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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 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!

Wildflower Groundcovers

The Louisiana phlox really is a perfect backdrop for the purple gazing ball by my front door.

I’ve got to admit that most of the mainstream groundcovers seriously annoy me.

Asiatic jasmine is very aggressive.  It forms deep dense mats and constant pruning is required to keep it in bounds.

English ivy will climb and strangle a tree.

Liriope and mondograss have better manners but are somewhat boring.

Out of necessity I have developed a short list of wildflower groundcovers that I use in my design work and around my own place.

The criteria for this group of plants is simple.

First, like traditional groundcovers, they must be low growing – usually no more than two feet even in bloom.

The Louisiana phlox was mingling with the atamasco lilies on our wildflower field trip yesterday.

Second, they must have interesting foliage even when not in bloom.  It is really nice, or course, if they are evergreen.

Third, like every other plant I buy or recommend, they must be relatively free of pests and easy to maintain.

The star of my garden right now is the very lovely Louisiana or woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata).  It is planted throughout the garden in shade or partly shaded situations.

This phlox has done remarkably well in my front flower bed on the shaded north side of the house even though the soil is abysmal.

The plants have attractive fine textured leaves all winter.

The cool icy blue blossoms are lovely right now.  In fact they have been blooming for almost three weeks and will probably continue for three more.

What a champ!

This lovely mass of woodland phlox was even more beautiful in person.

Yesterday I went with the Mississippi Native Plant Society to see wild Easter lilies a.k.a atamaso lilies (Zephyranthes atamasco) in bloom.

Our site was low, wet and shady.

The woodland phlox was in bloom there as well.

So there you have it – my wildflower groundcover in its natural habitat covering the ground in a swamp forest.

I had been to the site before but this was the first time I caught the phlox in full flower.

Still – maybe that’s where I got the idea!

Sense of Place

I returned from a whirlwind trip to Texas a couple of days ago.  I had a grand time at the Lone Star Regional Native Plant Conference.  I also enjoyed staying with my friends Peter and Cassandra Loos at their home in Chireno.

The great thing about staying at someone’s house is that you really get to know them well.   I had plenty of unstructured time to explore the garden.  I was mentored in this venture by The Dude and Aletris.

The Dude, by the way, is the oldest boy of my dogs, Dotsie and B.  He is Junebug’s brother.  I was there when he was born and it delights me that he has such a happy home.  But… I digress – that’s enough about dog genealogy for now!

The Loos garden (where The Dude abides) has a very strong sense of place.  You could probably guess that it was in East Texas or the vicinity just by looking at the pictures.   The house is Cassandra’s family’s old home place.   Native plants from the region are planted throughout the landscape.  Some, like the black eyed Susans in the front yard, simply volunteered and were allowed to stay.

Aletris likes to hang in the front garden admiring the wildflowers.

Cassandra's windmill was sited with a pasture backdrop. This little vignette announces to visitors that "You're in Texas now!"

Peter collects petrified wood as well as plants.  He sets the big pieces vertically like small sculptures and uses small chunks to edge beds.

The Dude abides near a bed edged with petrified wood.

Pete procured several ceramic heads from our friend Marc Pastorek.  They are mounted on 4″x4″ posts covered with native wisteria (Wisteria frutescens).

This guy seems startled to find native wisteria twining through his nose. Do you blame him?

Pete has established a small prairie full of native Texas prairie plants.

Eastern Gamma Grass (Tripsicum dactyloides) blooms with other wildflowers in Pete's prairie.

I felt refreshed and invigorated by the time I spent in the Loos garden.  But… I was not inspired to rush home and try to make my garden look like Texas.

The beauty of this garden is that it fits perfectly into its surroundings and reflects the personalities of those who live there.  I wish the same for my own garden.


 

Marc’s Hedz

Marc Pastorek's Optician

Since our recent deck renovation, I’ve been bonding with a favorite ceramic head located on a corner post.

Our friend Marc Pastorek made the piece.   It was designed to sit on a 4×4 post and is inscribed with the words “The Optician” in honor of my husband Richard who is an Optician.

The Optician is surrounded by black bamboo.   During warmer weather, the lizards love to bask in the sun atop his head.

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