When your love for plants can’t be contained ❀

Lana Williams on pivoting her career from painter to plantswoman, and on publishing her debut book.

Today I’m pleased to bring you a floriferous conversation with my dear friend Lana Williams, an artist, garden designer, author, mom, and helmswoman of the beloved Bay Area plant shop, The Tender Gardener.

Lana and I joked that she’s like a young, queer, less-felonious Martha Stewart. Seriously though, everything she takes on—from making paintings to running a plant business, writing a book to raising her sweet daughter Frances—she brings to life in a way that is gorgeously vibrant and creative. Plus, she has amazing red hair, which I am very jealous of.

This past week, Lana’s debut book(!) came out into the world. The Container Garden Recipe Book offers step-by-step instructions for creating mixed-plant gardens in all sorts of funky and fun vessels. Each of the featured mini-gardens is its own whimsical universe of color and texture, and encourages readers to not only get imaginative with plants, but also with pots, planters, boxes, troughs, and other unconventional receptacles.

In the below conversation, Lana shares how she got up the nerve to quit her job in order to launch The Tender Gardener, and how she’s pivoted her focus yet again to get as much outdoor gardening time as possible (another thing I’m extremely jealous of). She also shares a tale from a Mother’s Day past, when she ended up foraging for flowers in road-side medians, and discovered a certain invasive plant that makes an absolutely delightful bouquet.

Before we dive into our conversation, and since it’s Mother’s Day, I do have to plug the podcast that Lana hosts with her wife Lindsay, called Lez Be Moms. To anyone who’s a parent out there, or especially for those of you who might be looking towards becoming parents, this podcast is both funny and informative, and chronicles Lana and Lindsay’s experiences as first-time parents. I especially recommend their birth story episode, which, as someone who has given birth, really captures the ~vibe~ of the whole ordeal.

Anyway, happy Mother’s Day to all the people out there who engage in the act of mothering, and especially to my own mom, who reads my newsletter each week (hi mom!). <3

Enjoy the convo with Lana, and go get a copy of her book here.

~ Willa 💐

Willa Köerner: To start, how long have you been gardening? What did your first real garden look like?

Lana Williams: About five years ago, before moving to the East Oakland house we live in now, we lived in a rented apartment in West Oakland with a shared backyard. Gardening there was challenging, because our neighbors had dogs that they wouldn’t control or pick up after. Still, it was the first time I had access to real gardening space, and I loved it.

I was growing fruit and vegetables in containers, and I converted a Bonanza [the art collaboration between Lana, her wife Lindsay Tully, and their friend Conrad Guevara] sculpture into a giant raised bed. I was also attempting to grow flowers on any other bare inch of soil I could find, because Lindsay and I were supposed to get married in the summer of 2020, and my goal was to grow all the flowers for our wedding.

The backyard garden where Lana grew her first big batch of flowers

Then the pandemic hit, and we ended up postponing the wedding. Serendipitously, I’d just launched The Tender Gardener as an online plant shop. I thought, “Well, I’ll just sell the wedding flowers as bouquets.”

That was a good time to launch an online plant business. People were staying home all the time, and needed a soothing distraction—such as a plant to take care of.

It was. Funny enough, I already had everything set up to launch The Tender Gardener in 2019, but was scared to quit my full-time job. But when COVID hit, it was like, “Alright, let’s give this a go.” I don’t think the shop would have been online, necessarily, had the pandemic not hit. But really, being adaptable has been one of the best parts of running The Tender Gardener. It’s a super small business—I run it myself with help from Lindsay, and I employ just one other person—so I’ve been able to evolve it as my available time and interests shift.

During the early part of the pandemic, you were focused on launching The Tender Gardener as a new business, promoting it, stocking and taking care of plants, and driving all over the place delivering purchases—plus growing flowers to sell as bouquets, which, as any gardener knows, takes a ton of work. That’s a lot of plant-related hustling!

Yes, it really was. There was one time, right before Mother’s Day, when I realized I didn’t have enough flowers to make all the bouquets I needed to deliver. I ended up going out to forage for flowers growing wild in roadside medians around Oakland and Berkeley. I picked a ton of Jupiter’s Beard (Centranthus ruber, aka Red Velarian), which is an invasive plant in California, and used it in all the bouquets.

When foraging, I always check in with a friend who works in environmental conservation, to make sure it’s an okay plant to forage. When I showed her the photo of Jupiter’s Beard, she was like, “Cut as much as you want. That’s super invasive.”

A Mother’s Day bouquet with two foraged stalks of Jupiter’s Beard (at back)

I love that. “Happy Mother’s Day, here’s a bouquet of invasives.” But it’s great actually, because you’re helping to mitigate their spread while simultaneously making something beautiful.

I got so many comments from customers who said my bouquets with Jupiter’s Beard would last forever. It was great.

A lot of flowers and houseplants that we get from around the world are not the most ethical things to be importing. It’s so much better when we can grow and distribute flowers and other plants locally.

Definitely. That’s why I grow garden-flower bouquets. I only sell whatever’s locally in season, which to me is exciting. I hope other people can get excited about that, too, because it is disrupting the established system of buying flowers that have been shipped halfway across the world.

There are so many alternatives to buying plastic-wrapped flowers at the grocery store. Amy Merrick’s book On Flowers has really fun ideas around growing and foraging for flowers yourself. Also, supporting local flower farmers—which are a booming niche market all over the country—contributes towards making the floral industry more sustainable. The only issue is if you live in a cold climate, and you’re wanting flowers in winter, you might just have to wait.

Flowers growing in Lana’s home garden

If you like flowers and you tend to want them in your house, learning to grow them yourself is oddly empowering. I’ve even been growing strawflowers and other flowers that dry well, just so I can have bouquets in the winter.

Once you start growing your own flowers, you really cannot stop, because you’ll get hooked on having fresh-cut bouquets at your fingertips during the entire growing season. You’ll also come to love how much each flower changes as it grows and blooms over a season. Perceiving that little bit of change each day is exciting. And when you grow them from seed, it’s even more exciting, because you get to see the whole life cycle of that plant.

How did you learn to garden? Was it something you did growing up, or did you stumble into it?

When I moved to California from Oklahoma, that’s when I really started taking care of my own plants, in a little container garden on my fire escape. I was growing herbs and a Kumquat tree, and I started propagating succulents, which I wasn’t as familiar with, but since succulents are everywhere in California, I got very interested in them.

A tapestry of succulents in one of Lana’s small container gardens

Then I went to grad school, and I became really focused on my art career. After I graduated, I ended up working with an art historian for about five years who had an incredible orchid collection. She would board her orchids, which I didn’t even know was a thing. It’s where you send them away when they’re not flowering and someone else takes care of them until they start blooming again. 

That seems like cheating!

I know! But seeing all those different orchids, I started to feel very interested in them. It felt like a new interest was taking hold.

At that time, I was feeling very stuck in my art career and job. Then I read The Artist’s Way, which I would highly recommend to anyone feeling like they need a change, or searching for their creative outlet. Doing the morning pages really helped me manifest The Tender Gardener.

At that same time, I was working on a solo painting show, and I kept feeling like, “Ugh, it’s a beautiful day. I don’t want to go to my art studio. I just want to be in my garden.” I would daydream about all the lush, beautiful containers I wanted to create, and about what else I could plant in our little patio garden. Gardening was starting to become an obsession. I ended up calling my painting show The Tender Gardener, and then that name and idea just stuck with me.

A flyer from Lana’s painting show, which was the genesis for her business, The Tender Gardener

Were the paintings about gardening?

They were abstract paintings, but had a little bit of botanical or plant inspiration in them, for sure.

Overall, gardening just felt very fulfilling on an internal, cellular level. Even though my identity was wrapped up in being a painter, I felt more and more pulled towards gardening.

As you’ve learned how to garden, have there been any resources you’ve found most helpful or inspiring?

I started collecting books on gardening when I first moved to California, and vintage how-to guides from Sunset Magazine. I also got into the TV series Gardeners’ World, and started following this YouTube gardener, Homegrown Garden. Gardening podcasts have been inspirational for me as well, especially Jennifer Jewell’s show, Cultivating Place.

Lana on set for one of her book’s photo shoots

This feels like a good segue into talking about your just-released book, The Container Garden Recipe Book. Tell us about it.

I find it to be the perfect first book, because my own entry into gardening was through containers, and container gardening is really accessible to anyone. When you don’t know a lot about gardening but want to start, it can feel a lot less intimidating to plant some flowers in a pot than to plant them in the ground.

I loved seeing your book being recommended on CBS Mornings. That’s huge. How exactly did the opportunity to make this book arise? 

A book agent actually reached out to me first. They found me through a person who orders a lot of my bouquets, Jennifer Latham. She’s a co-author of Tartine’s cookbook, and has a new book out, Baking Bread with Kids. From there I created a proposal for the book, and I worked with the agent to pitch it to Artisan

Throughout the book-producing process, my experience working with the art historian helped me. She had written two books, and I’d spent a lot of time writing articles with her. She also gave a lot of book talks, which I helped her with. So I had a bit of an understanding of the whole process before making my own book.

This project in particular was super fun for me as an artist, because I got to be the art director, the stylist, the props person, and the writer. The book is structured like a recipe book, and we shot the step-by-step photos in a studio. I painted custom backdrops for all of them. We tackled almost 20 different containers per photo shoot, over three total shoots—a spring, summer, and fall shoot.

The thing I love about your container gardening book, as you were saying before, is that it’s accessible to anyone, no matter their level of experience or what their space is like. You could even make a container garden inside your apartment or house, if you don’t have anywhere outside to put one.

Exactly. That’s basically what indoor plants are, since they’re all in containers. In my workshops, I’ll often show people how to make an indoor container garden that uses several different plants. You just need to follow the same principles as for outdoor container gardens, i.e. use plants that have the same light and water needs. If you do that, there’s no reason why indoor plants can’t grow together.

Notes from the book-creation process

It’s nice to be reminded that we can get creative when growing things. I love how in your book, you’ve upcycled a ton of beautiful-yet-random items as containers. There’s a container garden made inside of a pumpkin, and one in a vintage tire. I especially love the one in the hollow log.

Yes! Almost anything with a drainage hole can become a planting container.

While my book offers recipes to follow, my main goal is to inspire a sense of creative experimentation. Even if you aren’t able to find the exact plants I use in the book’s recipes, anything can be swapped. That’s the most fun part of container gardening: you can play with height and color and texture. It’s a lot like painting, in a way—but you’re adding this temporal element of time. Things will shift and evolve beyond your initial composition. It’s very exciting.

A spread from Lana’s book, featuring two of my favorite flowers: echinacea and cosmos <3

Has gardening played into a larger shift in your overall approach to life? What has it taught you?

I always find that going out to the garden helps me reset. I can enter this other space of time where I just am. It’s slowed me down in some ways. But also, time can speed up. Sometimes I’ll be out there and hours will pass, but it will feel like no time at all. Now, even with having a baby—when time really gets harder to find—I can still conjure these longer moments of being totally engrossed in the garden. Even if it’s for an hour, it really does reset my soul. 

That is my deepest desire for my book: that it can help other people find that same sense of calm hopefulness when they garden. There is something contagious about growing flowers, and growing your own food, where once you do it, you can’t help but want to share it with other people. It’s just so rewarding.

One of Lana’s bouquets, in front of one of her paintings 🙂

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