Do you remember your earliest garden influences? Mine are solid Sunflower County gold.
I travel far and wide horticulturally, gardening on two continents. But a childhood memory nags at me, a reminder that gardening isn’t entirely how-to and when, but attitude It is of the first glass bottle tree I ever saw, sparkling in the sun beside a ramshackle shack near the old Sunflower River train trestle between Indianola and Moorhead.
My gardening roots started growing deeply under the tutelage of some pretty disparate characters, each of whom gave me insights that led me to become a better-balanced gardener with more empathy for others.
My parents were too busy to have a garden, just a big lawn I had to mow before I could go swimming, and a lot of leaves to rake in the fall. But Dad, before retiring from teaching at Mo’head, instilled in me the drive to get things done. And Karl explained the physics of how extra-long chains made his porch swing so deliciously languorous.
Mom was a self-trained, keenly-observant nature lover who entertained every kid she could snag with how to recognize seasonal bird calls, and which piece of straw was best for snagging doodlebugs out of their deep burrows. Her cherished potted plants had to be dragged in and out with every change of the season, and the chore always seem to come to me.
Her mother, Granny, was a simple, stoic country woman who exemplified gleaning simple pleasures from humble materials. She admitted to not knowing nothin’ about gardening, and was okay with it. I occasionally helped weed her single bed of tall, butterfly-laden zinnias and cockscombs that reseeded every year.
Granny also tended a few potted plants, including a “mother-in-law-tongue” Sansevieria stuffed into a recycled bucket that was gussied up with used silver kitchen foil. One of her most cherished possessions was an old concrete chicken she’d received as an anniversary gift from my granddad at a time when he couldn’t afford better; it stood sentinel over winter daffodils until zinnia season rolled back around.
I still have white iris from her garden. And the concrete chicken.
Before my other grandmother retired to Indianola to live with us, we often drove the two hundred miles south to help in her own garden. Louise was prim and proper, an unfailingly cheerful garden club stalwart with booklets filled with blue ribbons won 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, and how to be nice even when irritated.
My horticulturist and naturalist great-grandmother gardened along the Indian Bayou. I spent my youth following her around the big semi-formal landscape, with its various “rooms” and all sorts of flowers, fruit plants, and a chicken house. She showed me bird wings, weird insects, squirrel skeletons, and her delight in wildflowers long before they became fashionable.
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 scoffed at her passion for native songbirds and wildflowers.
To give a glimpse into how geeky I must have been, in one of her many garden journals, one of which I have today, Pearl referred to me as “Little Professor.” I was ten.
There were others, of course. My grandfather showed me how to step on fallen pecans and feel through the bottoms of my shoes if they were firm and worth bending over for, or if they cracked underfoot from mold and not worth the effort. Old Elbert Taylor, the straw boss at Pearson’s Nursery, showed me little tricks of the horticultural trade before I ever went to college.
There was a woman named Flora who gardened along the banks of the Sunflower River; she smoked and cussed a lot, but shared precious passalong plants. And Neil Odenwald, who as my favorite university horticulture and landscape professor taught me genteel professionalism, was born and raised at Heathman Plantation.
So yeah, I was smitten early on, and now can’t be untangled from the sometimes-conflicting styles of those now long-gone Delta gardeners, each strong in their way. All these decades later my garden attitude is still influenced by their often-clashing philosophies of finishing chores before playing, appreciating nearly-eccentric observations about the natural world, reaching towards perfection in some pursuits, clever ways to reduce unnecessary labor, and sharing heirloom plants.
But honestly, I think it’s Granny’s concrete chicken that means the most to me. Even though, unlike the heirloom iris and bulbs and Pearl’s fig tree that I’ve shared with my own children, only one person at a time can own it.
It symbolizes whimsy, perhaps the only garden value that can‘t be explained.