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Rheta Johnson: Gestalt gardener with guts

 

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

 

WAVELAND -- I got to walk right past the shiny, new, Christmas-ornament-red hook and ladder truck at the fire department here to see one of my heroes, radio personality Felder Rushing. One recent Saturday morning he was speaking upstairs at the firehouse. 

 

I couldn't help but think about how many of the boys of my generation wanted to be firemen when they grew up. Never knew a single one who wanted to become "a gestalt gardener," which is how Felder describes himself. 

 

Talk about thinking outside the box, or firehouse, as the case may be. He has guts. 

 

I've personally been in love with Felder Rushing for years. He's the old-hippie-looking guy with the off-beat Mississippi Public Radio gardening show who tools around in his father's hand-me-down pickup with a garden planted right there in its bed. He has official Louisiana papers, he says, that "prove my garden can take 81 miles per hour." 

 

He gives new dimension to whimsy. He loves bottle trees, the more the merrier, tire sculptures and plastic flamingos. He occasionally spray-paints dead leaves and puts dead raccoons in his mulch pile. 

 

I'm not the only one in love with Felder, who has been featured in The New York Times and quoted by Martha Stewart. He even made the cover of Southern by-God Living. No, it's a take-a-number situation. 

 

But when I'm huddled in pajamas by my wood stove in a cold North Mississippi kitchen listening to Felder, I feel as if he's talking only to me. He shares my disdain for giant and boring manicured lawns. He knows my laissez-faire philosophy for maintenance; I don't rake up leaves beneath my magnolia. He's seen my garden, surely, replete with its mirrors, gnomes, broken dishes and fire grates. He even occasionally mentions my home county of Tishomingo -- "Mississippi's icebox," he calls it. 

 

Maybe I should have left ours a radio relationship. I took a look around at the room crowded with admirers, all of whom felt, as I do, that they have a personal connection with Felder Rushing, indeed, they probably discovered him. I feel a little diminished because others know about him. 

 

Felder breaks all the horticultural rules -- "You don't need to have your soil tested" -- because he knows them. "I'm retired (as a state horticulturist) and can tell the truth now." Even Roundup is OK. He urges folks to relax and have some fun with gardening. Otherwise, what's the point?  

 

He claims to spend less than 20 minutes a month in his exquisite if oddball urban garden in Jackson, Miss., a small space where Felder flaunts his creative mind and flashes his neighbors with obscene amounts of floral fun. Might as well do what you want, he urges, because your neighbors are going to talk about you anyway. "I'm tired, busy, old and when I bend down I see sparkly things." So he keeps it simple. 

 

He makes much of his Delta roots, and says "Mississippi is cool to be from if you're not from here," and tells friends in the Northeast who mention woodchucks that Mississippians "got stuff that'll eat woodchucks," referring, of course, to alligators. He now spends part of each year in England, where he's cracked enough of the societal code to be chosen "an assistant hanging basket judge." 

 

He counsels us to "just say no to grass" and remember that "the only wildlife an azalea benefits is aphids." 

 

I leave in love again, hoping someday to understand the term "gestalt." 

 

 

 

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