White House Veggie Garden Inspires African American Gardeners, Seed Company Hopes to do Same.

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Beyond the Obama head planter and the Chia Obama, the First Family has created an interest in gardening among many, but among African Americans in particular. “We had a lot more gardeners last year,” said Dr. Shemuel Israel, President of the North Lawndale Greening Committee on Chicago’s West Side. He credits the recession and First Family with the sudden interest in gardening and urban agriculture in the neighborhood. The enthusiasm was not always so high.

In 2005 when the North Lawndale Greening Committee reached out to older members of the community for help with programs tailored to neighborhood youth, there was a feeling of reluctance by some who felt they had already done their fair share of farming. Many opted for supervisory roles in the youth gardening projects.

When you consider that, these neighborhood elders were part of the great black migration from the South to northern cities that peaked in the 1950s; it is understandable that they do not have a romanticized view of gardening and agriculture. After all, they came north to be part of the industrial economy and hoped to leave behind all things associated with the painful memories of agriculture.

“African-Americans–who have been very frank with me– say that gardening is ‘what the slaves did,’ and they want no part of it,” said Barbara Melera, owner and manager of the D. Landreth Seed Company in New Freedom, Pa., the oldest seed house in America. This year the D. Landreth Seed Company is celebrating its 225th birthday and issuing a commemorative seed catalog to mark the occasion.  Ms. Melera says that she’s gone back through the history of the D. Landreth Seed Company catalogs and picked out the “neatest” things in those catalogs to include in the commemorative seeds catalog, which will be the last one given away for free. It will certainly be a collector’s item because it will contain information that gardeners and garden historians will not find anywhere else.


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Another reason the seed catalog for Landreth’s 225th birthday is creating a buzz is the inclusion of the African American Heritage Collection. The African American Heritage Collection marks the first time a seed company has created a seed collection that targets African American gardeners. When African Americans discover that they have a rich culinary history that predates slavery, they view vegetable gardening in a completely new light, according to conversation Ms. Melera has had. “This is one of my accomplishments I’m most proud of,” says Ms. Melera of the seed collection. The African American Heritage Collection is collaboration between Ms. Melera and Michael Twitty, a community scholar of traditional African American food culture. The heirloom seeds are (comprised of seeds already in the Landreth catalog) listed with information on culinary use and where they originated from in Africa or the Caribbean.

With the First Family, serving as an example and now the African American Heritage Collection of seeds the time is right for groups like the North Lawndale Greening Committee to reap the rewards of their hard work and usher in a new generation of gardeners.

“We do a lot, but there’s more work to be done to teach people to grow their own food…and of course about urban beekeeping,” says Dr. Israel.

Today the North Lawndale neighborhood is home to many community and backyard gardens, the Chicago Honey Co-op– an urban beekeeping cooperative–and the Betty Swan Community Arboretum, an Urban Forest Education Center where residents, students and Treekeepers learn about caring for city trees.

The D. Landreth Seed Company has sold seeds to every president from George Washington to FDR. Will President Obama be calling them anytime soon to make a purchase of this historic collection of seeds?  Lets hope so.

You can contact Dr. Israel via Twitter. Watch a neat documentary on the North Lawndale Greening Committee’s garden walk by Rebecca Parish. Photo gallery of the North Lawndale Greening Committee’s garden walk 2010. Request a commemorative seed catalog from the D. Landreth Seed Company at www.LandrethSeeds.com or by calling 1.800.654.2407


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  • I think anything that gives people the power to grow their own, healthy food is a wonderful thing. I hope these efforts help people to make gardening a part of their culture going forward. Thank you for sharing this, I requested a catalog. I look forward to seeing the variety of seeds and the beautiful illustrations.

  • In reply to gardenmom29:

    No prob! I'm eagerly awaiting my copy of the catalog. Let me know what you end up getting from it. Thanks for singing up for an account to comment.

  • I had never thought to connect slavery with why African Americans may not want to garden. The thing is, to me, gardening is fun... so I forget it's also work. My dad grew up on a farm and wanted nothing to do with plants, ever again. It's just so interesting to learn about different people's backgrounds... in Grand Torno, Thao liked to garden but everyone made fun of him because in Hmong culture, gardening is women's work (i.e. looked down on).

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:

    My grandfather grew up a farmer and well into his last years he was still gardening for fun. I think there are exceptions to every rule and maybe this idea that it isn't "fun" to garden may just be held by a small portion of the greater African American population, for who it was back breaking work with little reward.

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:

    I've just been to their website to request a catalog. Thanks for the info MBT! I haven't ordered from Landreth's before, and can see that will change. I liked what I saw in my quick visit to their website before coming back to comment.

    I just attended the first class of the year for new Master Gardeners at our local Extension office. Botany is the subject of the first class, and so much is covered I wanted to go through it again even though I'm already certified. It was really awesome seeing such a large class - I counted at least 30 people. There were about 20 in my class last year. There's a large percentage of African-American interns in this class, from early 20's to retirement age. I was thrilled to see the diversity of the group. After reading your post I find myself wondering if some of the interns may have been inspired by the Obama's garden last season.

    It's inspiring seeing the resurgence of gardening in this country. I remember several years ago reading newspaper and magazine articles prematurely pronouncing gardening a dying art practiced primarily by middle-aged white women. It's awesome seeing an ethnically-diverse, environmentally-conscious new generation of passionate young gardeners.

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    That is one of the annoying things about gardening. Every generation thinks that gardening will one day cease because the younger people aren't do it. People beat that drum until they find an excuse to change their tune and proclaim gardening is on the rise because someone famous is attached or something happens to make it a hot topic.

    I've never bought from D. Landreth's but I'm going to this year, mostly because I want to order seeds from this historic company.

  • In reply to MrBrownThumb:

    Just finished watching a Documentary on what life would be like if we had to start over, and people had a really hard time Gardening..as a means of food supply..found it interesting and realized then i'm glad i garden

  • In reply to alexander:

    Glad I don't have to garden to survive because I'm more of a foreman than worker. :)

  • In reply to alexander:

    Hello Mr. Brown Thumb,
    How do I / can I buy original copies of your Landreth Seed article? Thanks!

  • In reply to Howl4:

    Hi How14,

    Do you mean you want to buy a copy of the Landreths' seed catalog? You can order it (free) via the link above. I just got mine in the mail today and it is AWESOME!

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    I recently requested a catalog online and happened to look through the online catalog.. Seems Great, filled with tons of info and can't wait to have it in my hands..thanks for the post, would have never known about D. Landreth's if it wasn't for this post.

  • In reply to alexander:

    No prob, hope you enjoy it and find some cool stuff in there to try in the garden and kitchen.

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    Always so interesting to me to read about gardening as a "heritage" activity, coming as both my husband and I do from at least 5 generations of city dwellers, on all sides. (I think there's a farmer 3 generations back in my husband's mother's family, but that's the only one we could identify.) Wonderful post.

  • In reply to naxn:

    My grandfather on my dad's side was a farmer and gardener/urban farmer after he retired and lived in big cities like Chicago & L.A. Although, he never bothered to teach anyone anything that he knew, so I don't have that "heritage" connection to it. It is weird he would do things like, take pictures of and with his backyard plants-just for the hell of it, sometimes mailing out letters w/pics of the plants. Maybe gardening and garden blogging are hereditary.

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    Test reply, last one was full of bizarreness.

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    Fixed itself. That was weird.

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    I think there has been an incredible increase in urban gardening in big cities like Chicago so I am glad to see this trend across all ethnic groups -- Steve

  • In reply to stevelavey1:

    Recently there has been, but I know here in Chicago there are groups that have been pushing it since before it became recently cool. Groups like the North Lawndale Greening Committee and Advocates For Urban Agriculture Chicago. Thanks for commenting.

  • Yup.

    People who have been there and done that probably look at the eager newbies like they're from another planet.

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