A review of Maverick Gardeners: Dr. Dirt and Other Determined Independent Gardeners by Felder Rushing University Press of Mississippi Paperback
Maverick Gardenerscelebrates gardening offbeat, on purpose
By Jessica Russell Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger USA TODAY NETWORK
At last, Mississippi’s favorite offbeat horticulturist takes us behind the vine-wrapped gates of some of the funkiest private gardens in the South. Suffice it to say, this is not your mama’s garden guide.
With a profusion of interesting and unexpected themes planted densely together, it reads rather like a cottage garden grows: A memoir here, a tribute there. Some history. Some recipes. And plenty of good laughs in between—thanks to Rushing’s signature narrative style.
Nestled among eye-popping photographs of unconventionally beautiful gardens are personal stories of the maverick gardeners who tend them. Between these fanciful encounters, like a well-placed garden bench, the author provides space to pause and reflect. To think…
Maverick Gardeners is my way of celebrating the weird, wild and wonderful things that we gardeners often do. In every corner of the world, in every village and neighborhood, across all cultures and social differences, maverick gardeners exemplify a spirit that, more or less, runs through us all. I call them DIGrs (Determined Independent Gardeners).
These nonconformist souls see no sense in trying to fit in and follow the footpaths of others, yet are well worth getting to know. Some are celebrated like the late, great Dr. Dirt whose passion for his flamboyant garden and sharing with others are at the heart of the book. During the ten years of our rollicking cross-cultural collaboration of swapping plants and rubbing shoulders with fellow DIGrs we unraveled a shared humanity, and spread the word through co-hosting a weekly live National Public Radio broadcast and lecturing across the country.
There are also in-depth interviews with a guerilla gardener who shares food he grows on a vacant parking lot, a woman whose “grief garden” for a lost son is accessorized with countless birdhouses, a neighbor who works at a garden center to feed her plant passion and then uses her miniature horse to weed out those that are not worth growing, and a Jamaican immigrant whose jungle garden is her home-away-from-home.
You probably have a DIGr in your neighborhood as well. A few hints might be their smorgasbord of “passalong” plants – including many in assorted (often recycled) containers, and a packed row of plants languishing in hope for a garden spot to open up soon. And quirky home-made garden art. And a hose that is never rolled up. And a somewhat humble, somewhat defiant attitude.
While each may garden alone, these seeming outliers are a loosely-affiliated tribe bound by plants and attitude, and a love of sharing with others. They’re what I call modern-day “keepers of the flame.”
In the course of writing Maverick Gardeners I discovered for myself some keys to enjoying the journey and its side trips as much or more than the destination. There have been some weird moments, including clashes of umbrage between Master Gardeners and “dirt” gardeners, miscommunications that hurt feelings, waves of astonishment over amazingly simple discoveries, and laughter. Lots of laughter.
My hope in writing the book, then, is to share my take on the experiences, challenges, joys, and frustrations of these exuberant gardeners who joyfully color outside the lines, and to interpret them for those who “don’t get it” but are willing to learn.
And yeah, we ALL have a bit of Maverick in us – so you will most certainly find something in this unique book that will be helpful for your own gardening muse!
SPECIAL NOTE: To celebrate my new book, Maverick Gardeners, my NPR Gestalt Gardener producer Java Chapman and I are taking our weekly garden party on the road, and everyone’s invited. At several of the venues we’ll be broadcasting the Gestalt Gardener radio show from my antique green pickup truck and its overstuffed garden (transmission permitting).
A full list of dates, times, and places – all free, and socially distanced, of course – is available on the MPB website. Click on the Felder caricature for more details of our community road show.
…but, in a “stuck here in the middle with you” scenario, halfway between our Northern friends’ undulating mounds of snow, and the non-stop tropical flowers of SoCal and Florida, we have stuff to keep our pineal glands puffed up, staving off Seasonal Affective Disorder.
This week it dropped from the low 70s to 9, which kicked hard on plants that which are normally hardy but had lost their cold conditioning.
So the day the sleet and snow started falling I went around my garden and neighborhood and collected a few flowers that flower naturally in January and February, capturing them in the still-life of a vase.
Pssst! I got jewels of Opar and a string of pearls… wanna make a deal?
My garden is stuffed with hard-to-find plants that came to me with sweet folk names and back stories.Their charms have been spread over and under fences around the world, cutting across cultures and languages.
But worthy as they are, many are not easily found for sale – to get a start, you gotta have informal connections.
They are passed around like the simple string game which has no written instructions yet is known by children worldwide.
For decades, as the co-author of the Passalong Plants book, I’ve been overseeing small and large-scale plant swaps. Often there is little in common between participants except a love of plants.
True anecdote: Some years back the Pulitzer Prize winning author Eudora Welty told me over dinner that her mother “stopped going to her garden club meetings when they stopped swapping plants.”
But not to worry, thanks to folks with generous spirits, the tradition is alive and well at plant swaps around the world. I’m featuring just three here.
While checking on my garden’s rainfall drainage patterns during a recent downpour, I caught one of the longest worms I have ever seen as it ventured out of a sodden raised bed. When I tried to gently tug the foot-long creature out of the soil, it resisted, clinging, alarmed, to the sides of its burrow with tiny, claw-like bristles similar to those that so swiftly propel “graboids” (Caederus mexicana, the twenty-foot long terrors of the Mojave Desert). Continue reading “Worming Their Way Into My Affections”
My old truck with the garden in the back has been driven to countless flower shows and events across the eastern half of the US. It has been featured in magazines, online sites, garden books, and on NPR programs. It still drives fine, and the garden still flourishes through heat and cold, year in and year out, with only twice-a-year replacement of a handful of seasonal annuals.
The antique truck is better known than I am. Over the thirty or so years I’ve had it, it has been through many makeovers. Its current, cheery form has been preserved on film – as a result, people often call out a greeting while I’m driving through Jackson.
Booglify: Felder verb; to become mushy after freeze and thaw. “My canna’s leaves booglified into slimy cell goo.”
Far as I know, there ain’t a formal word for what happens when, come Autumn’s first freeze, summer plants melt into a putrid glob. But it’s nasty.
Want technical? Me neither – studied plant physiology in college, and can make your eyes cross with esoterica. Short version, with apologies to Professor Price, is that in general plants are organisms made of living, multiplying cells with fairly rigid walls filled with gooey protoplasm made of tiny functional bits suspended in water. Water between the cells holds soluble nutrients, proteins, enzymes, salts, and other stuff which normally moves in and out of cells to keep things running smoothly.
In cold-climate plants, some of the substances act like antifreeze and some plants can shift them around to reduce cells’ drying out or bursting; some plants don’t.
OUCH! Say “G’bye” to one of the South’s most cherished landscape trees.
“You’re not gonna like any of this.”
In spite of their maybe being a tad overplanted, I love crape myrtles – the lilac of the South. I even made the trek to South Carolina to hug the oldest crape myrtle in North America, planted in 1786 by André Michaux at Middleton Place near Charlesto (see last photo). I don’t even have a problem with their being pollarded, which in Japan is a form of topiary called “fist pruning” (what some folks call “crape murder”), especially when gardeners like me weave the trimmings into wattle fences. For more insight on this check this blog post out.
TROUBLE IN EDEN
But just like whether to spell it “crape” or “crepe” or want to argue about pruning, they’re all moot points now, water under the bridge, as our beloved crape myrtles are being pushed out of the garden entirely by a new pest that is for all practical purposes uncontrollable. Get used to it.
This blog is about what the problem is, and what we can – or can’t – do about it.
Five years ago I didn’t think it could get any better when I, accompanied by my sweetheart, was the Grand Marshal of the 30th anniversary St. Paddy’s Parade, a major event in Jackson, Mississippi, with nearly ninety thousand people lining the route.
But this year when I showed up just as a spectator driving my antique pickup truck – painted a brilliant John Deere Green (how apt for this auspicious event), and with its decades-old herb and flower garden planted in the back – the parade founder pressed us back into service…and once again put me at the front of the queue.
The parade was founded on St. Patrick’s Day in 1983 by Malcolm White, the current Mississippi Arts Commission executive director, at a local pub with a couple hundred of his close friends. It caused a massive traffic jam in Jackson’s busy city center. It has grown now to where the entire downtown is cordoned off for huge colorful floats and marching bands.
With marching bands giving it everything they’ve got, to music blaring from loudspeakers on every float, we can barely hear the “throw me some beads” chants from the crowd, which is in places ten deep with people in every imaginable combination of green costumes, hats, flags, and other accessories. While you’re imagining that, throw in the indescribably delicious aromas from hundreds of portable barbecue grills loaded with Southern outdoor cuisine.
The truck garden, which was refurbished two years ago (visit the video link here), is already over-accessorized with an old gnome rescued from Darwen, Lancashire, and my grandmother’s concrete chicken from Indianola, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. And bottle sconces, a bird house, and more.
Today EVERYONE is – or at least all decked out as – Irish!
So I wanted to do my bit. I quickly cobbled together some faux bottle trees from crape myrtle branches, cast-aside green soda bottles, and strands of green beads from other revelers.
…and a bow for the eagle, and a hastily-assembled custom-crafted wreath from nearby vines, magnolia leaves, and stems from a flowering Forsythia.
Yeah, my Celtic roots run deep – my Rushing ancestors hail from the Isle of Man – so it’s extra satisfying to lead out one of the largest Irish festivals in the country…