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Dirt’s Garden

Many of my favorite people are plant fools.  These souls cherish and admire the green world above almost anything else.

On one of my visits, Dr. Dirt made this “bokay” for my Mama.

I am happy to hang with them.  Their tales of heroic propagation, amazing encounters with rare plant communities and inspired plant combinations move me to tell my own stories.

Leon Goldsberry was one of these Flower Children.  As a child, he learned a bit of gardening from his mother Millie.  Leon and Millie lived on the wrong side of the tracks in the small racially charged community of Edwards, Mississippi.

During the Vietnam Era, Leon headed for Toronto where he raised a family and became a chef.  In the late 1990’s he returned to Edwards to care for his mother.

After Millie’s death, he inherited her house and remained in Edwards.  For the next two decades, he spent almost every day on a mission to make the garden his own.  In the process, Leon Goldsberry transformed himself into Dr. Dirt.

He honored his mother by calling his place “Millie’s Garden”.  The garden was graced by Millie’s large old specimen plants – an ancient pecan, robust quince bushes, centenarian hydrangeas and a giant fig tree that towered over the house.

Dirt added antique roses, pomegranates, altheas and trumpet honeysuckle.  He planted a carpet of pass-alongs like Turk’s cap mallow, summer phlox, soapwort, tickseed and narrowleaf sunflower.  These garden inhabitants were gleaned from abandoned house sites or traded and bartered from other gardeners.

This quiet sitting place was one of my favorite parts of Millie’s Garden. If Dirt chanced upon reduced sale paint in a color he liked, he would repaint the glider, concrete & accents.

Millie’s Garden was a difficult site with heavy soil, drainage issues and a high-speed train track that skirted the property line.  Dirt dug channels to drain the water.  He mounded the excavated soil into his beds and paths to raise them.

He planted extensive container gardens in old shoes, buckets, toy trucks and sinks that he foraged from the roadsides.   And, for the most part, he learned to ignore the trains.

The garden was astonishing, Dirt had turned his artistic chef’s eye toward the green world.  The plantings included aggressive species that were meticulously groomed every day.  Native plants and wildflowers mingled with the exotics and with the original folk art that Dirt made from found objects.

In 2004, Dirt was “discovered” by Felder Rushing and the two began to co-host the Mississippi Public Radio show “The Gestalt Gardener”.  The radio show was a mixed blessing for Dirt.  He relished the new contacts he made with avid gardeners and most importantly the new plants he procured for his garden.  He travelled with Felder and was inspired by many of the gardens that he toured on these trips.  He was, however, diminished by each day that he was not present in his own.

Eventually Dirt left the radio show and began spending almost all his time in Millie’s Garden.  During this time, I was on the road a lot & would frequently exit I-20 and drop in to see Dirt.  I tried to always bring a plant he might like and he always had a new flower to show me.

The garden was a peaceful paradise.  As we rambled, though, Dirt would pause, check the time and signal that I should cover my ears.  Seconds later a screaming earth-shaking  locomotive would pass on the tracks barely 50’ away.

In October, the narrowleaf sunflowers were a sight to behold.

I loved Millie’s Garden and I testified about it.  I took my Horticulture students there on field trips, visited with Landscape Architect friends and even invited the Mississippi Native Plant Society to see Dirt’s narrowleaf sunflowers in their golden October glory.

The best times though were when I just stopped in and followed Dirt around as he showed me his favorite flowers of the day.

I recently learned that after a battle with cancer, Dr. Dirt passed on April 9.  I imagine that as he grew ill, his garden became less groomed and wilder but still I pray that it was a comfort to him rather than a worry.

Many of my favorite people are plant fools and flower children.  Of all these stellar characters, Dr. N. Dirt loved flowers more than anyone I have ever known.

I choose not to wonder what will happen to Millie’s Garden now that Dirt is gone.

I know that a garden never survives the gardener.  It is a fact of life.   As Dr. Dirt often said “Everything starts from dirt. Everything returns to dirt”.

I am grateful to have been with him in his garden on many a beautiful day – grinning, sniffing the blooms and recalling my love of the flowers.

RIP Friend Dirt –  I’d love to see you put your spin on the Garden of Eden.

And Farewell Millie’s Garden.  I’ll not see the like of you again.

Wahoo! Yahoo!

Hearts a' busting has possibly the most colorful fruit ever!

Hearts a busting has possibly the most colorful fruit ever!

So… we recently had a taste of winter.

It wasn’t actually that cold – just in the 50’s – but it was cloudy, chilly, humid and reminiscent of a Mississippi winter.

So I’m dreaming of the blue skied crisp fall days to come.

The asters are budded and the magnolias have red seeded cones.  The grasses are seeding and Maryland goldenaster is blooming on the roadsides.

A scattering of colored leaves is beginning to tint the woods just a bit.

But right now Euonymus americanus is the most fallish plant in my garden.   It has nary a stained leaf but it offers the most interesting and lovely fruit.

Each plant is loaded with fruit right now.

Each plant is loaded with fruit right now.

Euonymus americanus (aka hearts a busting; wahoo, strawberry bush, brook euonymus) is a fall precursor.  By the time our fall color really lights up, the hearts a busting fruit will be gone – shattered or consumed by hungry birds

Now, though, it is peaking and showing out on this gloomy day.

The hot pink warty covering has split to expose several intense orange pulp covered seed.  The scarlet arils are oblong and pendant with a seed that is curiously shaped like a baby tooth.

The orange and pink medley is as lovely as any flower and the plants are loaded.  They reflect the light and capture my attention.  Even on this overcast day, they are begging to be picked and tucked into a flower arrangement.

Here are 2 fruits with a top view of the warty pink cover & an inside view of the scarlet pulpy fruit.

Here are 2 fruits with a top view of the warty pink covering & an inside view of the scarlet pulp covered seed.

Euonymus americanus is a narrow upright shrub that suckers to form small colonies.

Foliage will turn strawberry pink or creamy before falling.  The angular green stems will be left to dominate during winter.

In the wild this native is found along creek banks with river birch, pawpaw and Christmas fern.

Generally, in a woodland setting, though, the fruit set is scanty.  Deer nibble young leaves and stems so that flowering and fruiting are minimal.

My back yard is not a deer free zone by any means but the close proximity to my house allows the wahoo to persevere.

On this murky day I am grateful for that!


 

Signs of Autumn

The late great Woodrow Culvertson was a beggar lice (a.k.a. Desmodium) magnant.

Here in the Deep South, our seasonal changes are often less dramatic than they are in more northern states.

When Autumn rolls around here, the quality of the light changes and the sky becomes intensely blue.

The goldenrods, asters and rosin weeds begin to bloom in wild places and spider lilies pop up around old house sites.

Daytime temperatures are still fairly warm but nights begin to cool.

Another sure sign of Autumn is the sudden startling appearance of beggar lice.

Right now we are in the midst of the Desmodium (beggar lice, tick-trefoil, tick clover or hitch hikers) phase.

This plant is a member of the pea family.  The most common species here has bright pink flowers in late summer.  Triangular seed pods soon form and attach to clothing and fur with hooked  hairs.

My dog Woodrow could accumulate hundreds in his long hair on an average fall walk.

Woody passed a few months ago and this fall it seems like there are a lot of beggar lice with no place to go.

 

 

 

A Gift from New England

New England aster blooms with a fall coreopsis.

I am ridiculously happy every fall when the asters start busting out around here.

One of my favorites, the New England aster (Symphyothichum novae-angliae), is just starting to bloom.

I first learned of this aster when I was in college.  I was having difficulty keying out a beautiful royal purple aster because I couldn’t possibly believe that a New England aster was growing in Mississippi!

But it was indeed!

It turns out that New England aster ranges from Canada south to Mississippi and Alabama.

New England aster is a great garden plant but in the wild I have learned to look for it in sites with prairie soils.

Bumblebees love it!

A couple of years ago as I was driving to visit my mother I spied a nice little stand of New England aster in full bloom.  As expected, they were growing in a prairie remnant.

I stopped to admire them and made note of the location.  

I returned a few weeks later and gathered seed.  

Asters can be difficult from seed.  Some years the seed look viable but most are empty.

This time, however, I hit the jackpot and ended up with a whole flat of little New England Aster seedlings.

I have one of these planted out front in the driveway bed.

This Monarch butterfly was nectaring on a New England aster in a prairie near here.

I walk past it  every day and usually pause to admire the beautiful fringed flowers.

The bumble bees are often lingering nearby as well.

New England aster is a great nectar plant for bees and monarch butterflies.

Plants are robust and can reach 6′ height in full sun.

I’ve always wanted to go to New England to see the fall color.

For this year anyway, a trip to the front yard is as far as I’ll need to go.

A New Reason to Love Goldenrod

Goldenrod is an important fall food source for honeybees and native pollinators.

I’m digging the goldenrod right now.

It’s such a lovely shade of yellow and is blooming in the most unexpected places.

I’ve been using it in flower arrangements and photographing it.  Every time I closely inspect it, I find honeybees and native pollinators foraging there.

Goldenrod is a really important late season food source for these pollinators.  I’m convinced that the extra food stores help my honeybees to make it through the winter.

The most common goldenrod around here is Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis).  I weed it out of my flower beds because it is an aggressive grower.  I leave it for my honeybees though along my nature trails.

Roughleaf goldenrod does well in prairie gardens or more manicured beds.

Two of my other favorites, sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora) and rough goldenrod (Solidago rugosa),are well behaved enough to earn a place in a flower bed.

There are many other landscape worthy goldenrod species.  But… in spite of their wildlife benefits, ease of cultivation and knockout fall color I rarely see goldenrods in landscape plantings.

Native plant lovers and beekeepers have been giving goldenrod a lot of positive press for years.  But still every fall, I am surprised how many people claim that they are allergic to goldenrod.

Goldenrod pollen is sparse and relatively heavy.  It is designed to be transported by insects.  So… how in the world do these people think they are inhaling goldenrod pollen?

I staged this picture to compare leaves and flowers of common ragweed, giant ragweed (center) and Canada goldenrod.

Instead, of course, fall allergies that occur when goldenrod is blooming are likely caused by ragweed.  Ragweed is wind pollinated.  It produces lots of lightweight pollen that is designed to float through the air.  It drifts on the wind to other ragweed plants and up the nose of anyone who happens to be breathing in the area.

I realize this is old news to most people but seriously this year I have heard dozens of people complaining about goldenrod allergies.  The thing that annoys me the most about this is that I seem to be unable to stop myself from correcting them.

But I didn’t know everything about goldenrod.  Last week I discovered goldenrod tea.

My research indicated that goldenrod has anti-inflammatory properties and is a natural diuretic that is really good for your kidneys.  According to my reading it was said to have a pleasant taste.

I found that interesting because I have in the past tasted herbal teas that invoked the gag reflex.

I said to myself – “I must have some of this goldenrod tea.”

Goldenrod tea is tasty!

Later that day I was making a flower arrangement.

When I stripped the lower leaves off the goldenrod, I saved them.

The next day I added them to boiling water and let them steep for about 20 minutes or so.

My husband and I drank the tea iced and both of us thought it tasted remarkably like green tea.  It was really good.

I researched a little more and found that leaves and flowers can be used for tea.

When flowers are added, the goldenrod tea prevents allergies!!!

We tried a tea made from the flower/leaf mix and found it to be a little more bitter but still not unpleasant.

I liked goldenrod tea well enough that I plan to gather enough to have tea this winter.

I’ll try not to harvest too much goldenrod though.  My girls down in the beehives need it too.

 

Magnolia Musings

Ahhh!  The sweetbays are blooming.

It’s a major event around here.

Sweetbay flowers are 4" across or less. The leaves are silver-backed and about 6" long.

Every evening about 7:30 the sweetbay magnolias (Magnolia virginiana) emit a deliciously wonderful scent.  The fragrance drifts through the air like a force of nature.

We are certain to be sitting on the deck about that time.

We breathe deeply and the air around us is infused with the fragrance.

The scent wafts from a nice little grove of sweetbays in a low area that we call “The Bottom”.  It drifts over the hill past the giant white oak and settles around us

The fragrance is familiar and recognizable to me.

I was returning home a few days ago around the specified hour when an olfactory jolt stopped me in my tracks.  I smiled and then said to the ephemeral manifestation “There you are!”

It never occurred to me that the scent originated from the blooming southern magnolia a few feet away.  It WAS the intense magnolia-lemony essence of sweetbay.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora).  They are considered by many to be the stateliest of trees.  The flowers are large and beautiful. Their scent is delectable if you take the time to bury your nose inside and inhale.

I also love my cowcumbers (Magnolia macroplylla).  They are startlingly beautiful with 3′ leaves and flowers that measure a foot across.  They are like supermodel magnolias and are fragrant in a very fulfilling way.

Sweetbay is a kind of plain Jane magnolia with medium textured leaves and the smallest flowers of the three.

And as long as I’m talking trash, let me add that sweetbays habitually throw a late spring funk .   Just after new growth resumes the old leaves turn a pitiful yellow and gradually fall from the tree.

Compared to the others, sweetbays are kind of low brow. After all they are a pioneer species that will volunteer in swampy wasteland while the other two are climax species that require a pristine woodland setting.

Some of our trees have obviously been mown or bush-hogged to the ground during the old days when this was a cattle farm.  After the butchering, many came back as multi-trunked trees.

But being pioneers, they did come back.  They grew and are now over 60′ tall.   I admire their tenacity.

And I am delighted that their blooms are the sweetest of all.  I could pick them out of a lineup even if I was wearing a blindfold.

 

 

 

They’re Here!

My Mama is not very ephemeral. She just turned 91. On her birthday I'm always reminded to search for the first trillium.

I do love the spring ephemerals.  These wildflowers emerge from underground roots and stems.  They flower, make fruit and die within a month or two in late winter and early spring.

Most of the ephemerals grow beneath large old trees.  Their precipitous life cycle enables them to flower and set seed as the winter sun slants through the leafless canopy.  By the time the trees are in full leaf, the ephemerals are done!

Since they are above ground for such a short time, I have adopted  mnemonic devices so I can remember when to look for them.

Trillium, I learned, always seems to emerge within a day or two of my Mama’s birthday.  We celebrated her birthday on Friday and Saturday.  On Sunday I walked the trails in search of trillium.  Lo & behold – there it was – recently emerged and already sporting flower buds.

I spied the first trillium of the year yesterday. It was already budded as it emerged but will not bloom for another month.

Trillium is one of the first ephemerals to show up.  Most of the others emerge in March.

One of my plant mentors, Towhee Tisdale, taught me that bloodroot will flower for a week or ten days after the first full week in March.

Soon after my husband’s birthday on March 8, I start looking for bloodroot flowers.   A few days later I find the first curious emerging May apples.

Those dates really only work in my neck of the woods. As you move north or south the flowering season will vary.   It’s a localized personal kind of thing.

So every year when I sing “Happy Birthday” to Mama, I visualize a cluster of mottled trillium.  And I know that I’ll soon be seeking it in the woods.

 

Freebies

 

Woodrow enjoys hanging out with the spider lilies on our creek bank.

Lately I’ve been enjoying some of the humble plants that came with my land.

We bought most of our 6 acres, a parcel at a time from our neighbors, Eddie and Margurite Chestnut. 

Margurite was (and still hopefully is) quite the gardener.  She planted her own yard to the nines but we also notice remnants of Margurite’s landscaping through the woods and along the creek. 

I’m not sure if these plants were deliberately planted or if she just dumped out yard waste and it took root. 

At any rate some of the plants like English ivy are quite annoying.  

Others are not too invasive and are mildly entertaining – like the occasional clump of cast iron plant. 

And then there are those that we are quite fond of like the spider lilies which recently blossomed profusely. 

This was a good year for spider lilies.  I had never noticed them along the creek bank but in late winter we initiated a massive privet clearing effort that allowed the sun to come in.  The results were spectacular.

I do love wildflowers and even though the spider lily (Lycoris radiata) is not native, it does not seem to displace indigenous plants.  Hopefully it is helping to hold the creek bank. 

Maybe spider lilies are less offensive to me because they stay below ground for a great part of the year.  When the leafless blooms burst from the ground in early autumn they are like beautiful party girls popping up out of a cake.

Our most common bushy aster is blooming now in the Bee Meadow.

I’ve also been admiring our most common aster.  Years ago Sidney McDaniel identified it as Aster dumosus.  It has since had a name change to Symphyotrichum dumosum.  On the internet I recently learned that it is called bushy aster or rice button aster.  We just always thought of it as “our” aster.

It is a white frothy little thing that appears any where there is a little sun and lack of mowing.  It glows in the late afternoon light.

Last Sunday we had some very enjoyable company – our friends Danny and Rebecca Brantley.  We were all sitting out along the creek burning a small stick fire for amusement.   We talked about life and laughed at each other’s stories.  

The spider lilies were waning.  And the bumblebees were foraging on a bushy aster nearby.  Their gentle buzz almost put me to sleep

That’s reason enough to love a bushy aster. 

It reminded me of a line from an Ian Campbell song that Kate Wolf recorded “In the park, the dreamy bees are droning in the flowers among the trees…”

Spider lilies for days and dreamy asters – that’s a lot of free entertainment.

Frost in August

Here in Mississippi we’re in the midst of the oppressive heat of August.

I’m not complaining.  It’s just a fact of life.

But still – it’s August… in Mississippi…

Unless I stay indoors with the ac cranked, there is not much relief.

I can take a soak in the cold tub and dream of Paradise Falls for a while.  But… you can’t stay in the tub all day.

So I do all my gardening early while it’s still a little cool.  Then I opt for a cruise in the golf cart from one patch of shade to the next.

I pause at the Bee Meadow and watch the honeybees fan themselves on the “front porches” of their hives.  Then I linger to study the flowers.

This is the season of yellow daisies.  Sweet coneflower (Rudbeckia subtomentosa), orange black eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida var. fulgida) and starry rosinweed (Silphium asteriscus) offer their golden blossoms to the sun.  The grasses (switch, big blue, Indian and Eastern gamma) are their stalwart companions.  The heat does not discourage these robust beauties.

But looking at all those warm orange and yellow blooms seems to make more sweat trickle down the back of my neck.  And looking at the grasses makes me itch.

 

Whiteleaf mountain mint and switch grass grace the Bee Meadow in August.

I am refreshed a bit though when I set my eyes on  the frosty bracts of the mountain mint that is blooming now.

Whiteleaf mountain mint (Pycnanthemum albescens) is among the last native mints to bloom here.  In July tiny purple spotted flowers make their appearance surrounded at first by white edged leafy bracts.  By August the first frost comes and the entire bract turns hoary white.

 

Here's my best attempt to capture mountain mint's frosty white bracts.

I am not the only one who is drawn to the mountain mint.  A steady stream of pollinators visits the flowers.  At every viewing, I usually see at least four or five kinds of native bees and flies.    When I lean in close to study an unknown pollinator the mountain mint releases a heady mint scent into the air. Ahhh!

Last weekend I managed to identify an unknown pollinator that has intrigued me for over a decade.  The first time I saw this bee relative, I described it as an iridescent purple dirt dauber.   I’ve seen it regularly over the years but only when the mountain mint is in bloom.

So… I set out to solve the mystery and after a wasted hour (in the ac) on the computer, I determined that the mystery pollinator was a giant black wasp.  This is a gentle ground nesting wasp.  Usually the males visit the flowers and they cannot sting me because they have no ovipositor.

 

The giant black wasp is busy foraging on refreshing mountain mint nectar.

The females are far too busy to sting because they are hunting, stinging and carrying paralyzed katydids back to the nest to feed the youngsters.

The giant black wasp has a slender thread-like waist.  It is commonly close to 2 inches long.  In certain light it appears to be black but soon the sun illuminates metallic purple pigments.  It is quite striking.

So for a few moments I forget that the heat is hanging heavily around me and that the humid air is almost too liquid to breathe.  I am transfixed – I watch the giant black wasps forage.  I make note of the tiny sweat bees, the flower fly and a mysterious pollinating fly.  All of them are headed for the frosty bracts and minty nectar of the whiteleaf mountain mint.

I look past them all – hoping to see a giant black wasp mama flying toward her nest burdened by a stupified katydid.

I have not seen her yet.

But… there is still tomorrow!

Bee Meadow Update

We have had a rainy summer and the Bee Meadow has prospered.

During late June and July, wild bergamot or beebalm (Monarda fistulosa) and purple coneflower (Ecninacea purpurea) dominated the space.  Since beebalm is a member of the mint family, it is very aromatic.  On hot days, it wafted like incense and we could smell it as we approached the meadow.  The place was buzzing with all sorts of insect pollinators as well.

My friend Denice Kopf enjoyed the beebalm, purple coneflower and native grasses during her visit in late June.

The beebalm and coneflowers seemed to bloom forever.  Through most of July they were still going strong.

During July the orange butterfly weed bloomed for a second time and the purple liatris 'Kobold' chimed in.

A first sighting of a plant is always exciting.  This year I had the first blooms on the shiny coneflower (Rudbeckia nitida).  I planted it 3 years ago and had seen foliage but no blooms.

Rudbeckia nitida glows in the bee meadow with native switch grass and a mass of beebalm.

The finger false dragonhead (Physostegia digitalis) had bloomed before but this year with all the rain it was spectacular.  This species is native to Louisiana and Texas but not to Mississippi.  The plant was given to me by Jessie Johnson.  She dug a small start for me from the meadow at Briarwood.  So, of course, the plant is very special from an aesthetic point of view as well as an emotional one.

 

The physostegia is one of those rare plants that is as beautiful in bud as it is in flower.

I will say that the buds are very intriguing – like beautiful rows of niblet corn.  But … the flowers are not too shabby.

Physostegia flowers are strking!

And this brings us up to date.  It is now August.  The grasses are robust and the yellow daisies are in full bloom.  The whiteleaf mountain mint is frosty in spite of the heat.

I don’t think I have ever gotten so much enjoyment from a gardening effort with so little work!

An August update will be forthcoming.

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