This Landscape Designer Creates Garden Sanctuaries for Black Women—Here's a Glimpse Inside Her Own
Three years ago, gifted Northern California landscape designer Leslie Bennett embarked on a very personal endeavor: Black Sanctuary Gardens, a project dedicated to building lush outdoor spaces for Black women where they can retreat into nature, relax with loved ones, and replenish their creativity. Soon afterward, she dug into her own backyard and planted an Eden that enriches her in the same way. Kick off your shoes, and come on in.
Entering Leslie Bennett's backyard in Oakland, California, is like walking through a door to another world. Blue sky-flower and passion-fruit vines climb overhead. Bamboo, 'Icee Blue' podocarpus, and red-leaf banana blur the property lines. And beds packed with edibles, including guava, apple, pomegranate, and fig trees, offer a pluckable feast in any season. To say it's an oasis in this sprawling city neighborhood is not an overstatement. The celebrated landscape designer and contractor intentionally planned her home garden so that every square inch of it delights the senses, and many of the plants honor her family's Jamaican and British heritage.
For Bennett, the founder and owner of Pine House Edible Gardens, a Bay Area firm that specializes in planting produce in ornamental landscapes, having an outdoor retreat where she can unwind, enjoy meals, and gather with her family and friends is vital. A former attorney focused on land use and cultural-property law, she first experienced the way gardens improve a person's well-being in the late aughts, when she took gardening classes and apprenticed on an organic farm. The experiences unveiled a vibrant new world to her, and in 2010 she took a daring leap, leaving her legal career to start her own horticulture firm.
"I believe in the healing power of gardens," she says. "They're spaces where we can explore who we are and where we come from with plants that make us happy, that are culturally meaningful, and that we can use every day." Bennett also believes that every Black woman should have such a place, so in 2018 she launched the Black Sanctuary Gardens project, a series of private landscapes her firm designs, buys plants for, and installs at cost. (She donates her own time, and additional funding comes via an equity surcharge that's included in her standard client pricing, as well as contributions from the public.) So far, the process has been informal: Local women contact Bennett, and she selects projects based on what she will be able to complete successfully within the budget set by her and the owner. She has installed three in Oakland, with several more in progress. She's also partnered with other California designers, who've volunteered their services to expand the program. "Each garden I make can be a site for transformative change, and that can ripple out societally," she says.
Bennett's own yard, which she completed in collaboration with her colleague Holly Kuljian in September 2019, is a hardworking haven. "I wanted a lot out of this space: raised beds for veggies, a bit of grass for my kids, a couch to lie down on, a dining table, and an area for cut flowers," she says. And then, of course, there's the riot of greenery and blooms celebrating her innermost circle. Both Bennett's father and her husband, Linval Owens, a gardener, are from Jamaica; her mother is from England; and Bennett herself grew up in Palo Alto. "I made a list of all the plants that tell the story of my family," she says. "My mom always talked about hunting for elderberries and making rhubarb compote; she also had roses. My dad made fevergrass (also known as lemongrass) tea and had passion fruit, banana, and guava. I grew up eating apple pie and peach cobbler. My parents gave us a strong sense of identity, and I really wanted to be able to do that for my children."
On any given Saturday, she'll check for fresh fruit and vegetables to harvest, lounge on the sofa beneath her sweetly scented Brugmansia shrub, and watch her 2-year-old daughter, Zeta, color with sidewalk chalk and her 5-year-old son, Samuel, look for insects and feed the birds. "It's the happiest place in my life," Bennett says—and a living model for her mission. "The more I can create spaces that are safe, supportive, and restorative for Black women and their communities, the more likely I am to see a future that includes happy, rested, joyful Black people," she says. "This is the world that I want to see, so I'm dedicating myself to building it."
Here, in her 1,065-square-foot Oakland, California, backyard, concrete strips and clearly defined spaces provide calming structure and order for a kaleidoscope of foliage, edibles, and flowers. Plants like mounded Pittosporum crassifolium 'Compactum'; fuzzy, bronze-tipped Kalanchoe beharensis; and sword-like Beschorneria albiflora thrive all year long.
Leslie Bennett kicks back with her son, Samuel, and her daughter, Zeta, who munches on a just-picked strawberry. "I get so much joy seeing them run around, dig holes, and literally chase butterflies—the things that kids are supposed to do, but are harder to come by in an urban environment," she says.
Passiflora Edulis 'Frederick'
Passion fruit is a family favorite; Bennett also makes tea from its leaves.
Bennett's personal spot is a sitting area under a custom metal-and-wood arbor. "This year especially, I don't know what I would do without it," she says.
'Lady of Shalott' Rose
Roses reflect her English roots.
Red-Leaf Banana Tree
Bananas are a nod to Jamaica.
'Dapple Dandy' Pluot
Pluots remind her of her California childhood.
In the sunniest area in her yard, Bennett built two 10-foot-long raised beds, with ledges where she can place tools or a basket, or just sit. She filled them with textural edibles like African blue basil, scented geraniums, tomatoes, and 'Alaska' nasturtiums, which she tosses into dishes all the time. "It's my job to see a space's potential and what it can do for people's lives," she says. "In my Black Sanctuary Gardens, I'm holding that vision, with Black women at the center."
To learn more, visit pinehouseediblegardens.com/black-sanctuary-gardens or follow @blksanctuarygardenson Instagram.