The Agriculture Museum in Jackson has a newly refurbished display, a folk garden designed to showcase the popular “passalong” plants of garden variety gardeners. Perfect site to highlight how, after all, gardeners are where the wheel meets the road — direct producer/consumers of essentially home agriculture.
Museum director Hayes Patrick and I talked about this as we watched a big black swallowtail butterfly choose just the right flower to visit in the little garden. It is a sign that the durable, rewarding plants our fore-gardeners discovered through decades of trial and error are valuable in tangible ways.
As Hayes nodded around at the changes, he said it is a perfect tie-in to the museum’s educational mission and the Department of Agriculture’s new farm-to-table thrust he calls the Tasty Side of Agriculture.
The museum, started four decades ago, features a cavernous building housing world-class educational displays of artifacts from all phases of Mississippi agriculture, starting with those of Native Americans through early European settlers, bygone days of simple farm life, and even a modern-day Ag Cat crop-dusting plane. Every year, tens of thousands of school children and visitors from all over the world marvel at the simple “make do” ingenuity of those who toiled in fields and forests to make ours such a great agricultural state.
But to me the crème de la crème, sprawling across the site, are the authentic living history farm and “crossroads town” buildings from over a century ago, every hand-hewn log and sawmilled board carefully marked, moved, and rebuilt down to the scuff marks on door handles. During construction in the 1980s, I helped move chinaberry, fig and cedar trees, and a massive “cape jasmine” gardenia shrub, from the original farm site; they’re still kicking in their new settings.
With encouragement from legendary Ag Commissioner Jim Buck Ross and guidance from the late Madelene Hill, the South’s top authority on growing historic medicinal and culinary herbs, a group of volunteers created the quaint herb garden behind the 1920s-era doctor’s office.
Now maintained by Master Gardeners, the historic garden is being refurbished. Its arbors, fence, raised beds, and tool shed, which was built to resemble an old outhouse, were repaired and plants consolidated to make sense to modern day visitors.
Without giving too much away about the various traditional medicinal herbs, there is a small new potager, a kitchen garden featuring commonly-grown Southern cuisine potherbs and edible flowers. It includes oregano, basils, rosemary, garlic, lemon grass, spicy peppers, sage, thyme, garlic, chives, perennial Mexican tarragon, kale, violas, parsley, dill and more. Various mints and their relatives have been moved to their own bed where they can comingle freely.
Just outside the herb garden, along the picket fence, is what we hope is the first installment of a new Mississippi Heritage Garden. It will showcase shrubs (including antique roses), perennials, bulbs and seasonal annuals which have been grown and shared between gardeners of all backgrounds for many decades.
Think orange daylily, which is the most commonly grown passalong plant on Earth, edible with more vitamins than broccoli. There are shrub roses, iris, milk-and-wine lily, heirloom daffodils, four o’clocks, rose of Sharon, canna, purple queen tradescantia; soon there will be old timey succulents and flowering annuals including cockscomb, touch-me-not, and larkspur … Most of these comfort plants are being donated by gardeners, and the old tool shed is being converted into a display of still-useful antique tools.
Hayes said this little space reminds him of his own grandmother’s garden, and elicits comments laced with fond memories from visitors. And that’s our mission, to bring authentic garden history to modern-day life.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to [email protected].