High-cotton guests visit Tennessee Dixter
By JIMMY WILLIAMS Special to The Messenger
During the years, and particularly the last 10 or so, our garden has gained some (ahem) notoriety. Thirty-four years of work hasn’t gone completely for nought.
Rita Randolph and Carol Reese of Jackson, both of whom have grown into high cotton with writings in such publications as Fine Gardening, Horticulture and Tennessee Gardener magazines, visit now and again.
Jason Reeves, curator of the excellent ornamental gardens at the Jackson University of Tennessee Experiment Station, drops in whenever I can beg him into it. (Our voodoo room is a favorite of his.)
Then, some three years or so ago, none other than Justin “Chub” Harper of Moline, Ill., was an overnight guest and looked over the garden. It so happens that Chub is a former president of the American Conifer Society and one of the world’s foremost experts on dwarf conifers. He deferred kindly to my modest and moth-eaten “collection” of dwarf conifers, such as they are.
By the time Harper arrived for a second visit a year later, I had hocked half of my (our) belongings and replaced the worst of the conifers just in advance of his arrival, before they had a chance to die. His deference was even more amiable.
Again, a few years back, my friend and excellent gardener Ann Looney told me of an acquaintance who worked for a nursery in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, this acquaintance had sent her an aster the nursery had developed and named Farmington, in fond memory of his ancestral home in Calloway County.
Turns out the gentleman’s name is Jerry Colley, and I presumed the nursery mentioned might be a mom and pop operation in someone’s front yard. Other, subsequent, conversations with Ann brought up the subject a few more times and I finally asked the name of the nursery. I was floored and astounded when she replied, Siskiyou Rare Plant Nursery! (Exclamation mark fully intended.)
It so happens that nursery is a world class operation catering to the cognoscenti of gardening and famous on several continents. I faintly remembered killing several plants I had ordered from them years ago. (Their catalog is a reference in itself.)
Jerry Colley retired a few years ago from Siskiyou and moved back to Calloway County, where he now resides near Coldwater, where, incidentally, many of my ancestors were located.
Colley paid us a visit two years ago and, like Harper, kindly deferred to my ordinary plantings after leaving a lifetime of association with the rich and famous of the plant world. He lived and gardened in several countries before settling in at Siskiyou.
Colley has been back again and I have visited him at Coldwater, where he has erected a sizable greenhouse that protects a number of jewels he brought from Oregon. His generosity was comparable to his gregarious personality, and he sent me off with armfuls of rarities in exchange for a few worthless bits from my garden.
Then, a few weeks ago, Colley called to say the former owner of Siskiyou, Baldasarre Mineo (Italian, believe it or not) was coming for a visit and he wanted to bring him over.
I tried every excuse I could think of, but all were outright lies, and my mother told me never to lie (I do when it’s justified.) Think of it ... a world famous garden personality at my garden.
At first I thought of raking the grass so that all the blades faced the same direction, but it didn’t work like it does at Wrigley Field. Crabgrass and weeds don’t respond like hybrid bluegrass.
Then I weeded furiously for two days, and got rid of about 2 percent of the chickweed and golden rain tree and sycamore seedlings. I gave up on that and cut back the most ragged of the winter maimed perennials and jerked out more conifers that had croaked since Harper was here. Pebble mulch helped a little.
When Colley and Mineo arrived, I was peeping from behind the curtains and chewing on a towel. My assistant pushed me out the door unceremoniously to meet The Great One in person. The tall, dark, handsome man with neatly trimmed beard looked the quintessential plantsman, all right, and I knew I was in the presence of The Real Thing.
Mineo is recognized the world over as a plant authority, particularly in the field of alpines, which, as one would expect, do remarkably well in his part of the world. The Oregon climate is what most of them need, that is, low humidity (in the mountainous interior), cool nights and sharp drainage. Those conditions are what make them difficult here, where we have heat and clay.
At any rate, Mineo, who recently sold the nursery, was gracious to make no mention of my crummy alpines, but instead complimented the several pseudo-alpines that were thriving. He also gave high marks to my Japanese maples, some of which are pruned differently from the run of the species.
He was indeed a gracious guest, and if I had not known his past, I would have taken him for an ordinary movie star or model.
A short time after his visit, I received in the mail a copy of his book on alpines. It is one of the finest I have ever read on the subject, with an extensive encyclopedia of hundreds of plants, all in full color. He signed it for me, and it will be a family keepsake.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 5.20.08