Through the Garden Gate — ‘The neighbors are gonna talk!’

Published 2:40 pm Saturday, January 7, 2023

If you’re of a certain age and grew up in the South, then you’re probably familiar with this phrase. It can refer to many different things – seemingly outrageous behavior, avant-garde or raggedy clothing, last night’s party, the inability to make a decent biscuit and especially to the state of the yard and garden. 

Southern gardeners are often strong, quirky individuals with definite ideas about beauty and practicality. No matter their view of aesthetics, however, southern gardeners almost always have the ability to grow just about anything. Even plants that are supposed to be impossible to grow in a particular climate zone. They also tend to have a slow, no-stress approach to gardening and a few odd ideas. 

So…how do you know if you’re an eccentric southern gardener? Here’s a test. Do you like to sit on the porch at night and enjoy the heady fragrance of four o’clocks, those tough plants that your great grandma probably grew along the edge of the porch or in a circle in the backyard? The blooms are multi-colored and don’t open until around 4:00 in the afternoon and then remain open until early the next day. The scent is intensified by hot, humid summer air and can be experienced quite some distance from the plants. A fondness for the fragrance of magnolias counts too.

Do you have a secret love of odd lawn ornaments? Not necessarily gnomes but repurposed items, such as old tires, stumps, discarded toys, ancient farm equipment and bottles. Especially wine bottles. The domain of an eccentric southern gardener almost always includes a bottle tree, or what Felder Rushing an eccentric gardener in Atlanta, called redneck Chihuly sculptures. 

It can be purpose-built of rebar and have artfully arranged color combinations of bottles or be made of a gnarled dead tree and whatever bottles the gardener can find. Even plastic ones are acceptable. When all else fails, a live tree can be decorated with bottles attached with long cords so that they swing in the breeze, providing motion. Eccentric gardeners also like to use wine bottles for edging perennial beds.

Do you have a row of scraggly plants in messy, recycled containers languishing behind the garage while they wait for their forever home? Eccentric gardeners don’t like to discard plants. They figure that there’s always someone desperate enough for greenery that they can be convinced to take them. If these plants die immediately after being passed on to a less experienced gardener, oh well, that’s just fine.

Similarly, do you like to participate in plant swaps? Is the idea of getting a new plant for free almost too much to bear? Eudora Welty’s mother loved plant swaps so much that she resigned from her garden club when it discontinued plant swaps. Some southern gardeners have friendship gardens only containing plants that have been given to them or exchanged with friends. 

Are you generous with both praise and criticism? Eccentric southern gardeners have more practical knowledge in their fingertips than most individuals with degrees in horticulture will ever possess, so they can have difficulty relating to mere gardening mortals. They are quick to praise and encourage enthusiastic beginning gardeners. On the other hand, their criticism of gardeners whom they view as talented but lazy can be scathing. 

Do you have a fondness for plants that others consider weeds? Pokeweeds and dandelions, for example. Maybe even poison ivy. Do you secretly want to plant kudzu on the trellis at the end of your porch? Felder Rushing loved what he called “the well-placed weed.” He understood that one person’s weed could be another’s treasure.

Is your garden hose sprawled all over the ground with no regard for the safety of visitors but ready to use during the dry spell next summer? If so, you’re probably an eccentric southern gardener because you’re not obsessed with keeping your garden perfectly groomed. An uncoiled garden hose just means that gardening is an ongoing process and that the gardener is prepared for the next crisis.

And finally, do you drive all over the countryside scanning abandoned homesteads and cemeteries, looking for unusual plants, especially roses, that need to be rescued? If you’re not afraid to be caught digging up an heirloom rose or iris, then you’re definitely an eccentric southern gardener. You’ve got guts and a zeal for gardening that few can match. 

You know the neighbors are gonna talk, but who cares! There’s room for plenty of individuality and creativity in a southern garden. Besides, you’ve got a stump that’s just begging to be turned into a quirky garden sculpture.

Dr. Cynthia Wood is a master gardener. Her email address is cynthia.crewe23930@gmail.com.