The Earth in Her Hands: 75 Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants
By Jennifer Jewell
(Timber Press, 2020)
In The Earth in Her Hands, Jennifer Jewell—host of public radio’s award-winning program and podcast Cultivating Place—profiles 75 women working in botany, floral design, landscape architecture, farming, herbalism, and food justice.
Among the many inspiring women featured is avid DIYer, Yolanda Burrell, owner of Pollinate Farm & Garden in Oakland, a plant nursery and homesteading supply shop. In her profile (excerpted below), Yolanda describes her journey to establishing the shop.
Now classed as an essential business, Pollinate has been offering plants, chicks, bee-keeping supplies, and other items for curbside pickup ever since the shelter-in-place order was imposed. Sales have been brisk and items sell out quickly. Recent offerings for plants have included Corno di Toro and Criolla de Cocina peppers. The Brandywine, San Marzano, Thessaloniki, and Blue Beauty tomato starts have sold out quickly. Check the website or subscribe to the newsletter for information regarding what’s available.
Yolanda shared this recipe, which she prepares when she is harvesting fava greens, green garlic, and Meyer lemon from her garden.
On Yolanda Burrell
Reprinted from The Earth in Her Hands: 75 Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants by permission from Timber Press
Her Work Owner and founder, Pollinate Farm & Garden, Oakland, California
Her Plant “A ﬁg tree—is there anything more beautiful or generous in the world?”
Her Plant Journey We’ve all heard of the concept of a food desert—places so remote (for example, poverty-stricken rural counties) or so marginalized (for instance, low-income urban neighborhoods) that basic foodstuﬀs aren’t available—and their cousin issue, food swamps, regions which are not only low on grocery stores but also have an overabundance of fast food and gas station–type food marts. To borrow the metaphor, more and more of us are living in plant- and gardening-supply deserts. Shopping options are increasingly limited to big box stores and online sources that offer very little variety or knowledge. If we consider plants an essential element of a quality life, then we need to ensure we have access to a diverse and high-quality selection of seeds/plants, tools, and knowledge.
Yolanda Burrell wants to do this for her hometown of Oakland, California. Her mission—sharing the joys of urban agriculture—represents a recent trend in the world of plants that’s demystifying gardening and connecting a whole new generation to its possibilities.
Born in South Central Los Angeles in an Air Force family, Yolanda grew up in a variety of places around the globe, including Northern and Southern California, Texas, Arizona, and Japan. Wherever they lived, her family always gardened. She remembers climbing the giant peach tree in her grandmother’s garden and eating the juicy fruit when she and her family returned to Los Angeles for summer visits. When her father retired, her family settled on one acre in Santa Rosa, California, where she and her brothers would tend to their weekend gardening chores in order to support their favorite sport—eating.
Every place she’s lived in adulthood, Yolanda has gardened, planting “a little of this and a little of that.” After she and her husband bought a home in Oakland, Yolanda became active in a loosely knit group of mostly women called the East Bay Urban Agriculture Alliance. “It was kind of a skill-sharing group, and we’d meet once a month. The interest centered mainly around food—some women had chickens, some goats, some women made cheese—and we were all experience levels. There was a person in the group from the Oakland Food Policy Council, which promotes healthy eating for everyone—to make sure everyone had access to good, healthy food.”
“Knowledge and availability of supplies were challenges for everyone. There’d be conversations like: How can we share our knowledge with others? I live over here, where do you live? What grows well there? What do you use for fertilizer? Where do you buy your Agribon row covers? I made this widget from some odds and ends I put together from the hardware store.”
Yolanda found herself thinking: “Wouldn’t it be great to have all these locally relevant resources, goods, and knowledge under one roof and available all the time?” So she started a business plan to aggregate resources and help people avoid going to the four winds for their plants, seeds, supplies, and community.
After many years of dreaming and two years of active business planning with the help of a SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) mentor, one day Yolanda was browsing Oakland commercial real estate availability and noticed a building on a double lot (which for over forty years was a carpet and linoleum store) in the neighborhood known as Fruitvale. Finding the right space in town, with easy access for other city dwellers, had been one of her biggest challenges. “I took my lunch hour in the middle of a rainstorm to look at it and knew it was just what I wanted (the adjoining lot had an old fruit tree orchard that was completely hidden from the street!). I signed the lease and hosted lots of pizza and beer work parties to get the site in shape. We opened six weeks later, on the first day of spring.”
Pollinate Farm & Garden opened in 2013, an edible plant nursery and urban homestead emporium specializing in “DIY food.” It includes supplies, resources, and educational programming on topics like urban farming, edible landscapes, food forests, backyard chickens, beekeeping, and food preserving.
“Our motto is Grow Raise Preserve. We supply the essentials for seed-to-table organic farming and gardening, food preserving, small-scale livestock raising, and beekeeping. We offer a speaker series of authors and experts, as well as hands-on workshops and cooking classes in our community meeting/learning space. We teach the hows and whys of DIY food.”
Yolanda admits that getting Pollinate up and running was hard work, and, like all plant-passion efforts, it’s always 24/7/365. “Getting people in the door was a challenge in the beginning. Pollinate was in a really depressed part of town—so people who didn’t live there didn’t want to go there, and the people who did live there didn’t understand why we were there.”
“Now that we are five years old and established, the neighborhood loves us. I’m most proud of the community we’ve built—from the lovely hodgepodge in the Urban Ag Alliance to now. We’re in this very economically, ethnically, and age-diverse area; the thing that brings us together is that we all eat and we all deserve fresh and healthy food. No matter if you’re a recent immigrant or have been here on this land for a long time, Pollinate tries to remind you of what you once knew.”
At Pollinate’s fifth anniversary, a customer brought Yolanda a jar of honey from their home hive and a card, which read, “Thank you for having gotten us started on this journey. I would never have taken on caring for bees or growing a garden without you.”
Other Inspiring Women
- “My grandmother, lover of gladiolus, elephant ears, St. Augustine grass, petunias, impatiens, hydrangeas, bougainvillea, Shasta daisies, and house-plants of all kinds—scissors at the ready, always ready to talk plants and forever on the hunt for a ‘propagation opportunity.’”
- Christine Hwang, environmental activist/hobby horticulturalist/beekeeper. “With a very analytical day job, she never does anything halfway. Chris has an encyclopedic knowledge of California natives, rare tropical plants, and edibles (she knows her food, too!)—they’ve overgrown their yard with specimen plants and have taken over their neighbor’s yard.”
- Laura Nicoletti, horticulturist and landscape designer; owner of For a Greener Living, Mill Valley, California. “Laura integrates natives with edibles—she likes to grow what she likes to eat and used to be a chef. She’s a seed advocate and generous steward of the land.”
- Marion Brenner, photographer of landscape architecture. “She sees what others don’t see.”
- Shirley Watts, landscape designer and sculptor. “Her work focuses on the symbiosis of art and plants in shared environments.”