Dallasite Stephanie Hunt had an audacious idea two years ago while attending the Chelsea Flower Show in London. She’d enter her tiny nonprofit in the world-renowned event with a garden showcasing the resilient beauty found in the Syrian refugee camp of Domiz in Kurdish Iraq.
Once a temporary settlement of tents, Domiz is now a small city of 26,000 residents living in more permanent homes with tiny gardens of greenery and flowers.
Hunt’s Dallas nonprofit, Lemon Tree Trust, has been offering horticultural support and enterprise services there since 2015.
As a member of the innovation advisory council of the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR, Hunt is well acquainted with forced-migration camps in Jordan, Iraq, Kenya and Nepal.
She wanted to show the world’s most ardent gardeners that Domiz and other settlements like it are homes to real people — many of them highly educated — with an emotional connection to the birds, trees and flowers of their former homelands.
This desolate region of Iraq, after all, was once part of Mesopotamia’s Fertile Crescent — think cradle of civilization and Garden of Eden.
Hunt says West Coast folks constantly send her missives, telling her to teach the refugees how to compost — a suggestion she finds ludicrous. “We don’t have to teach them composting. They’ve been gardening since the beginning of time.”
Meeting the queen
Entries into the Chelsea Flower Show are meticulously selected by the 214-year-old Royal Horticultural Society, better known as the RHS.
Hunt — who resembles and identifies with the strong-willed, freckle-faced Pippi Longstocking of children’s book fame — figured what the heck?
But in her wildest dreams, the 50-year-old Hunt, who lives in Lakewood, never imagined that the RHS would not only accept her entry but would place the Lemon Tree Trust Garden on the show’s premier Main Avenue.
And, as a result, she’d meet the prime minister and the Queen of England.
But that’s what happened Monday, when Theresa May and Queen Elizabeth visited the show.
The 92-year-old queen chose to visit only a half-dozen gardens along the main promenade when she visited the show less than 48 hours after the royal wedding festivities.
Hunt learned the day before that Lemon Tree Trust was on the list. She learned how to properly courtesy and didn’t sleep well that night.
“The queen was all in pink and just precious,” Hunt says in a telephone interview from London. “She reminded me of my grandmother. She’s lost a lot of height over the years, and I’m short. She has the most beautiful blue eyes. I truly wanted to hug her.”
“We told her about the different parts of the garden and how it reflected a refugee camp gardener’s garden. She was like, ‘Oh, fascinating.’ She was engaged and nodding. I’m not a celebrity stalker, but that was pretty cool.
“The royal reporter came after she left to get our names,” Hunt says. “He said Her Majesty had spent the most time in our garden and wanted to know what she talked about.”
Meeting the PM
Prime Minister May was more subdued and on a tighter schedule, Hunt says. “May was the first thing in the morning and the queen was the last — which was pretty funny how they book-ended the day.
“We asked May what she thought the percentage split would be between edibles and ornamentals in terms of what refugees want — seeds for food or seeds for flowers.
“She said, ‘Of course, I’d think edibles. But now that you’ve set me up, I’m guessing it’s ornamentals.’ ”
And it is, says Hunt. Seven out of 10 refugees say they’d rather grow flowers and trees.
The trust, which has offices in London and Dallas, captured a coveted Silver Gilt Medal (the second-highest award) in the mother of all garden shows.
Lemon Tree Trust Garden features drought-tolerant plants hearty enough to withstand temperatures of 100-plus degrees to below freezing. It was the darling of media coverage, which embraced this oasis of hope both in spirit and in execution.
“We literally had an article in every paper last weekend — from The Guardian, which is the most liberal, to The Financial Times and The Telegraph, which are the most conservative,” she says elatedly. “There’s been more buzz about us than any other garden here.”
BBC gardening star host Monty Don interviewed Fergal Keane, BBC’s Africa correspondent, about the power of plants and gardens to lift spirits and offer some sense of solace and hope to people living in harsh, uncertain conditions.
Hunt had enlisted the help of Tom Massey, a rising star of the British garden competition scene, who designed the garden pro bono. As for what she spent, she’ll only say that it was small fraction of the budgets of corporate-sponsored gardens.
“And for the exposure we’ve gotten, oh my gosh,” she says as the show headed into its final day on Saturday. “The crowds have been enormous, incredible. It’s so exciting.”
Royal seed swap
There was another neat aspect to the RHS and Lemon Tree Trust connection.
One hundred years ago, at the outset of World War I, British expatriates living in Germany were rounded up and put in internment camps. These prisoners of war sent word to the RHS that they wanted seeds for a garden competition, and the RHS fulfilled their wishes.
“As only the British can do, the prisoners took the rules from the Chelsea Flower Show, and no one won first that year because none of the gardens were up to snuff,” Hunt says.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary, RHS director general Sue Biggs and Hunt arranged a seed swap. The RHS wants to add plants from Domiz to its research. Hunt used the royal bounty — primarily Damascus rose seeds, the world’s most ancient variety — as prizes for the recent garden competitions held in five northern Iraq camps with 918 home garden entries.
This was the third year for Lemon Tree Trust’s garden competition in Kurdish Iraq. The first drew 50 participants in Domiz. Everyone who signed up got a lemon tree as a reminder of home. It also led to the nonprofit’s new name.
“It was hard not to make them all winners,” says Hunt, who was last in Iraq in 2016 but has another trip planned. “We ended up giving 10 prizes for such things as Best Container Garden and Most Biodiverse.”
Azad Mahmoud Ahmed , 13, from Qamishlo in Syria, has been with his family in Camp Domiz since 2014. His grandfather in Qamsishlo thought him how to how to plant seeds and water the plants. The biggest challenge is the lack of water.
Stephanie spent four formative years in London — first in the mid-1970s and again in the early 1980s — as the daughter of prominent Dallas banker Jim Erwin, who headed international operations for First International Bancshares Inc., one of Big D’s now-departed bank holding companies.
She and Hunter have known each other since the third grade and graduated from Richardson High School together in 1986. He got a degree from SMU in economics and political science, while she went to the University of Texas at Austin for a finance degree in 1990.
He went to work for the energy investment banking group of Morgan Stanley in New York and then London. She became an oil and gas equity analyst in Dallas.
They reconnected in 1999 and married a year later.
They have 14-year-old triplets (two sons and a daughter) who are about to enter the ninth grade. Stephanie and the triplets spent the last year in England — with Hunter routinely commuting to be with the family — because she wanted her children to have the same opportunities to expand their world horizons as she had.
Last weekend, the whole family gathered around the television in their Cotswold cottage to watch the royal wedding.
“That was so much fun,” says Stephanie. “I was here for Diana and Charles’ wedding in July ’81 when we were living in London. To be able to experience this with my kids was just so cool.”
Vickery Meadow contest
In late 2009, Stephanie and Hunter established the Hunt Institute for Engineering & Humanity as part of the Lyle School of Engineering at Southern Methodist University. She’s the driving force for its initiatives. He describes his role as “Steph’s thought partner.”
Stephanie likes using high-impact props and celebrities to dive into issues that might otherwise seem boring.
In 2011, she built a Third World village on SMU’s campus to get students pumped up about finding solutions for the gritty problems of housing, water, transportation and energy.
Hunter and Stephanie Hunt with designer Tom Massey in the Lemon Tree Trust Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show in London.
Two years later, she brought David de Rothschild, à la the international banking aristocracy, and his famous Plastiki, a 60-foot catamaran made of 12,500 recycled bottles, to the State Fair of Texas and then to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science to show how trash can be repurposed.
That’s why she wants to bring the royal cachet that Lemon Tree Trust has gotten from the Chelsea Flower Show to make a point about food security and Dallas’ food deserts.
Lemon Tree Trust, which focuses on empowering refugees through gardening, horticultural education and small business enterprises, has been active in Dallas since its inception in 2015. It has 1.5 acres parceled into gardens in four urban communities — Vickery Meadow, Pleasant Grove, and two in East Dallas — where resettled refugees live.
Next month, the nonprofit will announce the winners of its garden competition in Vickery Meadow near NorthPark, where 50 families — mostly Burmese and Bhutanese residents of a predominantly resettled refugee apartment complex — will present their container gardens for judging.
The idea is to restore dignity, purpose and cultural identity among replanted refugees.
“We’ve heard from academics and humanitarians who say that what we’re doing is frivolous,” Hunt says. “Well, I would flip that completely on its head and say, ‘Have you actually talked to a refugee lately?’ They want to feel valued. They socialize. They want to get together with their friends. People get married. They have babies.
“They’re not refugees. They’re residents. They’re not a burden. They want to work, be productive and can actually add value.
“Dallas needs to realize that.”
AT A GLANCE: Stephanie Erwin Hunt
Title: Founder, CEO and creative director, Lemon Tree Trust
Grew up: Richardson and London
Education: Richardson High School, 1986; bachelor of arts in finance, University of Texas in Austin, 1990
Personal: Married to Hunter Hunt for 17 years. They have 14-year-old triplets (two sons and a daughter)
SOURCE: Stephanie Hunt