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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.

A Day in the Prairie – Part I

Two weeks ago I spent the day touring prairie remnants near Forest, Mississippi.

The outing was sponsored by the Mississippi Native Plant Society.  Heather Sullivan, our fearless leader, is a Botanist and Curator of the Herbarium at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science.  So.. we were in good hands.

Our primary goal was to visit Harrell Prairie Hill a 160 acre tallgrass prairie preserve to view the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) display.  Harrell Prairie is part of the Jackson Prairie Belt which is a type of Black Belt Prairie.  The site is located in the Bienville National Forest.

I’m going to try something new with this blog post.  It will mostly consist of pictures and captions.

Here our whole group wanders through Harrell Prairie.  The sky always looks so large in a prairie!

We quickly found purple coneflower in bloom along with purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), white prairie clover (Dalea candida) and yellow prairie coneflower (Ratibida pinnata).

Monty had more fun than anyone.  He paused for a brief moment in the photo above to pose with New Jersey (Ceanothus americanus) tea in full fruit.

Speaking of fruit – I have never seen a deerberry (Vaccinium staminium) with so much fruit.  Every one of these huckleberries that we encountered in the prairie was loaded.  But… unfortunately the fruit was not ripe.

Rosepink (Sabatia angularis) was blooming throughout the prairie.  I hope my Latin name on this one is correct.  At any rate, this plant is a member of the gentian family and is an annual that comes back from seed every year.  It is very delicate in appearance but tough as nails.

I was having such a good time  and finding so many interesting plants that I decided to continue the field trip after the main group headed out in search of ac and cool beverages.  Many might describe them as the “smart ones”.

Luckily I found three other diehards to accompany me.   I will post Part 2 of the Prairie Trip tomorrow.  Stay tuned!

A Visit to the Cajun Prairie

Welcome to the Cajun Prairie Restoration site in Eunice, LA.

Saturday, I visited a couple of prairie sites in and near Eunice, Louisiana.

The tours were part of the Cajun Prairie Habitat Preservation Society meeting.

I have been a member of this group for many years and am totally humbled by the wonderful things they have done.

The Cajun Prairie Society formally started in 1989.

The two main movers and shakers were Dr. Charles Allen and Dr. Malcolm Vidrine.  These two had begun exploring tallgrass prairie remnants in south Louisiana.

White false indigo and bee balm mingle with dewberries and grasses at the Eunice site.

As a group they were able to obtain a lease on a piece of wasteland adjacent to an abandoned railroad track and a low income neighborhood.

They quickly began seeding and transplanting prairie plants to the site.

The society was eventually able to buy the land and over the years has installed a pic-nic shelter, sidewalks, signage and benches.

It is a grand place to visit.  The best time is at one of the society’s two annual meeting.  The first is in late spring – usually late April or early May and the second in late summer.  I just attended the early meeting.  The benefit of a meeting and not just a self-guided tour is that you can walk the site with Dr. Allen and Dr. Vidrine.  What a treat!

It may seem that you are lost in a sea of gamma grass and bee balm until you notice the adjacent houses.

Blooming highlights of the Eunice prairie were masses of white false indigo (Baptisia alba), bee balms (Monarda fistulosa and Monarda lindheimeri), early rosin weed (Silphium gracile) and black eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta).

There were scattered hot pink rose gentians (Sabatia campanulata), pristine white butterfly gaura (Gaura lindheimeri) and magenta sensitive briar (Mimosa microphylla).  The first of the narrowleaf mountain mints (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) were starting to turn frosty white.  Later two other mountain mints will bloom along with two species of obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana and P. intermedia).  The perennial hibiscus or rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) sported buds and button snakeroot (Eryngium yuccafolium) looked like a robust blue yucca just waiting to burst into flower.

The grasses were beginning to assert themselves – soaring upward.

We wandered through the prairie pausing to graze on dewberries lost in the tallgrass.  We seemed to be miles away from civilization but a glance at the horizon showed houses in the distance.

Today’s blog post will consist mostly of pictures taken at the Eunice site this year and last year at the May meeting.

Malcolm Vidrine explores a mass of yellow false indigo loaded with seed pods.

One day I hope to visit the site when the yellow false indigo (Baptisia sphaerocarpa) is in full bloom.  This is usually in late March.  Last weekend they were loaded with seed pods as far as I could see.  I can only imagine what a spectacular thing it must be to see them in full bloom.

Another goal is to make it to the prairie in late summer to see the gayfeather in flower.  The tall stately Liatris pycnostachya is a lovely thing and this site it full of it.  Two other species of gayfeather (L. acidota and L. spicata) bloom earlier in the summer.

If you want to learn more about the Cajun Prairie, I highly recommend Malcolm Vidrine’s wonderful book, The Cajun Prairie: A Natural History.

 

Bee Balm, Bumblebees and Burns

Bee balm is the most exciting flower in the Bee Meadow right now.

Despite the heat and drought, the wild bergamot or native bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) is blooming now in my Bee Meadow and in the wild.

This weekend I visited a prairie in Scott County that was full of bee balm blooming in harmony with butterfly milkweed, black eyed Susan, prairie clover and narrowleaf mountain mint.  It looked like a wonderful flower garden but the presence of charred wood indicated that the prairie was probably burned in March.

I enjoyed the prairie outing but am also glad to have bee balm close to home.  The flower heads are a beautiful frothy cluster of many individual florets.  In late evening as we approach the Bee Meadow, the fragrance of bee balm is delightful and reminiscent of the bergamot orange peel used to flavor Early Grey tea.

The bee balm blooms seem to glow in the late afternoon sun.

The scent attracts foraging bumble bees and other long-tongued bees, many other solitary bees like carpenter bees, butterflies, hummingbird moths and even ruby throated hummingbirds.

The foliage is aromatic as well.  A few moth caterpillars feed on the leaves but it is unpalatable to the ever encroaching deer.

On our late afternoon nature jaunts, we have particularly enjoyed watching the bumblebees and carpenter bees forage on the bee balm.

Bumblebees are very hairy and usually black with some sort of yellow striping.  They are closely related to honeybees but live in much smaller colonies.  They nest in holes in the ground or in cavities in rotting wood.

This carpenter bee is foraging on narrowleaf mountain mint. Note the smooth rear of the abdomen. A bumblebee would be uniformly hairy.

Bumblebees are especially efficient at pollinating flowers that are tubular shaped with pollen held on anthers deep inside.

They release the pollen by grasping the flower and vibrating their flight muscles.  This technique is called “buzz pollination” or sonication.

In addition to wildflowers, bumblebees are important pollinators of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, blueberries and cranberries.

Bumblebees are even released into greenhouses to pollinate tomatoes and strawberries .  Honeybees are very inefficient at pollinating all these crops so buzz pollination results in more and larger fruit.

Carpenter bees are solitary. They have the annoying habit of tunneling into wood to make their nests.  They are working on my front porch railings this summer.  Male carpenter bees are unable to sting but the females can inflict a painful stab.

In this Scott County Mississippi prairie, wild bergamot and butterfly milkweed are enticing the pollinators all day long.

Like bumblebees, carpenter bees practice buzz pollination.  Sometimes, however, they steal nectar without pollinating.  They bypass the pollen and go directly to the nectar by making a slit in the side of the flower.

At first I was calling all the large bees in the bee meadow bumble bees.  I finally learned that a bumblebee’s entire abdomen is hairy while a carpenter bee is smooth on the rear.

Just as I expected, the bee balms, mountain mints and other wildflowers in the Bee Meadow are attracting some interesting critters and bringing them in close so I can learn.

Bee balm and the other wildflowers mentioned here have a delicate appearance when in bloom.  But they are tough. They will grow in full Mississippi sun without irrigation in 100 degree plus temperatures.

And… they even thrive in areas that are regularly burned.


 

 



 

A Visit to Briarwood

I was delighted that the mountain laurel was in bloom at Briarwood.

I chanced upon Caroline Dormon’s writings  back in the 80’s – probably as a result of reading Elizabeth Lawrence’s gardening books.

Lawrence and Dormon were friends.  They corresponded frequently and worked together on a couple of books.

Their most notable collaboration was probably Gardens in Winter which was written by Lawrence and beautifully illustrated by Dormon.

From all accounts, Miss Caroline was a ball of fire.  She had definite opinions and she spoke her mind.   She was a Naturalist, the first female Forester in Louisiana, a Teacher, an Artist and a Writer.  She called her North Louisiana home Briarwood.

The Bay Garden's Louisiana iris were in bloom.

Miss Caroline passed in the early 1970’s and her friends took steps to insure that Briarwood was preserved.

Richard and Jessie Johnson were chosen as curators.  As a child, Richard was Miss Carrie’s neighbor.  He worked in her garden and became her friend.

Richard and Jessie live at Briarwood.

They spend their days maintaining the nature preserve and interacting with visitors.   For more information, check out this link to a recent news story about Briarwood.

I have enjoyed many visits to Briarwood and have always hoped to be there when the Louisiana iris were blooming in the Bay Garden.  Luckily for me, this was the year for that trip.

A lovely lavender Louisiana iris

'Dixie Deb'

I visited on April 20 and 21.  In spite of the drought, the Bay Garden was lush.  This is due to the fact that the site is on a seep.

I arrived late in the day and explored Briarwood with Jessie.  We strolled through the Bay Garden.  I had a great time taking tons of pictures.  I realized later that I should have been listening to Jessie and taking notes because she knows the name of every iris in the garden.

At the pond mountain laurel bloomed beneath a large buckwheat titi.

After we left the Bay Garden, Jessie took me to the pond where the mountain laurels were in full bloom.  We paused to admire Grandpappy, Miss Caroline’s 300 year old longleaf pine.

We proceeded to Miss Dormon’s cabin where more mountain laurels were cohabiting with the Florida yew (Torreya taxifolia).

Then we cruised through the woods to the wildflower meadow where the yellow baptisia (Baptisia nuttallii) was sporting a few lingering blooms.

Later that evening, Richard and I rode through the wooded trails that were populated with scattered clumps of white butterfly weed (Asclepias variegata). The luminescent blooms seemed to glow in the dusk.

Richard Johnson paused from trail repair to tell a story.

The stewartia blooms were a pleasant surprise.

Our destination was Briarwood’s newest land purchase.  We crossed a beautiful tea-colored sandy creek as Richard talked about his future plans for Briarwood.

Richard is a storyteller of the highest degree.   As we rode, he talked and I listened with a big grin on my face.

The next morning as I was leaving, Jessie said “Oh, the silky camellia (Stewartia malacodendron) might be in bloom.  Do you want to check?”

“Please”  I responded and we were off to find, of course, the desired plant in full bloom.  It was the perfect ending to a wonderful visit!

I highly recommend a visit to Briarwood.  For details and contact information, visit the Briarwood website.


 

Swamp Rose???

The swamp rose blooms cheerfully in Bill and Lydia Fontenot's Carencro garden.

I am quite fond of the late spring roses.

Right now my vases are full of them.

I especially like the antique roses – the old forms that are closest to those found in the wild.

Some of the roses in my garden are named for the people who gave them to me.  I have Carson’s rose and Lucky’s rose.

Others were named by the person who gifted them to me like Dr. Dirt’s ‘Dirty Red’.

The swamp rose or Rosa palustris is an original – the real deal.  It is not just an antique rose, it is actually a wild or species rose native to wetlands in the Eastern U. S.

I first encountered a double form of the swamp rose called Rosa palustris scandens.  It is a deeper hot pink.  The shrub has a lovely form with arching canes and is fairly free of thorns.

This form was introduced into commerce in 1824.  According to the Antique Rose Emporium catalog, Redouté painted this rose in the garden of Empress Josephine of France.

Native swamp rose is perched on a cypress knee in the Wolf River.

This double form of the wild swamp rose is a popular garden plant.

As the name indicates, swamp rose has an unexpected proclivity  for wet areas.  It grows in well drained garden soil as well.

In June 2008, I saw swamp rose in the wild.

I was on a canoe trip with Krisin Lamberson on the Wolf River.

We were near the Tennessee-Mississippi border (probably in Tennessee) when we found a stand of the roses perched up on cypress knees growing in the wetland.

It wasn’t quite what I expected – a rose growing atop a giant cypress knee????

But then… you just never know what to expect from nature.


 

 

Trip Report – Part II

I had such a grand time on the Chunky River this week that I had to post more pictures.

It was a bit cold for me to swim but I did go wading.

The native wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) was in full bloom.

This red buckeye had was a startling rosy red color. The photo, by the way, was not color enhanced at all.

This was one of many interesting rock ledges.

Late in the afternoon the light was perfect. We were speechless - just floating silently down the river.


 

Trip Report – Part I

We were entranced by the wild azaleas. First of all they should have been through blooming and second they should have been pink. They must have missed that memo!

I took a trip on Monday.

I didn’t go far from home but I went in a canoe.

So… it seemed like an epic journey.

I went to see mountain laurel and found many other plant treasures.   I couldn’t have done it without my friend Marc.  We had a fine time botanizing.

I’ve decided to post pictures of my float down the Chunky River.  So for this week only – pictures mostly and not so many words.

As my new friend Monty might say (if he could talk) “And now for something completely different”

 

 

 

I had never seen Leucothoe racemosa blooming in the wild.

 

Meanwhile... Marc and Monty were having fun.

The banks were loaded with mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) just starting to bloom and native azaleas winding down.

 

Did I mention that Monty had fun?

 


 

Trial by Fire

Chapman's rhododendron - up close and personal

I’ve been growing Chapman’s rhododendron (Rhododendron chapmanii) for a few years now.

I was given my first right after we started Flowerplace Plant Farm (our old nursery) in the late 80’s.   Actually – I was given two by Dr. William Giles, President Emeritus of Mississippi State University.

Dr. Giles told me that Chapman’s rhododendron was a heat tolerant native rhodo from Florida.   I chose pleasant shady sites and planted the two.  I promptly lost one.  The other is still with me today.

Then I purchased a few from my friend Tommy Dodd.   I tried them in various cool shady places and one by one they gradually succumbed to the elements.

We were all thrilled to be amongst the Chapman's rhododendrons especially Terri Barnes and Mike Berkley.

So… last weekend I finally saw Chapman’s rhododendron in its native habitat.

Chapman’s rhododendron is an endangered plant.  It grows in only three sites in northern Florida.   It is happiest near the coast in sites where water moves beneath shallow sandy soils.

My fellow plant fools and I were taken to one of these sites in a wagon-type conveyance.  We then hiked through the deep sand and saw palmettos until we spied a haze of pink in the distance.

We trudged on and finally reached the stand of Chapman’s rhododendrons in the full blazing sun…. amongst the saw palmettos…. in a site that obviously burns on a regular basis.

Our guide, Dr. Jean Huffman, is a fire ecologist.  Within a couple of hundred feet of the Chapman’s rhododendron stand, Dr. Jean showed us a big stump that she had dated to 1580.

Dr. Jean Huffman shows Mary Martinez the clues used to create a fire history for the site.

The tree was logged around the 1920’s so the stump had about 300 rings.  Dr. Jean had cut the top off this longleaf pine stump and others in the area and studied the ring patterns to devise a fire history for the site.

The area with the Chapman’s rhododendrons was last burned on March 18, 2009.  After a burn, these rhodos normally die back to the roots.   They spend a year regrowing the stems that will support new flower buds.  After skipping just one year of bloom they attain a height of 5 feet or more.  They bloom profusely until they are shaded out by competing vegetation or until there is another fire.

So now I’ve seen it – the real honest to goodness Chapman’s rhododendron habitat.  And what did I learn????

Steve Strong, Terri Barnes and Peter Loos interact with the mass of Chapman's rhododendrons.

I have tried approximately 5 Chapman’s rhododendrons in my little suburban garden.  One has persevered.  Considering the specific cultural requirements, I am proud of my 20% success rate.

I’m sure that the success is not due to my own knowledge or efforts.  The surviving Chapman’s rhododendron was planted beneath a pine that was whacked by Katrina.  So it has much more light now.  There is none of that moving water going on.  There are no saw palmettos to shade the soil.  But there is a bit more sun,

So since I don’t regularly burn the front yard I think my success with this one Rhododendron chapmanii may be due to Katrina who thinned the canopy and let the light shine in.

Regardless of whether I am right or wrong about that, I do know that you just never know about a plant until you meet it in its native habitat.


 

 

Thera Lou’s Field

Daffodils carpet the ground around a 113 year old pecan.

The 'Incomparabilis' daffodils were in full bloom.

Last week I was fortunate enough to be able to ramble about looking at daffodils for a few days.

I toured some lovely private gardens but on Wednesday evening I visited two public displays in Louisiana.

First I toured Caroline Dormon’s home, Briarwood.  I promise to write more about Briarwood one day soon.

I then traveled on to Thera Lou Adam’s wonderful daffodil planting near Winnfield, LA.

Isn't this a lovely Louisiana scene?

Thera Lou’s field is a memorial to her husband Nelton Adams.

For 51 weeks each year, Thera Lou works to maintain the site.

On one weekend, the planting is open for public viewing.

The H. Nelton Adams Daffodil Field is quite stunning.

Tomorrow is the last day it will be open for viewing this year.  If you live in the area, make the effort and get out to see the fruition of Thera Lou’s efforts.  Click on the link above for more information.

I know that I will remember my visit to Thera Lou’s for quite some time.  I’ll end this post with a quote from William Wordsworth

“… For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.”


 

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