Claire Ratinon fell in love with digging the earth on a rooftop in New York City. She spent two seasons volunteering at Brooklyn Grange, the leading rooftop farming business in the U.S. “It was superproductive, not hobbyism but feeding the community, supplying restaurants,” she says.
She moved back to London and opted to give up her office job to grow organic produce for the restaurants of famed chef Yotam Ottolenghi. And then, just before the pandemic, she escaped to the countryside of East Sussex, for a garden, and chickens to call her own.
Photo Credit: Christian Cassiel
Ratinon, 38, details this switch, from city to country, and all that learning about plants has helped her realize about her inner self, in her new book, Unearthed: On Race and Roots, and How the Soil Taught Me I Belong.
“The book has taken me down the road of looking into my heritage, and ancestry within that,” she says.
“It is my journey into the work of growing food, but moves into the history of Mauritius where my family are from, the stories of my parents, and explores the issues of race and roots and belonging,” she says. “All of those things are for me intertwined in the relationships that we have with the plant world and wider ecosystem around us at large.”
Ratinon’s own reading about plants is broad, from step-by-step guides that she returns to over and over for support, to memoirs that gave her the push she needed to write Unearthed. Here are her must-reads for anyone interested in reconnecting with the land.
GROW YOUR OWN VEGETABLES BY JOY LARKCOM
“This is the vegetable grower’s Bible. A wealth of information and wisdom, it was first published in 1976, but I’m yet to find something in it that is not useful, or that is outdated. If you think ‘I really want to get into vegetable growing and I want everything I could possibly need,’ this is the book I would buy.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of The Quarto Group
ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE BY BARBARA KINGSOLVER
“Barbara Kingsolver is such an incredible storyteller. This is the story of how she and her family moved to a piece of land and try to live off it for a year. It manages to capture the ups and downs of working the land. I’ve bought it three times but still don’t actually have a copy, I always end up giving it away.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Faber & Faber
WILD ABOUT WEEDS BY JACK WALLINGTON
“Jack is a brilliant garden designer and a deeply passionate gardener. This book is about taking a step back out of the stories we tell about the plants [weeds] that ‘aren’t supposed to be there,’ asking you to get to know them again and consider whether you find them beautiful. It does a nice job of explaining how you can work with what is already growing in your garden.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Laurence King Publishing
ROOTBOUND: REWILDING A LIFE BY ALICE VINCENT
“Alice’s writing is gorgeous, rich, and vulnerable. It melds horticulture and history with Alice’s personal story of a tender time in her life, plants woven throughout. It’s also based in South London, a celebration of plants that live in the city. If Alice hadn’t written this book, Unearthed wouldn’t exist.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Canongate Books
FARMING WHILE BLACK BY LEAH PENNIMAN
“Leah is a brilliant human, for her growing work in upstate New York at Soul Fire Farm, an Afro-indigenous centered community farm, for how she encourages people to grow, and her book that is so powerful and resonant. It is very practical, but it’s also spiritual and she talks about the important role people of African descent have played in agriculture through the centuries. It initiated a bit of confidence in me to dare look at history that I had turned away from. With Leah’s work it is possible that other young Black and brown people will find their way toward growing without having to stumble across a rooftop farm in New York.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Chelsea Green Publishing