Keep Off the Grass

Felder Rushing lectures at the Harris County Agriculture Extension Center

Asking Felder Rushing for a gardening opinion is like fertilizing kudzu: No matter how much exuberance you brace for, the result still surprises you. Grass? A waste of space, Rushing says. Azaleas? Pretty in the spring, but the rest of the year, they're nothing but big green meatballs. Fire ants in the compost heap? Might as well surrender. They're only doing to us what we did to the Cherokees.

As a Mississippi-based gardening expert, Rushing rushes in where Martha Stewart fears to tread. His taste in yard decorations favors the Southern Gothic: cement chickens, planters fashioned out of old tires, dead trees bedecked with blue Milk of Magnesia bottles. Not every plant can stand that kind of competition; Rushing favors gaudy, tough, old-fashioned varieties with sweet-smelling flowers, the kind you're given by a neighbor who you're careful not to thank. (If you're a Yankee or just an ill-mannered ignoramus, Rushing will explain that part: Southern mamas agree that a plant won't grow if you thank the person who gives it to you.)

Amazingly, the respectable gardening world embraces Rushing. In 1993 he and Steve Bender published Passalong Plants, a guide to those don't-say-thank-you mainstays of Southern yards, a book full of loving little essays about the homey joys of phlox and cosmos and tater vine. The national Garden Writers' Association named it the best-written book of the year. But it's not just Rushing's writing that serious gardeners love; his funky garden designs also wow big, fancy gatherings of plant worshipers. In 1997 he scored a first place at the hoity-toity Philadelphia Flower Show, horticulture's version of the Oscars.

Rushing works as an agriculture extension agent in Jackson, Mississippi (he's one of the only ag extension agents anywhere with a ponytail), and he spends his free time playing with plants and writing about it. Last year he published The New Junior Garden Book, a zippy little spiral-bound treatise full of cool projects for kids such as building a worm farm out of two-liter bottles, transforming old shoes into planters and growing a clubhouse with sunflowers for walls and morning glories for a roof. He also writes a regular Southeast and Gulf Coast column for garden.com and is tinkering with his own personal Web site, www.felderrushing.com. At the moment the site includes a photo of his sheepdog dyed green: the family pet elevated to yard art.

On Tuesday Rushing will be in Houston for another of his respectable-gardening-world gigs: "A Master Gardener Event," sponsored by the Texas Agricultural Extension Service. At noon he'll lecture about passalong plants, and along the way he promises to "take pokes" at the gardening status quo. He notes, for instance, that we're gardening more and more like the Victorians, with lots of textures, colors, vines and overstuffed containers: "It's like Y2K actually bumped us back to Y1K!" (Rushing, you will already have gathered, is an exclamation-point kind of guy.)

That evening he'll talk about yard art -- the good, the bad and the unbelievable. Edward Scissorhands, he says, has nothing over some real-life yard artists with pruning shears, and he's got slides to prove it. But he's especially proud of another slide: a pink plastic flamingo whose butt has been autographed by Don Featherstone, the guy who invented those birds in the '50s.

Rushing says he'll explain the crucial difference between tacky and gaudy, and will show how tightly managed suburban landscapes have in fact achieved gaudiness. But best of all, he'll offer advice on how to express yourself "without feeling like you are on a slippery slope of excess." And who better than Rushing could tell you when too much really is too much?

Rushing will give both lectures on Tuesday, February 22, at the Harris County Agriculture Extension Center in Bear Creek Park. Ask for directions when you make your reservation, at (281)855-5600. The noon session costs $10 and includes a boxed lunch; the 7 p.m. session is $20 and gets you a catered dinner.

 
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