May 17, 2023

Felder Rushing: Lessons learned from gardening are tough and timeless

Therese Apel

Hide work area from the street. Photo: Felder Rushing

By Felder Rushing
Syndicated Columnist

If you choose to live in town, you gotta play by the rules.

That’s the lesson learned recently when a hardcore old gardener friend of mine, let’s call him Larry, was asked by his city to clean up his yard. He took umbrage, declined (with a few choice words for the code inspector and the mayor), and ended up summoned for a court appearance.

It wasn’t about his plants; Larry’s celebrated garden was overstuffed with beautiful flowers dripping with huge butterflies and hummingbirds. He curates Mississippi’s largest collections of both hardy hibiscus and stunning coneflowers, which he shares far and wide by cuttings and seed. The problem was more about how he managed his space.

See some folks who I describe as maverick gardeners are not well-versed in landscape design and don’t really think about what others may think. Often so immersed in the closeup details of their beloved flowers, they have trouble seeing the forest for the trees.

So, Larry often left his tools, empty pots and potting soil bags laying around, and tossed spent flowers, old stems, weeds, and other compostables in big random piles for all but him to see.

Oh, did I mention that the longtime retiree, hobbled by a lifetime disability in his legs, has to garden by sitting on the ground and pulling himself from plant to plant? Who can’t easily drag around a cart or tarp loaded with weeds, old pots, and mulch? And frets because his wife sometimes accidentally nips some of his precious floral babies with her mower?

So, yeah, after a rough winter that cut many plants to the ground, the floriferous yard, more than most, was a bit unkempt. Larry was overwhelmed, and his city’s not-so-diplomatic code inspector, whose main job is to ensure things are done correctly and maintained well, finally had enough.

That’s when family and gardening friends chipped in and helped out. We can all use help from time to time, and it’s especially satisfying when good folks in need can reach out for assistance.

Took a couple hours of consolidating piles of debris into one hidden leaf pile/wildlife habitat, another couple hours of sorting through empty pots to see which ones are likely to be reused and which needed tossing. Those worth saving, plus tools, half-used bags of potting soil, and containers of plants in queue for planting, were all tidied and hidden behind a newly-built low, fence-like baffle painted green to blend in with everything else.

Now Larry can sit on his five-gallon bucket behind the baffle amid his disarray of loose containers, potting soil bags, hoses and stuff, and care for new plants while still being able to see visitors and neighbors who stop to chat, most who leave with a lagniappe of plants for their gardens.

When we went to court, right before proceedings began, the bailiff summoned Larry up front and announced that the inspector had seen the results of the community effort and decided to withdraw all his citations.

So, Larry and his garden, and all his supporters won, but only by complying with basic community standards: If you want a lawn, mow, and edge the front curb. If your garden is overstuffed, keep it neat, remove unwanted or dead vegetation (even native plants can be weedy). If you compost stuff, have a dedicated pile – screened, not out in the open. Stack unused pots, bagged soil, hoses, and the like behind a screen.

And if you get overwhelmed, ask for help from understanding, more-than-willing friends. We are a community, we gardeners are, and by helping one another we help ourselves.

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB
Think Radio. Email gardening questions to

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