Friday, May 20, 2022

Inspiring Horticulturist & Author Abra Lee, Shares Garden History Discoveries from "Conquer The Soil"

I was smitten with Abra Lee and her groundbreaking work the moment I was introduced to her. (Pun intended.)

See, Abra Lee is a horticulturist; a gardener.
Lee is also a refreshing, revolutionary kind of garden historian, speaker, and author of the soon-to-be-released book Conquer the Soil that, according to Timber Press, her publisher, “profiles 45 hidden figures of horticulture—the Black men and women whose accomplished careers in the plant world are little known or untold.”

If you’re like me, there’s nothing better than “digging in;” satiating one’s curiosity.

I love to learn and to be inspired.

Abra Lee checked all the boxes. I couldn’t wait to soak up more. A garden adventure awaited…

I pondered, how could we truly build on our work in garden design without knowing the cultural concepts that preceded?

Inspiring life-lessons

My first meeting with Abra was a Zoom event hosted by Metrohort.

I was immediately fascinated. Intrigued. You can see Abra hosting the Plant-O-Rama Zoom talk here ~ I took a screen shot ~ several, actually.

I knew right away this was seminal, groundbreaking.

Abra was “introducing” so many of us to a part of garden history that, regrettably, has been so overlooked.

I just love this image Abra showcased as part of her book research: it’s Ethel Earley Clark in the divine, pretty-in-pink ensemble, who was often referred to as the founding Mother of the Negro Garden Club of Virgina.

Garden History
I attend so many lectures: IRL and online (I told you I love to learn ~ and there just never seems to be enough time for all the adventures that learning offers).

Plus, I am passionate about garden history. It’s what lured me into the world of garden design.

I couldn’t get enough of garden history while studying for my landscape design certification at the New York Botanical Garden.

Few can disagree with the icons of documented landscape design, including Fredrick Law Omstead, Thomas Church and other American landscape designers. I was especially keen that finally, at long last, I could see that landscape design was regarded as art.

It’s often said that “garden design is the slowest of the performing arts.”

After my initial flush of learning about these pillars of landscape design, I yearned to learn about women designers. I was only taught about Beatrix Farrand (from the Gilded Age); the only female founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and the designer of many beloved American gardens including the FDR Home Historic Site, and of course, her masterpiece: Dumbarton Oaks ~ one of the few you can visit today.

I’ve long opined there was a dearth of readily available garden history about women and other folks besides those European men.

After all, it was the ladies who started the Garden Clubs of America in 1913. These women raised awareness about the environment and conservation and “civic plantings.”

Years ago, to help further my own interests in garden design and inform my garden design business, I purchased some expensive American gardens and landscape architecture books from Hinck & Wall Rare books to better understand garden history and local garden designers and their designs. There was so very little information readily available and there was no online information!

More importantly, my position or point of view is that an art form can’t really progress without an informed past.

How could we build on our work without knowing the cultural concepts that preceded? I felt we just had so much more to study and learn. My own intense research into Nathan Barrett is an example. (More about this and those garden history books in a later post.)

Anticipating my Conversastion with Abra Lee, and perhaps prompted by her research, I did learn about the Negro Garden Club of Virginia, established in 1932. There were dozens of chapters and its members aimed to bolster “home improvement and beatification, community improvement, improving race relations through community spaces and recreation and expression.”

Abra’s research and her soon-to-be released book will be a most welcome addition to the scholarship of landscape design, gardens and horticulture in America and our heritage of civic and community gardens. I can’t wait to have Abra sign my copy of her book.

Abra Lee

Today, there is no doubt that Abra is a star of the horticulture, garden history world.

I'm so honored she took time from her super-busy schedule to allow me to share her story with you.

By way of background, in my Ladies Who Lunch Conversations I always aim to showcase more about the woman’s personal journey.

The Conversations are more than lecture or talk. I want you/my audience to be as inspired as I am learning about what motivates incredible women like Abra.

In the Conversation, we learned what challenges she faced, how she overcame those roadblocks, and what drives her and, moreover, how her experience can help us to learn about ourselves and develop to be our best.

I couldn’t help but glow throughout the Conversation (and the scheduling and tech run-through leading up to it.)

Why? Because Abra is a delightful, articulate thought-leader and she has that unique charm of making you feel like you’ve always been friends. I love that!

(And please watch all the way through to see the most enthralling & ethereal Fascinator she was gifted from a recent talk in Louisville, KY! A work of millinery art, for sure.)

Abra is the special kind of defining personality. So when your’re being interviewed and that stereotypical ask is “Who is on your fantasy luncheon guest list,” you would certainly include Abra.

In part, that’s because you can’t help but be fascinated by her decision to pivot her award-winning, successful horticulture career as a Longwood Fellow, her work at Ch√Ęteau de Villandry, in France to pursue the research needed to discover heretofore unheralded Black figures of horticulture and to write their stories... And in so doing, she gives these "Hortie Heroes" the spotlight they deserve.

The Garden History profiles Abra talked about during our Conversation are exciting, compelling trailers or teasers that will appear in her upcoming book, Conquer the Soil.

I love that Abra was able to bring the “Ladies of the Garden Clubs” that she writes and lectures about to, in effect, visit with us at Ladies Who Lunch Conversations!

Please enjoy this special Conversation


  1. Will love to read more about this woman.

    1. I understand! Abra is a force of nature. You can view my interview with Abra at Ladies Who Lunch Conversations (link in Post). And stay tuned for her book, "Conquer the Soil"

  2. Another great interview and success story. Great site.

  3. Thank you so very much. I’m thrilled you enjoyed this Post. I wanted to write a feature that would honor Abra Lee, my Ladies Who Lunch Conversations special guest. There’s no doubt that Abra is incredibly talented. And inspiring. Thank you for reading. And for your kind consideration. Please share with your network.