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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.

Beginnings

I gathered early daffodils, a pink camellia and Japanese apricot twigs for this New Year's flower arrangement.

I’ve been in the throes of a remodeling project and have done little gardening or flower arranging for the duration.

Now that the kitchen is remodeled and the porch has a roof, I am beginning to devote some time to the green world again.

After all, the winter flowers are beginning to bloom and I am a total sucker for winter flowers.

Today I picked the first yellow daffodil of the year – ‘Princess Hallie’s Gold’.  This is one of Bill the Bulb Baron’s selections. I also gathered a ‘Minor Monarque’ narcissus bloom.  This is a white and yellow passalong pilfered from an old house site.

I harvested a mysterious pink camellia and the first blooms off the ‘Peggy Clarke’ Japanese apricot.

I assembled all of these with some dried wildflower seedheads and have enjoyed my little arrangement all day long.

It was a good way to begin a new year.

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.

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.

Hurricane Lilies

Since spider lilies are difficult to photograph, I brought some stems indoors and created this Ikebana arrangement on Saturday.

I grew up with spider lilies (a.k.a. surprise lilies or hurricane lilies).  In late summer they popped up unexpectedly in almost all the gardens of my childhood.  And yet… I never knew anyone who actually planted them.

Spider lilies (Lycoris radiata) are Asian bulbs.  In Japan they are called  Higanbana or “equinox flower” because they usually bloom around the fall equinox.   They were frequently planted around rice paddies because the poisonous bulbs are believed to deter rodents.

In 1854, Captain William Roberts, one of Commodore Perry’s naval officers, brought 3 withered spider lily bulbs home to New Bern, North Carolina – a little souvenir of his travels to Japan.

It took years for the bulbs to become established.  Then they began to multiply yielding the thousands of spider lilies that now populate our southern gardens.

The city of New Bern recently erected a 29′ spider lily sculpture in honor of these events.

Spider lilies do get around!   Once upon a time, Miss Eudora Welty, Felder Rushing and I had a pleasant dinner in a Jackson restaurant.  The topic of conversation was “passalong plants”.   When we were discussing spider lilies, Miss Eudora said that her Mother always said that it was “just indecent the way they multiply…”

Up close and personal with the hurricane lily.

But unlike some other indecently prolific Japanese plants, I don’t consider spider lilies to be invasive.  I can’t think of a single native plant that they have displaced.

Around here, their foliage pops up around December and is usually gone by the end of April.  The leaves are similar to liriope or monkey grass but with a lighter racing strip down the center.  The leaves shrivel and in late August and early September the red feathery flowers materialize out of nowhere – like magic.

I’ve always used the name spider lily for Lycoris radiata.  Recent events, however, have inspired me to adopt another common name.  From now on, they’re hurricane lilies to me.

You see, I live in what the Weather Channel has termed “the land mass between Mobile and New Orleans”.    Even though the Weather Channel forgets Mississippi, my state was at ground zero for two of the three most devastating hurricanes in my lifetime.  And these two, Camille and Katrina, both occurred in the last few days of August.

During that same late August to mid-September time frame, the southeast also experienced Hurricanes Fredric, Andrew, Ivan  and Dennis.  As I write,we’re hunkered down and waiting to see what Hurricane Isaac will do.  And the hurricane lilies are blooming up a storm!

So what I’m thinking is that at least if I call them “hurricane lilies”, I’ll remember to duck and cover when I see those flaming red blooms.

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