How Leslie Bennett Came to Create Gardens That Feed the Eye and Nourish the Soul

·2-min read
Photo credit: portrait: Rachel Weill; garden: Caitlin Atkinson
Photo credit: portrait: Rachel Weill; garden: Caitlin Atkinson

Left: Leslie Bennett harvests flowers and vegetables at home in Oakland. Right: Apricot and pomegranate trees mix with beds planted with blueberries, roses, and shiso.

Leslie Bennett didn’t set out to be a gardener. The Oakland, California–based landscape designer is a Harvard graduate with a degree in environmental science and public policy and law degrees from Columbia University and University College London. After a career in land use and property law, she founded her firm, Pine House Edible Gardens, in 2010. “I was just trying to find my happiness,” Bennett says. “I felt disconnected from nature and everything that was real.”

Photo credit: Caitlin Atkinson
Photo credit: Caitlin Atkinson

And so she embarked on a three-year gardening journey, apprenticing on organic farms around the world, including in her father’s native Jamaica and in England, where her mother was born. (Bennett herself was born in Palo Alto, California.) You could say that her green thumb has been present since childhood—as a Girl Scout she took pleasure in collecting and documenting flora of all forms.

Photo credit: Caitlin Atkinson
Photo credit: Caitlin Atkinson

Her first garden for Pine House (whose name refers to Victorian hothouses) was in a small Oakland front yard. “I planted a bunch of violas in the shape of a star,” she recalls. “It was terrible! Like what a five-year-old would make.” In fact, the shape was inspired by Italian culinary gardens that Bennett had seen on her travels in Europe. She honed her skills, and soon her gardens were featured on local garden tours, landing her some of her earliest clients.

Twelve years later, Bennett and her team have designed around 200 gardens, all of which integrate the ornamental with the edible. In the same period, Bennett’s team has also grown to include beekeepers, jam makers, and stone builders, giving clients access to a wide world of options.

Photo credit: Caitlin Atkinson
Photo credit: Caitlin Atkinson

In 2018, Bennett implemented an equity pricing structure that allows her to offer her services at cost to Black women. She has also designed seven Black Sanctuary Gardens, which are created along the same aesthetic and functional lines as the rest of Bennett’s work, distinguished only by the intention to celebrate and support Black women. “I was scared to put the idea out there at first,” she says, “but I’ve seen a really positive response and have new, enthusiastic clients from all economic and racial backgrounds!”

This story was created as part of Future Rising in partnership with Lexus. Future Rising is a series running across Hearst Magazines to celebrate the profound impact of Black culture on American life, and to spotlight some of the most dynamic voices of our time. Go to oprahdaily.com/futurerising for the complete portfolio.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE

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