In the Garden:
Lower South
September, 2012
Regional Report

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The blooms of white butterfly ginger fill the air in late summer and fall, and make great indoor cut flowers that fill a room with their heavenly scent.

Gardening Heroes and Mentors

Who in your past has made the most significant, lasting impression on you as a gardener? Whose advice, experience, example, wisdom, or encouragement has inspired, informed, and basically made you the gardener you are today? Maybe it was someone you knew or even someone whose life or writings have been especially meaningful.

We all have people in our past, including family members, personal friends and acquaintances, or horticultural legends, to whom we owe much of our skills, knowledge and love of gardening. There are surely many grandparents and parents on most of our lists. My mother was a gardener and was especially fond of vegetable gardening. She was the first person to get me out in the garden, and growing things for the table was an annual part of life at our house.

A high school teacher, Mr. Wilke, had a garden that bordered on "farm sized," occupying a large part of his city lot. His large compost bins were filled to the brim with leaves and manure he brought in from rural areas. He is still going strong, growing a wide variety of produce and experimenting with new plants and cultural practices.

In college my major professor, Dr. Storey, added science to my love for growing things. He was committed to teaching us to think and always answered my questions with another question. It was frustrating at the time, but he knew that understanding the how and why of soil and plants, not just a bunch of correct answers, was a key to training future horticulturists. I wanted quick and simple answers to my questions. He pointed me in the direction of understanding how things work in the natural world. I am grateful for the fact that he trained us to think scientifically and to use what we knew to answer questions that we had never considered before.

There have been many gardeners and commercial growers who taught and inspired me. As a young Extension agent I benefited from the experience of Mr. Alden Colston, a 90+ year old gardener in a local community garden. He arrived every day with his attending nurse and his potbellied pig -- no kidding! The other older gardeners used to fuss about the pig wandering about and give him a hard time about his "gardening hat," which was actually a soft wicker plant sleeve into which one would set a houseplant's container. It looked like a lampshade on his head! But he didn't care. He said at his age it didn't matter what folks thought -- but I think he actually enjoyed stirring things up! Mr. Colston used to do all his soil preparation in the fall so that in the spring, when it was typically very rainy for days on end, his garden would already be prepped and ready to plant. He'd say, "You can always add water, but you can't take it away!"

Greg Grant and William Welch, garden authors and personal friends, are also on the list. Greg is a walking encyclopedia and 24/7 student of all things involving plants. His insatiable curiosity and love of learning is infectious. His sense of humor is classic. If it grows in a vegetable or flower garden, or lives in the wilds of East Texas, he has grown it and knows it firsthand. If I live a hundred years I aspire to know half of what he knows about heirloom and southeastern native plants. Dr. Welch's expansive knowledge and experience of southern perennials and old roses and his gentlemanly style and humor are an inspiration. I've learned more from him about ornamentals than anyone else I know.

Putting names of my horticultural mentors and heroes to print means that there are dozens of folks who go unnamed due to space limitations. Perhaps I'll return to the topic in the future to add to the list of these amazing plant people.

I must add some names of people who I never knew but wish I had. Gardening explorers, experimenters, and practical scientists such as Luther Burbank, Liberty Hyde Bailey, and George Washington Carver are at the top of the list. The accomplishments of these prolific individuals could not be adequately covered if I devoted an entire column to each of them.

Perhaps my greatest horticultural hero is George Washington Carver. Despite the challenges he had to overcome, the breadth and depth of his accomplishments and contributions to horticulture and agriculture put him in a league of his own. This unique man was a botanical artist, horticulturist, innovative educator, chemist, and inventor. His curiosity and tireless inquisitiveness combined with a dedication to the betterment of the common man led to discoveries and developments that changed the life of poor southern farmers like no other individual. Never satisfied with good enough, he pressed on discovering over 300 uses for the simple peanut and 100 uses for the sweet potato! I aspire to possess a fraction of his innovative, creative, and insatiable desire to learn and teach others about the amazing world of plants.

This man did so much with so little for so many. To put it in his own words, "The primary idea in all of my work was to help the farmer and fill the poor man's empty dinner pail. My idea is to help the 'man farthest down,' this is why I have made every process just as simply as I could to put it within his reach."

So who are your gardening mentors and heroes? Share some stories of the people who have made a lasting positive impression on you!

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