In Search of My Grandmother’s Garden

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I am doing something big this winter, something I have wanted to do for a very long time. It has sat inside me for years and years as a wish that I never quite believed would happen. Even now, with some of the plane tickets booked, I can barely believe I am really doing this thing.

I am going to spend a month in the West Indies and visit the islands my maternal family is from.

I have never been before. I keep referring to it as my Roots Experience. And yes, I know that name is awful and I am a wee bit embarrassed to write it here for so many people to read; however, I’m yet to come up with a better name. Still, on so many levels that is exactly what it is because this trip is all about getting to the root of my roots. Getting clarity. I hope to track my lineage in public records while there and get to understand half of my genetic/cultural heritage on another level by immersing myself in it.

And yes, this does have a gardening side to it for a few reasons:

1. Over the past few years I’ve been slowly building on a labour of love (yes, another one). It is a gardener portrait project called The Green Minds Project. The goal of this project is to create a series of portraits (photographs and text) that depicts the wide diaspora that is people who grow plants. As a result I have been invited into strangers’ private oases and come to know a little about them through their gardens. What a privilege!

2. The second reason is even more personal to me. I want to see how people garden and grow food in these places as a way to get a clearer picture of where my grandmother may have been coming from in relation to gardening. Now, I’m not naive. I don’t expect that anyone is going to be like my grandmother or represent her state of mind in any way. Yet I know on some level that this experience will help me and create a sense of resolve and deeper understanding of my grandmother and our shared (yet confused) relationship with growing plants.

And so, while in the West Indies, I would very much like to continue The Green Minds Project and photograph a few gardeners in their gardens. As I have said before, I am not specifically looking for grand gardens here. I am looking for all sorts of gardens and all sorts of gardeners from ALL walks of life. What matters most is the passion of the gardener, not the size or scale of the garden.

If you know anyone who lives and gardens on the following islands who would be comfortable inviting me into their home to photograph them and talk about their garden, please get in touch: Barbados, Dominica, Martinique, Guadalupe, St. Lucia.

Thank you!

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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36 thoughts on “In Search of My Grandmother’s Garden

  1. Perhaps you’ll find some gardeners who still garden ‘the old way’ and gain more insight into your grandmother’s life than you expect.

    It is a wonderful opportunity and will broaden your horizons. I hope it all goes smoothly, have a great trip.

  2. Blake: I plan to keep posting here while we’re away so… should be better than other short trips that I never get around to writing about!

  3. Nell Jean: Dominica is so small in population… I am hoping to find some people still alive who actually knew my grandmother. You never know…

  4. Thank you for sharing this story! Reminds me immediately of one of my favorite quotes from Alice Walker: In search of my mother’s garden I found my own.

    I’m the managing editor of Horticulture magazine (where we remind people: There are no gardens without gardeners.) and I love your photography project.

    Traveling mercies on your trip to the West Indies. I’ve bookmarked you and will follow you here on your blog.

    Peace & love to you and yours,
    Patty

  5. Patty Craft: It became a book, but that essay by Alice Walker is where the title came from!! I first read it in an anthology called, “Double Stitch: Black Women Write About Mother’s and Daughters” Even though Alice Walker isn’t really talking about gardening, there is a double meaning there that applies to my situation. And the content of that essay is so fitting with what I am doing.

    Thanks for mentioning it.

  6. RE: In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens” The essay I read has been broken up in the full book by Alice Walker into two pieces: “The Divided Life of Jean Toomer”, and “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens”

  7. Ciao Gayla-

    What a fantastic trip! Is Davin coming with you? When are you going? Bring chile pepper seeds back if you can remember! There are some wonderful (very hot) varieties that grow there.

    I do pray you can reach some people who knew your grandmother. Putting some of those lost pieces of the puzzle together will bring you some peace I think.

  8. Sorellina: Thanks. Yes, yes, Davin is definitely coming! We couldn’t stand to be apart for a whole month.

    You are the second person to bring up peppers. I will definitely keep peppers in mind! I am super excited about food in general.

  9. Beautiful: I love projects like this. Gardening, recipes, and the home arts have a unique ability to bring us closer to the women who came before us. I can’t wait to see what you learn. Good luck!

  10. Durn! Wish you were coming to Trinidad, myself and my gardening mother, grandmother and great-aunt would have been glad to let you into our gardens.

    I do warn you though, trying to get through 5 island in one month does not leave you a lot of time in any. Especially if you want to go through public records.

  11. Can’t wait to see the photos you take. You’ll be giving me a quick holiday during my lunch break!

    All the best, I hope you find more than you realised you were looking for.

  12. Celiwe: Apparently I need to go to Trinidad since so many gardeners are there! Oh well. We aren’t 100% on Guadalupe and Martinique. I would like to see them and they are close but it depends. They would be quick trips and I would make them for sure if there was a gardener there to meet.

    Dominica is the real reason for the trip and we are staying there for 3 weeks. The other islands are short visits. It’s just that there are no direct flights to Dominica so I figured I should see some others since I have to fly to them anyways. And my maternal family mostly moved to Barbados in the 1940s. So while a lot of them are technically from Barbados, I feel a closer connection to Dominica.

  13. No matter the cost this is a “priceless” trip. I wish you all the best; experiences and photos. Look foward to reading them.

    After fifty years I have returned to my grandmother’s place; the street where she lived, her house where I was born and the new place where she gardened well into her 80′s. That house is gone but someone is making a garden where it stood. I pass it every week all summer just to watch the corn grow.

  14. Good Luck with your project – sounds exciting. I live in Dominica and you will find many gardeners here. Was you Grandmother from Dominica? What was her name?
    You may find these useful for your research:
    - The Gardens of Dominica – Papillote Press
    http://www.papillotegardens.org/pp/gardensofdominica.htm
    - A feature on the Gardens of Dominica in CH&L magazine
    http://issuu.com/caribbean_homes_lifestyle/docs/caribbean_homes_lifestyle_issue_9?mode=embed&pageNumber=156

    Also be sure to check out Giraudel village, they do garden tours
    See
    http://www.visit-dominica.com/querydetail.cfm?ID=1177

    Anything other info I can help with, let me know

  15. i am so exited for you to get the chance to go home may you find whatyou are loooking for and have a safe and blessed trip. laura

  16. Good luck with your trip! I know how wonderful-scary-exciting trips through family history can be! Although Grenada is not on your itinerary, you might enjoy reading about Corn Buck.
    http://cornbuck.blogspot.com/
    It’s full to bursting with island life and garden passion.

  17. Celia: Thanks so much! That is incredibly helpful. Yes, my grandmother was from Dominica.

    Peggy: Thanks about the site link. Really interesting reading.

  18. Your article brought tears to my eyes. I lost my grandmother last year and while my relationship with her was wonderful, I couldn’t help but identify with you. I recently began gardening but I live in Northeast Oregon. I attempted to grow tomatoes and I almost made it. I started to harvest the little tomatoes and the smell of the tomato vines reminded me of spending summer with my grandma. She taught me things intentionally and unintentionally all my life. I hope you find everything you’re looking for!

  19. Don’t be embarrassed- I’m grateful that you shared this piece of your history & I hope you’ll share photos and stories of your journey. I can really truly relate, I’m slowly tracking my lineage along with my family’s history of plants. I wrote about my paternal grandmother’s Puerto Rican garden and my Maternal “Grandmother’s” Mexican’s California Barrio garden. I have no pictures of ancestors, my family is marred in mysterious origins and I’ll never know my real family (My mom was adopted in Mexico). But I’ll continue to slowly track the truth.

    Good luck on your self-discovery journey!

  20. I hope you find all you seek. This past summer my husband’s family had a huge family reunion in Jamaica, where they are from. It was his first visit back since he was 2 years old. It was an amazing experience for him and I’m grateful I was there. My favourite stop was at the home of a great uncle’s small farm, it was wonderful. If you were going to Jamaica I’d put you in touch. It seems that having your feet on the land of your people does incredible things to the soul. Enjoy. :)

  21. There is nothing cheesy at all about calling this excursion your “roots experience”. My background is vastly different in some ways but similar in others to what you write about here.

    One of my grandmothers grew for subsistence and the other grandmother & great grandmother grew for garden club awards. One I met only a few times in my life, the others came for dinner every Sunday although I’d still say I barely knew them. My parents care for their yard because they like to, and probably for property value. None of them taught me anything directly about gardening I don’t think.

    But the stories I’ve gleaned over the years do point to, or maybe rather, create an influence, however indirect.

    Last year’s trip to Norway, where most of my relatives and ancestry are, reinforced so many connections, not only garden related.

    enjoy your time away there.

  22. Thanks for writing Siri. There is so so much more than gardening-related stuff happening here but this site is about gardening so I haven’t really got into the other areas of this.

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