Gail Laws takes a picture of Lydia Martin and gardening guru Felder Rushing earlier this month at the Plymouth Bluff Conservation Center after Rushing spoke to the Belle Fleur and Northwood garden clubs. Photo by: Birney Imes/Special to The Dispatch
November 24, 2019 12:45:45 AM
On a recent weekday morning Vernell Taylor was putting the final log on a stack of wood almost too pretty to burn in the fireplace of the living-room-like interior of the Plymouth Bluff Conservation Center.
Taylor, who is the facilities supervisor as well as longtime friend and co-conspirator with the Center's founder and eminence grise, Harry Sherman, was making ready for the Northwood and Belle Fleur garden clubs, who would soon converge on this gracious setting to hear, see and touch one of the state's, perhaps the nation's, most illustrious gardeners.
That would be Felder Rushing, who is not only a celebrity gardener, but the author of 18 gardening books, a widely syndicated newspaper columnist, radio personality and an active online presence.
On his hugely popular call-in public radio show, "The Gestalt Gardener," Rushing fields questions from gardeners from Horn Lake to Pascagoula and points beyond on such hot-button topics from whether to prune crepe myrtles ("Only Southern Living and Master Gardeners say not to prune crepe myrtles.") to identifying mystery plants ("Take a picture of it and shoot me an email.").
Rushing's gardening knowledge comes from long personal experience and is under-girded with a deep ancestral connection (10 generations of Mississippi gardeners) and formal horticultural study at Mississippi State University. (He often references Ralph Null who taught him floral design).
As for his family gardening influences, he cites two grandmothers, one a garden club doyenne in the Delta who "taught me to be nice" and another who lived between Kilmichael and Stewart whose gardening efforts were simply a concrete chicken and zinnias.
His gardening sermons are a variation on two themes: the physical, mental and spiritual value of simply being in nature, digging in the dirt and seeing things grow and the importance of following your gardening bliss, regardless what the neighbors say.
Rushing's gardens are garnished with bottle trees, plastic flamingos and a "rubber bush" made from tires.
Louis XIV has a garden full of statues of naked goddesses at Versailles, and I have 18 pink flamingos in my yard, he says.
Rushing is fond of quoting Don Featherstone, the creator of the plastic pink flamingo, who said, "Before plastic, only rich people could afford bad taste."
Rushing came bearing bad news, that crepe myrtles are undergoing assault by crepe myrtle bark scale, an invasive Asian insect. The scale turns the bark black, weakens and eventually kills the tree.
"(The scale) has completely wiped them out in Madison," he said.
The beloved Southern landscape tree will undergo a dramatic decline, he says.
He apologized for the bad news and emphasized this is not his opinion but the conclusion of researchers from Texas to the Carolinas. On his blog (felderrushing.blog), he recommends alternatives to the crepe myrtle, among them Japanese maples, hollies, red buckeye and oriental persimmons.
After his presentation, Rushing fielded questions, recommending a Clara Curtis chrysanthemum to a gardener looking for a plant that blooms in the shade and after a freeze. "It grows in cemeteries," Rushing said. "Dead people can grow these."
At the end of his weekly radio show, Rushing often urges listeners to "take a kid to a gardening center this weekend and buy him a sack of bulbs."
After his presentation Rushing lingered, visiting with and posing for photos with garden club members, who had filled the Center's spacious dining room.
Later, thinking about Rushing -- with his unflagging enthusiasm for gardening and the way it brings people together -- thinking about his advocacy for immersing oneself in nature and embracing independent expression, he may have an effective antidote for our troubled times, for gardeners and non-gardeners alike.
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