Lori Caldwell is one of the skilled sustainable gardening and landscaping class instructors we are lucky to partner with at the Ecology Center. She has taught classes on composting, container gardening, re-use culture in the garden, and so much more. As featured in our 11 Black Climate Activists You Should Know and Support Blog, the environmental field is predominantly white. We wanted to highlight Lori’s contributions to our community as a Black woman, gardening expert and sustainability educator.
This week we were able to dive deeper into Lori’s career, and what inspires her as a gardening, composting, and landscaping educator.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell us about your earliest gardening memories? What influences led to your current career path?
My earliest memories are from spending time in my garden with my grandparents. My maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother both had very large gardens. I lived in Pennsylvania at the time and I would spend time with them in the summer- you know the height of the gardening season. I would be responsible to help weed, water, pick fruit, or any kind of little project, like helping my grandpa tie up his tomatoes.
I have memories of hot summers and my grandma used to have this trellis which would hold sugar snap peas. She would reseed them or they would reseed themselves every year, and I would sit on this cool bench on a hot summer afternoon and eat sugar snap peas off the vine, so that is probably the deepest memory I have of being in a garden. They both used a lot of chemicals, big chemical users. Which in hindsight- you don’t know as a little kid. But as you get older you get more acquainted with gardening and what you can and cannot do, or should and should not do depends.
What or who inspires you to teach others about sustainable gardening and landscaping- what’s the source?
The idea to be able to successfully grow your own food, and be able to prepare it or put it up, I think is such a powerful thing. If you’ve ever grown food and gone to your garden- you know that whatever you’re having for whatever meal, you’re making choices based on what you’re growing in your yard or community plot. I also know that there are a lot of hungry people in the world. With a little patch of sunshine and a little pot- you can grow anything. For me, I just enjoy it. I do my job with a purpose of wanting to educate people and just kind of prove to them that gardening doesn’t have to be an expensive enterprise. It can be budget friendly if you have the space or are willing to use re-use elements, like reuse pots in order to do that. It just comes down to the idea of being able to feed yourself in times when maybe money is tight. If you know that you have food growing that you can access easily and are doing a good job at it- which is relatively easy to do- that’s good capital. I just really love my job so whether it might be some sort of selfish thing, so be it. I love it and that drives me. If I didn’t like what I did I definitely wouldn’t be doing it.
Your business focuses on sustainable gardening and landscaping, why is sustainable gardening important to you and what does it mean to you?
As a big composter and someone who really appreciates the value of soil, sustainability really starts there. It’s the foundation of any kind of successful garden. Sustainability and chemicals do not really work together. A sustainable garden is going to be something that cycles through a lot of materials that you’ve put in or draw from the soil- you’re going to feed it, and it’s going to feed on that.
By using chemicals you are really killing that whole ecology, and it’s so important for us to live and thrive. There are a lot of non-toxic and barrier methods that you can utilize that don’t require many toxic inputs. Toxins in your soil are eventually going to run into other ecosystems like our waterways, which can end up causing a lot of problems.
It also comes back to gardening on a budget. Quick fixes using powdery mildew, milk, baking soda, cinnamon, or vinegar can already be found in your kitchen, or you can go to the store and spend $20-30 to kill things in your garden. Chemicals have the consequence of killing not only the bad thing you’re trying to kill, but the good things that are working hard to keep the bad things at bay.
You are a Black woman working in a predominantly white and male-dominated field (the environmental field as a whole- climate, zero-waste, gardening, conservation). What has your experience been like as a Black woman in this field? How has lack of representation challenged or impacted you in your career?
Occasionally, if I’m working in someone’s garden, or doing landscape like a sheet mulch project- s there are issues. People wanting to know who I am, or why I’m standing in front of someone’s house. To me, of course it’s obvious. I have a shovel in my hand, or I have gardening gloves on, or I’m pruning. To the ordinary bystander, I think that would be pretty obvious but I’m not sure what people who don’t like me think or how they work their brains to justify me not being there. It’s come to having some serious conversations with some of my clients about access.
I have a client where my only access to her garden is to climb over a wall to her yard; which I personally had no problem with. But, then again, I told her, I would appreciate it if you would tell your neighbors that you have a new gardener who’s here, this is who she is, what she looks like, and I gave her extra cards to pass out to her neighbors and just make them understand that I am climbing over this wall to work in the garden which is my only access. To me it’s been a lot of access issues, like I said you have to have those conversations.
When I was in the Master Composter Program, I had a mentor who was an older Black gentleman, named Russel. On the last day of Master Composter, he took me aside and he said, “I would love to see you continue on in this field. I think it’s important for people like us to see people like us, teaching these kinds of things and being involved in these causes.” He made me promise to continue to do this work. So of course, I’m always going to want to see more representation of women and women of color in our field. We’re getting there, and there are a lot of groups that are working together to make that happen.
It sounds like you had a mentor that gave you words of encouragement, I want to know what words of encouragement would you give to other young Black gardeners and composters coming up in the field?
If I were speaking to people I would say, learn as much as you possibly can. Take classes, read as many books, do as much networking as you possibly can. Really put yourself out there and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, because someone is going to say, “You know what, absolutely!” and that’s all it takes. As gardeners we’re a community in and of ourselves. If you’re a really good composter or gardener and you want to get into landscaping, try to diversify as much as you can so you can have a backup to fall on.
Teaching people how to grow food sustainably helps put power back into community hands- What are your thoughts on this perspective?
I definitely think growing food sustainably gives you back power, especially if you don’t have a lot of space. Not everybody lives in a house with a very large yard. Some people do and some people are renters, but if you are able to utilize less chemicals in a more sustainable way, then absolutely. I also think there’s a community of people that want to garden but maybe are afraid of gardening because they think gardening is only for rich people or for a certain type of person, when there are really a lot of great benefits.
To build up that healthy soil and keep it healthy, sustainability is definitely the key because it just feeds into everything else. It feeds into global climate change, feeding ourselves, maximizing the use of our water, recycling resources like mulch, cardboard, which would normally be recycled or tossed into a landfill. There are a lot of really great ways that you can make it, and so I’m hoping that’s what I am showing to a lot of people, as well as gardening, but the idea of reusing things you may already have at your house, or things that are already accessible to you and may cost no money at all.
What advice would you give to a beginner gardener who is looking to engage sustainably, but may not know where to start?
If you want to grow food, my first advice would be to grow something that you love to eat or want to cook with. If you’re a chef maybe you want to grow an herb garden which is relatively easy to grow, and work your way up. I always tell people, start small and try to experiment, try one new thing a year.
What do you hope people walk away with after working with you or taking one of your classes or workshops?
I want them to feel like this is not a difficult enterprise. I want them to feel confident that they can do these things. Also to understand that as someone who grows something, whether you’re growing a tree, or small perennial, or cactus, you’re going to kill stuff. Some years are going to be really, really good, and some are going to be not so good but you just have to keep on it because when the years are really really good, they’re awesome.
What’s next for you?
More land would definitely be the next step to take. I have a friend that would like me to write a book on gardening, so there’s a possibility of a book. I’m going to have a website for the first time that will be coming soon, and just more teaching opportunities! I’m waiting for this pandemic to go over so I can expand my education!
We are very excited and grateful to be in partnership with Lori for ongoing programming. Sign up for our EcoCalendar to stay up-to-date with her monthly classes and workshops with her next one, Composting: Basic and Worm on March 13, 2021, from 11:00 AM – 1:00 PM. Keep up with Lori on Facebook!