One of the country's most engaging gardeners is also the best public speakers that writer Rheta Grimsley Johnson has ever heard. Here's her take on a personal hero.
- story by Rheta Grimsley Johnson, photos by Rheta Grimsley Johnson and courtesy Felder Rushing website.
Felder bills himself “The Gestalt Gardener” on public radio, and single-handedly takes the intimidation factor out of gardening. He merrily laughs at the manure spread by garden clubs, garden masters and extension services.
“Refreshing” doesn’t cover it.
I once was assigned by the Atlanta newspaper to write about a venerable women’s club in Danville, Va. After the meeting, two members invited me to join them at a country club dinner.
At some point the ladies noticed an acquaintance coming into the gilded dining room and immediately started whispering behind their hands to one another. They shared the dirt: She’s the kind of womanwho plants zinnias in the front yard!
Let’s just say that zinnias in the front yard would be fine with Felder.
He plants whatever he likes wherever he likes. He sometimes uses plastic buckets and old enamel dish pans for his containers. When someone asked him if he cared what his neighbors thought he said, “I do care, but it just doesn’t matter.”
He plants things that years of experience have taught him will do well in the South. No Oriental garden for Felder. No British country look – unless he’s at his second home in England.
And he plants things that “when I’m tired of looking at it, I’ll eat it.” Like the day lily bulbs he sautes.
He plants tomatos every year though he says he can’t grow them. “They give me hope.”
And he plants things that don’t need much weeding, “…because I’m old and when I bend down I see sparkly things.”
He loves bottle trees and has the concrete chicken his grandfather gave his grandmother as yard art rather than some fancy and expensive long-legged lawn bird.
In other words, Felder practices what he preaches. I’ve only seen his yard in the slides he shows at his talks, but I have it firmly planted in my imagination. It gives me license.
Years ago, when he moved into his suburban Jackson, Miss., home it was all St. Augustine grass, a steep slope and “a lawn mower on a rope.” You should see it now.
No contortionist pruning of shrubs for Felder, a look he describes as “gum drops and meatballs.” His approach is laid back and heavy on the whimsy.
When he’s asked about whether he puts weeds in his mulch pile, he answers in the affirmative. Why not, he reasons. After all, there are weeds in his beds.
“I put a dead raccoon in my mulch pile. I sifted out the bones and teeth.”
While describing the “proper” way to prune a rose, he knows the textbook answer but also adds “you can prune a rose with a cherry bomb.”
Because he spends the hottest months in England – conveniently bookmarked by his favorite London flower shows – Felder rents out his main house to medical students and lives in a shed in the yard. His kitchen is eight feet by eight feet.
“You can open the oven or open the drawer.”
And the last wonderful thing about Felder, the hero I haven’t quite worked up the courage to say hello to. He knows his lore from “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Azaleas, he says, are like the show’s “Fun Girls from Mount Pilot.” They blow into town and cause a stir, but just as quickly they are gone and things get back to normal.
That quip alone is reason enough to adore Felder from afar.