Do you remember the first time someone showed you something in the garden and explained it to you, kickstarting a lifetime of wonder?
Just as most popular songs can be played with only three chords, gardening is composed of countless combinations of plants, chores and diverse people who pull it together. And though I usually opine about the first two, my informal talk last week at the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, my youth’s home grounds, focused on the people who helped shape my garden attitudes.
Sure, my dad taught me to get chores done before going out to play, and responsibility and a sense of accomplishment, however grudging. He explained the physics of extra-long chains making his porch swing so much more languorous than those with frenetic short chains.
The county’s Extension Agriculture agent, my first real expert, took time out from a busy day to help me identify a weird butterfly, inspiring me to take a similar career path. And when my fifth-grade teacher sent me bicycling out to Sunflower County’s only garden center for a school project, I was amazed when Betty Pearson gifted a small potted succulent to me. It was portentous.
More direct influencers included my great-grandmother Pearl, a horticulturist, naturalist, flower show judge, herb grower and plant collector with row upon row of carefully-labeled daffodils and chrysanthemums. She delighted in unusual edible plants including pawpaw, hardy citrus and cassava. And she called me “Little Professor” when I was just 10.
She kept meticulous journals of what flowered when and what her garden’s wildlife was up to each month. In spite of being somewhat crustily plainspoken, Pearl was very active in the garden club she helped form in the 1930s; however, as I gleaned later from furious notes in her old garden journals, she sometimes felt despondent when her circle of garden club friends didn’t understand her passion for native wildflowers.
My mother was a self-trained, keenly observant nature lover who entertained every kid around with fishing, identifying bird calls, and using a straw to snag doodlebugs from their deep burrows. Wilma Gene’s treasured potted plants had to be dragged in and out with every change of the season, and the chore always seemed to come to me.
Her mother, Granny Boyer, was a simple, stoic country woman who exemplified gleaning simple pleasures from humble materials. She didn’t know nothin’ about gardening, and was OK with her single bed of tall, butterfly-laden zinnias and cockscombs. One of her most cherished possessions was a concrete chicken she’d received as an anniversary gift which stood sentinel over winter daffodils until zinnia season rolled back around.
My other grandmother, Louise Rushing, was prim and proper, an unfailingly cheerful garden club stalwart with blue ribbons for her hybridized daylilies, prized African violets and beautiful flower arrangements. She taught me the value of planning, tending little details and observing the esoteric rules for garden-circle social acceptance.
There are others, of course, and some horticulture professors as well, but I am paying homage to the four strong women who tore me from doing kid stuff to help with their versions of gardening; early on, each in her way exposed me to diverse philosophies and styles that guide my garden attitude all these decades later.
I still grow some of their flowers, use some of their tools and even enjoy Granny’s chicken, which is more at home in my cottage garden than any high-end statues I’ve photographed around the world.
And every time I see the old concrete bird, I’m reminded of those who came before, who took time to share.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to [email protected]