden by their owners are fine, but as gardeners, many of us are often trying to seek more diversity and to be more welcome, and this sort of thing was not noticed before inviting us all in. I was disappointed by this.
With family who lived in this area, this embarrassed me. I knew how unwelcoming this would be to many of my friends, so I spoke up. Maybe the group was just kind to me, but in the end, they agreed that walk-throughs would be done in the future with more sensitivity towards inclusion.
Be the change.
Aspire to more.
Check your anxiety.
Give without strings attached.
Stop assuming that we all have the same life experiences, and better still, stop using the garden and your love of plants to silence others. We all belong in the garden, each and every one of us, even the ungrateful little foulmouthed shits.
8 thoughts on “Don’t tell me that a garden is not political: My experience as a woman in horticulture”
*Standing Ovation* So many good things here! I’m dying to know which group of males that was! I think I may recall—it irritates me to no end that there aren’t more women being showcased for plant exploration or conservation, or if they are they aren’t very vocal about it. I know they are out there and Lily Anderson-Messec is probably the most well-known at the moment on my region of the country.
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Every bit of this post is great. Gotta go off to my working class gardening day but I just want to say I especially love the segment about colonialism and the rush to judge plants.
While weeding in public gardens, we get a lot of “you ladies do such a good job.” With me and various men who have worked with me. People see us weeding and I guess they assume it’s a woman’s lowly job. What they don’t know is that I chose all the plants that we are weeding around.
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My trachycarpus and I appreciate everything about this post.
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I was hoping so.
Wow! Keep on writing, as your words are powerful. As a boomer, I can see the struggles for the younger generations. What lies ahead doesn’t look good if things keep sliding backwards. Thank you for speaking out.
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It can be scary for me to speak so powerfully publicly but I seem to be getting more practice. Thank you so much Debbie.
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This is a post I will reread in two years, five years, etc.
I’m a male, and everything you said resonates with me, making me sad, upset, outraged, yet so grateful that a) you shared your experiences and that b) you’re my friend and are working to make things better.
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Thank you for this post. You have put many of my thoughts into words in a way far more eloquent than I can express.
There have been many times over my past 12 years in the horticulture industry that I have felt worn down, disrespected, undervalued and generally pissed off in what is still often (but of course, not always) an old white man’s world.
One memory, in particular, sums up the my experience: I was asked to come in early to help set up at a big event for the peak horticultural body in my city. When I arrived and asked how I could assist, I was told to ‘stand there and look pretty’ – by none other than the Executive Officer of that particular organisation. FFS. My disbelief at his comment stopped me from serving him an appropriate reply – I just sort of pretended I didn’t hear his comment. I was younger then and wouldn’t let it slide now.
I have heard some horrendous stories of female trainees being so bullied at our local botanic gardens by the older male staff (for working too hard and making them look lazy-no less!) that they quit, often leaving the industry altogether. It is very rare for a female to make it through the three year apprenticeship program. Management know of the issue, but nothing is done to address it. It makes my blood boil.
I could go on, but it makes me too angry and sad.
Some of the best plantspeople I know are women. They just tend not to blow their own trumpets, so you don’t hear about them as much as the blokes. But they are there, doing kickarse work and honing their skills in the background. Thanks for being one of them.
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