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Guru promotes 'Slow Gardening' approach

JACKSON, Miss.

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On a warm afternoon in March, Felder Rushing, a horticulturist and host of The Gestalt Gardener, a weekly show on Mississippi Public Radio, sat in his lush front garden on a chair made of recycled bike tires. In the distance, a mower could be heard running at a neighbor's home, a low buzz cutting through the quiet.

Rushing, dressed in jeans and a guayabera, his long gray hair tucked into a hat, looked at his grassless yard and smiled.

"I'm sitting out in the sun like a fat old lizard," he said, "and they're sweating and huffing and puffing."

The mix of shrubs and flowers Rushing planted instead of a traditional lawn is an example of his "Slow Gardening" approach. The term takes its name and inspiration from the Slow Food movement, whose adherents believe in using local ingredients harvested in an environmentally responsible way. Rushing says he didn't coin the term but that he has "appropriated" it.

A busy lecturer on the horticulture society circuit and a born proselytizer, Rushing, 56, has long advocated a reliance on perennials and an acceptance of a little disorder, and expressed a rebellious affection for lawn ornaments that might in some circles be called trashy (pink flamingos, for example).

Lately, he's been preaching slow gardening.

Simply put, the doctrine calls for gardeners to relax, take their time and follow seasonal rhythms, instead of doing everything at once — an urge that's especially prevalent in early spring.

"People tend to bite off more than they can chew," Rushing said. "Somebody will plant 24 tomato plants they can barely take care of."

Rather, he said, he believes in starting modestly, with a pot or two: "Build up to your level of comfort as your expertise grows. Don't start out with a big area and a tiller like a farmer."

Following your instincts as opposed to set rules is another aspect of the philosophy, he said.

"People say, 'You have to prune roses at a certain angle, above a certain-shaped leaf,' " he said. "They say you're supposed to water your grass once a week."

"The truth is you don't have to do that stuff" as an absolute, he said. He is especially scornful of those who wait for some theoretical right time in their lives to garden.

"Well, most people think, 'When I get old, I'll have a garden,' " he said. "What about right now? Grow something in a pot that you can cook. It's not that hard."

He directed an accusatory gaze at a visitor.

"You don't have a garden?" he said. "Come on! Grow a pot of lettuce, man."

The slow approach has resonated with many gardeners, among them Hilary Shughart, a regular listener of Rushing's show who lives in Oxford, Miss. She said that when transplanting she used to rush and uproot plants before first digging new holes. If she got tired or the weather turned, the plants might sit for days.

"I won't tell you how many times I've made that mistake," she said.

Rushing's principal garden, a leafy fantasia that obscures his lavender-colored cottage and was once described, unfavorably, by a property assessor as containing "excess shrubbage," reflects his slow-grow philosophy. Vegetables like peppers and lettuce are in pots rather than in the ground for easy maintenance (no bending over, no tiller) and versatility (not everybody has a patch of land). And though he and his wife, Terryl, enjoy growing their own food, you won't find potatoes, because it's less work and more cost-effective to buy them at the store.

"I'm not into the latest and greatest," Rushing said, speaking of the dowdy ornamentals like gladiolas and dusty miller that fill his garden. "I want sturdy, dependable things."

He saves money on fertilizer by composting, but doesn't adhere to the complex science put forth in books on the subject. "I've got two rules: Stop throwing all that stuff away and pile it up," he said.

Rushing disappeared into the house to take care of some matter. Soon, his dogs, Rusty and Dixie, began yelping, signaling the arrival of Rick Griffin, a local landscape architect who helps Rushing with garden design.

At first glance, Rushing's yard decor strikes a visitor as a maximalist hodgepodge of salvaged materials and junky doodads. There are several bottle trees (one is made of Bud Light bottles) — which he points out have the same light-catching qualities as a Dale Chihuly sculpture at a fraction of the cost — and rusty I-beams stuck in the ground. In a far corner, a female mannequin rests on a chair, nude but for a silver cape and a wide-brimmed red hat. The entire space is encased by a fence of corrugated tin designed to thwart rubberneckers.

"I'm not a snob, but I'm outside in my bathrobe a lot, and in the mornings I look like Jesus' drunk brother," he said.

Later that afternoon, Rushing hopped in his pickup and drove into town to run errands. On the way home, he circled his neighborhood, venturing guesses about the personalities of the homeowners based on the appearance of their lawns.

"This guy has visions of grandeur," he said, pointing to a stately red-brick colonial-style house with hedges lining either side of a long entry walk.

Pointing to a white house with a lawn as tidy as a soldier's bunk, he said, "These people are trying to tell everybody: 'We've got everything under control.' "

A home whose lawn had large swaths of ground cover instead of grass met with approval: "Better feng shui."

Finally, he pulled up to his own house. A dried broomsedge, an ornamental grass, had a prominent place in the front of his garden, a drab clump amid the verdant green.

Rushing was asked if he planned to tear it out and replant. He considered it a moment, and gave a slow-gardening response: "My way of thinking right now is brown is a color, too."

. GARDENING TIPS

Virtue in a pot

Even if you lack outdoor space, you can grow something — basil or rosemary, for instance, in a sunny window. It may not seem like much, "but if you have somebody over and you're chopping something real quick, you can say, hand me a piece of that basil," said Felder Rushing, a noted garden writer and speaker. "That's all it takes to get that feeling of connection to the land."

To save money, use recycled materials, like old plastic pots (usually given away by nurseries) or planters made from rubber tires.

If you're a beginner, don't fill your garden with temperamental plants or use too wide a variety. Rushing suggests starting with simple things that produce a lot in a small space, over a long period. "Lettuce is embarrassingly easy to grow."

Guru promotes 'Slow Gardening' approach 04/03/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 3, 2009 4:30am]

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