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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.

Fishing for Peppers

I’ve missed blogging but have been unable to write these days.  Now that cooler weather is rolling around, I’ve decided to make an attempt to blog again.

The very tasty fish pepper comes in a rainbow of colors

During the last year I have become increasingly involved with a community garden.  I am the Garden Directress of Love & Peas Community Garden.  My work at the garden has been loads of fun.   The garden is a “Teaching Garden”  Our policy is that when volunteers come to work in the garden, they learn to grow food.  At the end of every work session we divide the produce among our group so everyone takes home whatever produce is in season.  Richard and I have been eating really well, by the way.

At our last work day, I scored a bucket full of hot peppers. Among these were one of my favorites – fish peppers.

Fish peppers are an heirloom that was used by African American fish merchants in the Baltimore area. These entrepreneurs chose the pale creamy white ones and used them to make a white paprika that would not “muddy” the color of their seafood sauces.

Here is the finished product.

Today I decided to make some pepper sauce using my fresh fish peppers.

I used a whole rainbow of fish peppers for my hot sauce so that it would look really pretty in the jar.

Fish peppers are not extremely hot.  They are milder than cayenne peppers. So my sauce will probably be pungent instead of smoking hot.

The peppers were so pretty with their variegated streaks I had to stop and do a photo shoot.

The plant itself is lovely too,  The foliage is a dark healthy green and is marked with creamy white.

I stuck a few cloves of garlic, whole peppercorns and a bay leaf in with the peppers and vinegar.

We used sprigs of the plant in the flower arrangements for a recent Volunteer Appreciation Dinner.

Next year I think we will plant this very ornamental pepper plant in the front “flower beds” at the garden.

I love growing food but am limited in what I can grow here at home.  My garden is nestled in the woods and that is a wonderful thing for an old Tree Hugger like me.

Vegetables need full sun.  Instead of struggling to grow them in my few sunny spots, I’ll just keep on heading to Love & Peas.  I’ve been blessed there by the friendships I’ve made as well as by the food I’ve harvested.

Frienships, food and fish peppers are hard to beat.

RIP Woody

Woody was a happy dog. He always seemed to be grateful to have been rescued.

On Saturday my number one garden dog passed.

He had a good run – fifteen and a half years.  I am proud to say that he was able to die at home surrounded by his people and his pack.

Our dear friend Marc dug a grave near the creek that Woody loved so well.  We planted a seedling of Mississippi’s state champion bur oak beside him – a fitting tribute.

But still I miss him.  I found this story that I wrote about him many years ago.  I will post it here.

WOODY

A.K.A Woodrow, Woodrow Culvertson, Booger, Boogie, Woodjananda, Eraser Nose

One cold rainy February day I noticed three young dogs roaming the roadside looking lost. As I stopped, the two brown pups ran in alarm.

When I approached the white pup, he laid down in a rut full of rainwater and quaked in fear. I touched him gingerly, afraid he would bite. Instead he continued to shake. So… I picked him up and took him home. Later that morning, the vet told us that he was probably part airedale and about 3 months old. Since I was on my way to get wood when I found him, we named our road find – Woodrow.

Woody’s brown siblings were later adopted by a friend of ours. She told us that the three pups had been living in a culvert under the interstate.

That first day, Woody was so traumatized that he would not look at us or wag his tail. We expected that it would be days or weeks before he relaxed into his new situation. He was traumatized further when we bathed him. Later that day,however,he began to realize his good fortune. He started wagging his tail and look deeply into the eyes of his newfound humans with gratitude.

Woody immediately found his place in the pack. He offered obeisance to all even to the smaller dogs. He quickly realized that Skipper was his mentor. Skippy, the alpha male was going on 15 years. He was one quarter pit bull, one quarter Australian ridge-back and half free-breeding street dog. He was a force to be reckoned with.

The young Woodrow Culvertson receives instruction from his dog mentor, Skippy and my husband Richard.

Skippy initiated Woody by putting the fear of dog into him. Every time Woody committed some grevious act, he would cower as Skippy towered over him snarling and snapping the air around Woody’s head. When the lesson was over, Skippy turned his mind to other matters and Woody immediately became giddy and gleeful again.

Woody’s favorite place is the creek behind our house. Every morning, he makes a bee line for the creek. He returns in about a half hour wet, muddy and happy.

In the photo, Richard and Skippy pause on one of our creek bridges to give young Woody a lesson.

After Skippy went  on to the Happy Hunting Ground, Woody rose in the pack to a position second in command (behind little 10 pound Malva of course).

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.

Yucca Conquers Dismal Driveway Dirt

My front garden is a difficult site.

Since the house is barely 50′ off the street, most of the front yard is driveway or reclaimed driveway.  Of course, driveway equals compaction.  So only the toughest plants will survive.

Last year I lost a few newbies from drought.  This year I have had the opposite problem.  We have had tons of rain and a few plants  have succumbed to root rot diseases.  Let me clarify, however, that I am NOT complaining about the rain.

The plants that survive here are tough cookies.  I study them daily often finding something that attracts my attention when I am on my way to the mailbox.

One of the most interesting events this summer was the first blooming of my nodding yucca (Yucca cernua).  This is a rare yucca that came to me from my East Texas plant bud, Peter Loos.   I will admit that I kept it in the pot for an embarrassingly long time.  I couldn’t find the right place for it plus was not really sure I wanted a yucca!  But then I saw it in bloom in a friend’s garden and decided to work it in to the driveway bed.

During the first year I admired the dramatic sword-like foliage and decided that maybe I was wrong to have waited so long to plant the yucca.

In late May I noticed the first bloom stalk.  Every day as I ran errands or went to my consulting  job I would stop and take note.  The stalk grew to 2′, 4′, 6′ and finally stopped around 8′ or so.  It dominated the front yard like a totem and I began to notice that on sunny days a dragonfly was always perched on the tip.

 

The nodding yucca flower stalk seemed to dominate the front garden forever like a giant pencil pointing toward they sky.

It seemed to take forever for the flowers to emerge from the naked stalk.  After about two weeks, a crop of lovely florets hovered above – like small dangling orchids.   A constant stream of pollinators visited them every day.

The pendant flowers of the nodding yucca took over 2 weeks to emerge from buds after the stalk reached its ultimate height.

For over two weeks my front garden was graced by a giant bouquet of pristine white blooms on an 8′ stem.  It politely flowered in harmony with the gardenia in my front foundation planting.

I most definitely was wrong to keep the poor old nodding yucca languishing in a pot for so long.   It has rewarded me well for a chamce to grow in my dismal driveway dirt.

 

 

 

A Measure of Respect

My Mama - Vivian Price Barton - Thanksgiving 2012

My Mama turned 90 today.

I will go to the family birthday party tomorrow rearranged for a Saturday so that the working folks can attend.

But… today on her actual birthday, I’ve been remembering Mama’s flowers, her tomatoes, the compost, the daffodils and how gardening became a passion that we shared.

You see, I come from a long line of gardeners but was too lazy to be one when I was young.  I craved the escape and chose to bury my nose in a book.

Meanwhile Mama and Sister, her elder sibling, planted flowers in the beds in the baking western exposure in front of the house.  

There were flowers along the south side of the house and in the back yard.  

The damp dark north side of the house was adorned with mophead hydrangeas.  

She begged sprigs from everyone she knew and established a lush St. Augustine lawn.  We had roses and a ‘Festiva Maxima’ peony from the old home place.  Mama seeded cutting zinnias every year and in her later years became obsessed with growing butterfly weed and black eyed Susans.

These flowers were never referred to as the “garden” though.  The “garden” was our food plot in the back yard.  And as much as Mama loved her flowers, she loved her tomatoes even more.

I grew up and went to college in my home town.  I lollygagged around in the College of Liberal Arts for a while but when all was said and done I graduated with a Horticulture degree.

In the years that followed I thought I knew everything about plants and my Mama thought I knew nothing.  It didn’t help matters that my Mama lived on the busiest street in my small home town.  So my friends were always marveling at her colorful plantings as they drove past.

She was legendary in our little town and often referred to by those who did not know her as “the lady on Jackson Street who grows such pretty flowers”.

I doggedly tried to teach her things that I had learned in college and from my motley crowd of plant buds.  I witnessed to her about composting and about antique roses, about wildflowers and my favorite daffodils.

One day she said to me “I wish someone had told me years ago that you could take leaves and make dirt.”  I think that was as close to an apology as I ever heard from her.   I had convinced her to make compost and she loved it!

And so we came to a sort of truce – she offered me a grudging measure of respect for a while.  At least until the fateful day that I took too many cuttings off her giant ‘Tuscan Blue’ rosemary and killed it.

But meanwhile – I had learned to cut her some slack.  Because, you see, I tried my hand at gardening in the heavy mucky black belt prairie soils that Starkville had to offer.

My attempts were pathetic and I realized the level of knowledge and extreme perseverence it had taken for her to grow those flowers in inhospitable clay and baking western Mississippi sun.

So even though I had killed her ‘Tuscan Blue’ rosemary she respected me for introducing her to ‘Mr. Lincoln’ her favorite rose.

We shared daffodil bulbs and she reminded me that I had first encountered black eyed Susans as we drove  the dusty gravel roads  to her old home place.  Maybe that’s when she planted the seed that led me to the green world.

Tomorrow I will go to see her on the day after her birthday and I will bring the biggest boldest most fragrant daffodil bouquet that I can muster.

A Strong Foundation

Right now the giant leopard plant is blooming beside my front door and the purple gazing ball echos the 'Tameukeyama' maple's fall color.

I taught a Landscape Design class for quite a few years.

We always spent a good bit of time discussing the foundation planting.

I still remember the first time I heard that term.   A “foundation planting” must be the basis of all landscaping, I thought.  It sounded important and mysterious…

But actually the term just referred to a planting that bordered the foundation of a house.

On older houses, the foundation planting served the purpose of hiding the unsightly things that might accumulate in the crawl space under a house – much like the skirt on a trailer.

A couple of years before I moved into my present residence, I decided that my then rental house needed a foundation planting redo.

For inspiration – I reviewed all the “rules” that I once taught all my eager design students.

The giant leopard plant offers interesting foliage texture all year long and surprises me with a bouquet of early winter daisies.

Rule #1 – Always accent the front door using a plant with striking form, texture or color or an attractive hard feature.

Rule #2 – Clearly define the edges of the bed.

Rule #3 – Plan for interest in all seasons since you will be likely enter the house in this area almost every day of the year.

Rule #4 – Repeat plants arranging them in masses or small groups.

Then – I modified the list and added a few new rules.

Rule #5 –  Incorporate native plants.

Rule # 6 – Paint your house a color that will serve as a nice backdrop for the plants.

Rule #7 – Use plants or yard art that has sentimental value.

And last but not least, Rule #8 – use the plants that have been sitting around in your nursery instead of going out to buy new ones.

So I followed the Eight Rules and have been pleased with the results.

The 'Miss Patricia' holly, 'Rosa's Blush' dwarf blueberry and 'Taylor's Rudolph' dwarf yaupon are evergreen and variable in hue.

The plants closest to the front sidewalk have strong features.  The giant leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’) has large glossy leaves 24-7.  I also appreciate the fact that it blooms in early winter when little else is in flower.  The ‘Tameukeyama’ Japanese maple has extremely fine textured foliage, intense red-purple fall color and a striking growth habit.

Just in case two accents weren’t enough, I perched my favorite purple gazing ball on top of my husband’s grandmother’s bird bath pedestal to serve as a third.

Next to the maple, I grouped a trio of fruiting plants.  Darrow’s dwarf blueberry (Vaccinium darrowii ‘Rosa’s Blush’) is a lovely shade of gray green with pastel pink growing tips.   Dangling white blossoms are precursors to a crop of tiny blueberries.   My two hollies – ‘Miss Patricia’ and ‘Taylor’s Rudolph’  are not quite so precocious.  I’m hoping they will begin to produce red holly berries in the next year or so.  Right now I have to be content with the deep green foliage they offer.

The bed is bordered with small pieces of petrified wood gifted by my friend, Peter Loos and carpeted with a planting of native Louisiana phlox.  I think that the plants are quite striking in front of the background colors I have chosen for the house.

And 99% of this planting originated in my little backyard nursery.   Many of the plants were gifts from nursery friends or souvenirs of vacations.  Others were propagated from cuttings or seed.  Many had sentimental value.

It was wonderfully liberating to get them all in the ground so that I could really live with them as landscape plants.

And so that I had enough space in the nursery to start a new plant collection!

Gathering Seed from the Prairie

This yellow blanket flower was the object of one of our recent collection efforts.

I’ve been busy lately collecting seed from prairie remnants near the University of West Alabama.

The harvested seed will be planted at the Black Belt Garden there in a site that will be established as a prairie garden.

I am working with Sam Ledbetter, the Manager of the Black Belt Garden and with Marc Pastorek of Meadowmakers in this venture.

We have recently been focusing mostly on harvesting native grass seed.

Last week, however, we found a wonderful stand of yellow gaillardia or blanket flower (Gaillardia aestivalis var. aestivalis) and collected seed using Marc’s hand held machine.

I’ve decided to post photos of the collection process here.

 

This plant has been in bloom around Sumter county since May so most plants now have more red puffy seed clusters than flowers.

Marc is using his weed-eater type machine to collect the seed.

Here's Marc displaying his seed haul.

On closer inspection you can see that there are seeds of other companion plants in the mix.

The seed will be air dried and planted in November.

FYI, Marc’s machine is a Prairie Habitats Hand Held Seed Harvester.   Click on the link if you want to see more about how it works.

There is margin for error with this machine.  The operator has to be able to recognize the seed heads of desirable plants and undesirable plants.  Since Marc is able to do this, he can avoid harvesting invasive weeds that may be growing nearby.

Location, Location, Location

I’ve been traveling a little bit.  A few days ago when I returned home, I greeted my husband, walked the dogs, exchanged pleasantries with the cats then headed back to the front yard to check for any new developments in my most recently planted bed.

I’ve made several posts about this bed beginning in April when my friend Marc helped me plant it.  The soil is compacted and gravelly since it was previously a part of the driveway.  I chose the toughest possible plants and they were charged with the task of providing a screen as quickly as possible without getting into the power line above.  I had been collecting rocks for some time and I planted some sandstone tube rocks vertically and edged the bed with small pieces of petrified wood given to me by my friend Pete.

I know that Maybell loves this bed because she enjoys perching on the rocks.  I think I am obsessed with this bed because every time I get in my car or return home I walk right past it.  I have ample opportunity to study it a close range. The bed has a severe problem with goosegrass and I do most of my weeding a little at a time on the way into the house often with the mail and my car keys in one hand.

The Loblolly bay and St. John’s wort that were the stars last month are through blooming.  They are growing well and have crisp clean foliage.  Unfortunately two of my star bushes (Illicium floridanum) have not fared so well.  They have succumbed to a wilt disease.  The third star bush still looks fine.

I am considering various replacement plants.  The replacements will need to be evergreen for screening.  They will need to be less than 8′ tall so they can stay below the power line.   If they are at all related to the star bush they are likely to be susceptible to the soil borne fungus that killed their predassessers.

My strategy for dealing with the heavy horrible compacted soil was to choose mostly tough native plants – prairie species in particular.

Right now the ‘Henry Eillers’ sweet coneflower is giving a stellar perfomance.  This selection of the native (Rudbeckia subtomentosa) has narrow rolled petals that look like quills.  I love the wild species and this cultivar is just as beautiful and florifourus.

My ‘Cassandra Loos’ marsh mallow (Kostelezkya virginica ‘Cassandra Loos’) is in full bloom and is attracting a constant stream of pollinators.  This wonderful plant was introduced by my friend Greg Grant and named in honor of our sweet departed friend, Cass.

I have one antique rose in the bed.  “Marechal Niel’ is a Noisette rose that was introduced in France in 1864.  It was named for Napoleon’s Minister of War and was renowned for being a yellow reblooming rose.   A former student gave me my first ‘Marechal Niel’.  I rooted many cuttings and gave them away before losing my stock plant.  My friend Lydia Fontenot was kind enough to give a cutting back to me.  That’s why it’s always a good policy to share plants.  You then have somewhere to go begging if you kill the original.

All in all this bed has been quite entertaining.  The star bushes didn’t make it but everything else has.  And trust me – it IS a difficult site.  I stroll past it every day, though, so I know every inch of that nasty compacted soil and I have the utmost respect for those plants that have thrived.

A Day in the Prairie – Part II

Yesterday – I began documenting my recent trip to visit prairie remnants in the Bienville National Forest near the town of Forest, Mississippi.

The day began when a fairly large and diverse group of people assembled for a Mississippi Native Plant Society sponsored field trip to see the purple coneflowers in bloom at Harrell Prairie.

We all had a great time following our trip leader Heather Sullivan through the prairie – admiring the flowers and the butterflies.  But… around lunch time the majority of attendees had experienced enough sun, heat, thirst and bug bites.  They headed for some a.c. and cold beverages.

Meanwhile, I fell in with 3 other die-hards and we continued the foray.  My companions were Jennifer Heffner, Toby Gray and Rob Anders.

According to Wikipedia, there are 68 identified prairies in the Bienville National Forest.  Toby had set up research plots in some of them as part of his Master’s Thesis in Landscape Architecture.  He drove us to a few of the sites and we continued our exploration.

We spent most of our time at the largest site which is near Homewood, Mississippi.

The Homewood Prairie has lots of butterfly milkweed.  The southern dogface butterfly sipping nectar here is a common resident of the prairie.   When the wings are open, the markings resemble the outline of a dog’s head.

My most exciting moment of the day was when I came within 6 feet of this nest and flushed out the Mama turkey.  I’m not sure if I shrieked or squealed but I did make some sort of loud sound of alarm!

The narrowleaf mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) was blooming with purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) and black eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

I took this picture of  Toby, Jennifer and Rob clustered under a spindly persimmon just to prove that there can be shade in a prairie.

Despite the heat and bug bites, I was delighted to spend the day gawking at wildflowers with these kindred spirits.

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