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Growing Your History: Celebrating Cultural Holidays in the Garden

When I first started gardening, I only grew things that were readily available in the grocery stores; things like kale, chard, and zucchini. Then one day while searching in vain for collard and turnip  greens to make for a Juneteenth cookout, I realized these were the items I should have been growing in my garden all along. The following season, my garden beds produced collards, turnips, mustard greens, and heirloom tomatoes, and I was able to use some of them for Black American celebrations like Juneteenth and New Years Day.

Not only did I have beautiful produce, but that particular produce connected me to my ancestors and family in a tangible and meaningful way. Over the years, my garden and farm have provided a safe and sacred place for me to be held by my ancestors and the Black growers community when another community member was murdered or harmed. Being able to grow plants that are used by my people for mourning, celebration, and just everyday nutrition has healed me in ways I didn’t know were necessary or possible.

Growing edible and medicinal plants from your culture is a wonderful experience, but can also be daunting if you are not in the correct growing zone for certain items. Here are a few tips for how to plan and grow a cultural garden.

Find Out What Hardiness Zone You Live In

The USDA has a plant hardiness zone that will help you figure out which plants will thrive in your location in the country. The zones tell you what perennials and annuals you can plant based on what can survive winter temperatures in your zone.

Make a List of Your Favorite Cultural Ingredients

Now that you know your growing zone, make a list of your favorite dishes and the produce and herbs from those recipes. Then check the zone map to see if it’s possible to grow those items in your zone. Luckily, collards and mustards like my zone and can be grown year round, but things like okra, tomatoes, and melon have a harder time here and may need some help to thrive in this climate.

Research What Your Plants Need to Thrive

Things like peppers, okra, and tomatoes need warmer soil and a lot of sunlight  to thrive, so my zone isn’t known for hot soil, so I have learned hacks to make a more welcoming growing space for those plants. Materials like black plastic, row cover, and compost can quickly warm the soil enough for successful crops. I also find that asking my elders for garden advice has been the most valuable research of all.

And last, but definitely not least, Have Fun! Growing some of my family and cultural staples has been such a blast and has helped me not only fall more in love with farming, it has also helped me fall more in love with my Blackness and heritage. I hope this inspires y’all to explore your cultural growing history.

Shanelle Donaldson West

Shanelle Donaldson West is the Farm Manager at the University District Food Bank rooftop farm, food preservationist, and food justice advocate focused on healthy relationships to land, power and community. From working with toddlers growing gardens to connecting locally sourced food to people experiencing homelessness, Shanelle has supported more than one thousand King County residents over the last decade. She expanded her nutrition education to include food preservation classes as a method of self-care and extending the harvest. In 2016, she co-founded Percussion Farms to reconnect people of color to the land and their right to healthy lives. Shanelle is a proud alumna of the Black and Latinx Farm Immersion Class at Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York. When she’s not farming, Shanelle can be found reading, cooking with her husband Mike, playing board games, or most likely smooching her sweet dog, Koda.