What a difference a year makes.
This time last April, we were either ferociously sanitizing our weekly CSA bounty or gargoyling above the empty city streets on our fire escapes. Occasionally, some dude rolled around in a giant, plastic hamster ball to flirt with his drone crush. The yeast was gone. The rats were dancing. Celebrities wouldn’t stop singing. It was a weird, dark time.
Spring 2021 hits differently. The pandemic is far from over, but we have reached a full-circle moment of reflection after a little over a year of doing the anxiety tap-dance, and are left to reflect on what carries over from that early-quar period of introspection and hobby dabbling. Out of all our coping mechanisms, one has kept its staying power: plants. Indoor plants, outdoor plants, and plant foraging. Mushroom growing. Propagating. Suddenly giving a hoot about all the stuff we used to step over before the highlight of our day was a solitary walk in The Big Outside.
“Growing up in the south of the United States, I saw a lot of green spaces, but as an individual, I felt very removed from them” says Indy Srinath, who is a gardener, forager, and educator in the Skid Row area of downtown Los Angeles. Srinath’s deeply symbiotic approach to gardening and foraging is both communally and emotionally empowering—exactly the kind of ethos we can learn from as we start planting the seeds of our spring and summer beans. It’s simply, really: Srinath just wants to help people—and especially people of underserved communities of color—to not see nature as a commodity, but as an extension of our own health. Our interaction with the outdoors and its flora and fauna is a give and take relationship; at the end of the day, we all get soaked up by mycelium.
Meanwhile, Amber Stafford has built a nest for that kind of inclusive and restorative community in the digital space. As the founder of the Instagram account @BlackGirlsGardening, she’s created a virtual platform for Black women gardeners to congregate, swap tips, and share images as blueprints for other women of color who want to see more of themselves in a very whitewashed, colonized field. “It’s just been something that I’ve connected deeply with and that brings me joy,” she says.
At the risk of sounding reductive, we all feel better after a little nature one-on-one. Some people call that ecotherapy: a practice of self-love through reconnection with the outdoors that took off around 2015. It can entail something as simple as the “[starting of] a garden, and think[ing] of the seeds’ growth as a metaphor for life transitions,” wrote James Hamblin in The Atlantic, “Find[ing] a spot in a park and sit there for 20 minutes every week, without checking your phone.” For indigenous populations around the world, which have historically measured their health in tandem with that of their environment and naturally sustainable land practices, it’s kind of business as usual. For Black populations in the United States, it is a particularly radical act for restorative justice, education, and health—all areas which have disproportionately plighted Black and brown populations during the pandemic (and pushed against capitalism’s failure, yet again, to not exploit and kill people). “For more than a century after the Civil War,” explains the USDA in Black Farmers in America, 1865-2000 The Pursuit of Independent Farming and the Role of Cooperatives, “deficient civil rights and various economic and social barriers were applied to maintaining a system where many [Black people] worked as farm operators with a limited and often total lack of opportunity to achieve ownership and operating independence,” despite the fact that this country was built—and grown—by people of color. As we continue to collectively move forward with building out our own green spaces and community gardens, whether it’s on our windowsill or backyard planter, it’s essential for those communities to be at the forefront. That’s the spring energy this year, and the forever energy moving forward.
In the spirit of bringing more plant-curious city-dwellers on board for that mission, both Srinath and Stafford have opened up about their experiences, hot tips, and gardening tool-belts to give us some guidance on living green(er) in 2021.
Meet Indy Srinath
VICE: What attracted you to work within green spaces?
Indy Srinath: While I did have a typical childhood of playing in the woods, in the slants of sunlight in the white pines, in the creeks that yawned into pebble-skipping banks, I still didn’t see myself as a part of nature. It’s hard to describe, but I definitely had the feeling of being an outsider in the outside. We were pretty conditioned to feel comfortable in the classroom and not many other places. Because I had an innate deep appreciation for nature, and desire as a teenager to treat my body with more reverence than I saw many of my peers enacting, I started growing my own food.
What are some tips you have for foraging beginners?
I always tell people to seek out the people in their community who are writing about or teaching classes (virtual or in person) about foraging. Not only is it incredibly important to learn about what grows locally to you and what is in season at certain times of year, but it’s a great way to support the educators that are continuing the craft of foraging.
Begin by learning three plants really well (they can be as simple as dandelions or oak trees). Learn their botanical names, their uses, and their lifecycle. Don’t set out with the intention of finding something edible. It’s important to not exploit nature, but rather learn about plants so you can better protect them.
What would you tell folks who want plants, but are afraid of killing them?
I wish I could show them pictures of all of the plants that I have killed over the years. When I was a beginner grower, I started by growing herbs like basil and cilantro because herbs tend to be very forgiving, easy to grow indoors with minimal effort, and when you use them in your dishes you feel incredibly accomplished.
What continues to inspire you to work within green spaces?
I’m mostly inspired by the resilience of the Skid Row community. The area I work in is a food apartheid, and while Los Angeles is a huge city with plenty of resources to bring fresh food to the unhoused population, it simply doesnt happen. It is left to the hands of the people, to folks who want to enact change in our community.
Srinath’s foraging companion items all help her document her relationship with nature. “[I love] my journal,” she says, “I use it to record planting dates, seasons, and keep track of my feelings as they relate to the foraging season,” as well as her camera. “Honestly,” she says, “sometimes I go out and only take pictures of plants and mushrooms, and leave them behind for other folks to find or for them to run their natural cycle.” Her unofficial uniform of choice is her overalls, which “have lots of pockets, perfect for storing herbs, seeds, snails, and cute acorns.”
Green abstract marble notebook,
$14.99 $11.99 at Society6
Levis Baggy Overall, $128 at Farm
Bluff City Fungi Mushroom Grow Kit, $40.49 at Etsy
Canon PowerShot SX620 HS Digital Camera with Accessory Kit (Black), $269 at B&H
Modern Sprout Basil Indoor Gardening Kit, $25 at Verishop
Meet Amber Stafford
VICE: What attracted you to work within green spaces?
Right now, my focus has been on learning more about composting and sustainable living [in Wilmington, NC, [where] I’ve been gardening for over 3.5 years. I’d really like to have a little homestead and be more self-sufficient in a few years! I’ve always had indoor plants in our apartments, but I never felt like I had the space or lighting to start a garden. I think buying a house with a very dead and unused yard really inspired me to finally start designing and building a garden space. Once I had the idea laid out and started the process of growing, everything became so full and green!
What are some tips you have for gardening beginners?
Whenever people start something, they usually do a little research and go to apps like Instagram, Pinterest, TikTok, etc. for ideas and inspiration. This is exactly what I did, so I thought it was important to have this community for Black women to know they are not alone in gardening.
What’s the solution to feeling intimidated by gardening?
My advice is to always experiment. You will read a million different things online, and it can turn people off from trying the things they want which might actually work out better for them. Not every space is the same. Lighting, weather, soil, materials. This all plays a huge role in the things we can plant, when we can plant them and how well they will do there.
A nice summertime tank, and some of her truly *chef’s kiss* primo Black Girls Gardening merch. “I also love Merry People rain boots,” she says, “they are super comfortable [and] my feet love them.” If you need some aesthetic inspiration, she suggests Wild at Home: How to Style and Care for Beautiful Plants by Hilton Carter “for ideas on how to style and care for your indoor plants” (and Magnolia brand pruning sheers for getting down to biz).
Tote Bag, $18.95 at Black Girls Gardening
Bobbi Rain Boot in Mustard Yellow & Black, $129.95 at Merry People
Wild at Home: How to Style and Care for Beautiful Plants,
$24.99 $22.99 at Bookshop
Pale Mint Pruning Shears, $15 at Magnolia
Snake Plant, $48 at The Sill
Learn more about how to support Indy Srinath’s work here, and check out Black Girls Gardening on the official website. Happy planting!
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