For some ten years or so, a strange and beautiful thing happened between two men who had practically nothing in common other than a love in growing and joy in sharing simple garden plants.
This is saying a lot, but “Dirt” was without a doubt one of the most overflowing humans I have ever encountered. Bigger-than-life he was – tall, colorful, thoughtful, bawdy, humorous, and, yes, easily outraged and loudly opinionated (usually spot-on).
First met him by accident, while cruising backstreets of small-towns looking for interesting cottage gardens and the pass-along plants usually found in them – one of the best ways to uncover hardy, garden-variety plants.
His unmissable garden, nestled beside a railroad crossing in a small town in rural Mississippi, stopped me in my tracks. The outstanding “total yard show” was overstuffed and overflowing with kaleidoscopic combinations of plants and home-made yard art made from found objects. Its care-taker – a tall, lanky man with a do-rag on his head and a Kaiser blade in hand – met me at the gate. He wouldn’t invite me in, much less tell me his name, instructing me to just call him Dirt.
I persisted, dropping by every few weeks, always with a plant to share, and Dirt slowly opened up. I met his 90-year old mother Millie who shared her own father’s century-old ramshackle tin-roof cottage, white trimmed in “haint blue” – a tradition that’s said to thwart bad spirits. Dirt regaled me with stories of his difficult childhood as a too-tall, sensitive youth picked on by others because he would bring daffodil bouquets to teachers, which only led him to spend more time puttering around the garden.
After a brief college stint he became an expatriate, working for nearly thirty years in Canada before returning home to care for his aged mother. He had changed more than those who stayed behind in the small Mississippi hamlet, but he found renewed comfort and challenges through tending Millie’s garden.
The Garden of All Gardens
Finding Mississippi’s seasons better than those of the frigid North, Dirt grew everything he could find – trees, shrubs, perennials, vines, bulbs, annuals, herbs, vegetables, potted plants, each an original family heirloom or precious pass-along plant gleaned from nearby gardeners. Many are still quite rare in the commercial trade.
Scroll over images for names of plants
Whatever would grow in plain unimproved soil, or in anything that would hold potting soil, he’d give a go. He loved to accessorize with found objects, many which were painted in whatever gaudy color he came across. He watered with rainwater collected in buckets and carefully-crafted water-retention ditches, and never used pesticides of any sort. Still, his amazing garden had something in color, and yielded something to eat, every single day of the year. Every. Single. Day.
Dirt’s favorite catch phrase? “I can dig it!”
Dirt and I became close friends, eating and traveling companions, as close as a tall, closeted, black activist with an aggressive distrust of people in general, and a straight, long-haired white university professor could be. We were night and day, except for our shared color-outside-the-lines attitude and garden spirit. But we both appreciated the often overlooked sagas of garden variety gardeners and home cooks.
And he eventually confided the reason he wanted to be called simply Dirt. The 6th-generation descendant of slaves had no clues to his family’s ancestral name but refused on principle to accept his given surname. “Do I look like a Goldsberry to you?” he challenged. Uh, no. Point taken.
Within a few weeks of his softening towards me, I insisted that the producers of my longtime garden program on National Public Radio – twenty five years without a co-host – hire him with identical contract, and equal billing and pay. His deep, mellifluous voice and resonating chuckle, along with a weekly “shout out” to small towns we visited, were instant delights.
For nearly four years as co-host he never failed to bring a newspaper-wrapped bouquet of flowers fresh cut from his garden – every single week, sun or shine and regardless of temperatures ranging from over 100 degrees to snowy and icy. Every. Single. Week.
Dirt also brought in his practical seasonal how-to tips, home-spun garden philosophy and a readiness to share simple home-cooking recipes he used to literally feed himself from his garden.
Because we clicked so well, we ended up being feted lecturers at horticultural events and flower shows; because he refused to fly, and didn’t drive, we traveled over twenty states in my old truck, often sharing a hotel room with nary a raised eye – a testament to the changing attitudes of our beloved South.
One of Dirt’s favorite things to point out to lecture attendees was how, as we prepared by driving around neighborhoods getting a feel for local plants and styles, “if a long-haired white guy and a big black man can cruise slowly in an old truck through your ‘hood looking suspicious, and nobody asks what we’re up to, your neighborhood watch program ain’t working!”
The unflinchingly outspoken man wouldn’t let pass an opportunity to express his honest thoughts. When challenged at an invasive plant conference in Georgia about his use of wisteria and other non-native invasive plants in his garden, he stood up to calmly proclaim that he doesn’t discriminate on the basis of country of origin. “You know,” he accused in his booming voice, “there was a time when people like ME weren’t welcome in your community, either!”
He loved holding forth during garden club tours of his now-famous cottage garden, which has been featured in many magazines including Southern Living and Better Homes and Gardens. He was even the subject of a full-length Home and Garden Television program.
End of a Dream Team
As mentioned earlier, Dirt ‘n I traveled a LOT, from Texas to New England, visiting gardens, presenting our garden love to garden clubs, plant societies, and at flower and garden shows. We found ourselves as effigies at scarecrow festivals, and conducted a plant donation drive to help “recoastalize” (our coined term) hurricane-devastated Gulf Coast gardens. We lived the life, and shared the joy.
Unfortunately, the highs and lows of his untreated bipolar condition eroded Leon’s ability to handle the stress of being always in the public eye, always having to be upbeat (especially on live radio, or on stage). His occasional, exciting flare-ups and deep moods, along with failing physical health, eventually led to his choosing to retire – abruptly, as was his wont and, to be honest, in a bit of a snit to assuage his pride – from the weekly broadcast, and he retreated back to his beloved garden. He simply walked away.
“I was happy before I even met you, Rushing,” he frankly let me know the last time I saw him. “Don’t like people or most animals. All I need are my plants.”
And with that, he continued to quietly tend Millie’s garden, his Eden, for the last ten years of his life, occasionally allowing small groups to tour his flowers until he finally lost his battle with cancer at age 70.
Like all things ethereal, the celebrated garden is now gone, the once-quaint blue and white cabin replaced with a nondescript mobile house. Without their caretaker’s loving touch, many of the garden flowers have either perished or were entangled and inexorably swallowed by the more aggressive shrubs, tall perennials, and vines once held at bay with a sharp blade.
His chuckle is silenced, but Dirt lives on in the countless plants he shared, and in the hearts and minds of the uncountable gardeners who were fortunate to touch his genius and who continue to regale me with anecdotes of visits with the unforgettable man.