Recently I had the opportunity to hear Augustus Jenkins Farmer, known as Jenks Farmer, speak at a local gardening club. The topic was crinums, a popular southern bulbous plant that produces tall clusters of lily-like flowers in the summer. Crinums are known for being excellent survivors, hard to kill, and often found in abandoned homes and cemeteries. Because he owns and operates LushLife Nursery, which specializes in crinum plants, he talked about the various types plus his own design experience. At the very end of the hour, he casually mentioned, almost as an afterthought, his new book, Deep-Rooted Wisdom: Skills and Stories from Generations of Gardeners. That, in a nutshell, is Jenks. He has a vast amount of horticultural education, experience, and knowledge but he is so humble and so down to earth that he almost forgot to mention his 248-page book. Writing it involved interviewing over 20 fellow gardeners, famous and not, across the southern United States as well as culling hundreds of color photographs to illustrate his manuscript and sidebars to further explain the point.
Although the title of Jenks’ book is Deep Rooted Wisdom, I think of it as back to basics. The second part of the title Skills and Stories from Generations of Gardeners is his roadmap to those basic principles. In his plain language style, Jenks writes about the basics of gardening through his experiences as well as through the lives of experienced gardeners. At the end, you don’t even know you have been taught horticulture.
Eleven chapters follow a simple format – first a common garden practice or skill and how it may have become complicated or changed over the years; second, the experiences of one or two teachers (other gardeners in the south); and third, “Updates and Adaptations,” a combination of the teachers’ wisdom with commonsense methods and practices for us to use, much like a take home lesson or summary. Starting with “Stacking Up,” Jenks expands on the traditional concept of an English “cottage garden” — a simple garden comprised of both beautiful and useful plants to, in this modern world, gardens in whatever little space exists to support plants that beautify as well as provide food. Through interviewing teacher Nan Chase who has an urban, edible garden and teacher Richard Hager who has a large, southern, cottage type garden, Jenks illustrates how plants can serve many purposes. In Updates and Adaptations, Jenks explains the many uses of bamboo, and how parsley, commonly thought of as a useless garnish, is used on his land as mulch, as a winter green, as a pretty flower that attracts pollinators, and as a useful herb in the kitchen. The second chapter covers soil but unlike other gardening books, Jenks explains the importance of soil microorganisms, including mycorrhizal fungi, and motivates you to use legumes to add nutrients back to the soil instead of synthetic fertilizers. Chapter three explains the importance of building up the soil with mushrooms and earthworms instead of tilling while chapter four favors watering by hand versus automatic watering systems in order to observe how the plants are doing. Chapter 5 and 6 are really about plant propagation – making cuttings and saving seed. By reading stories of how older generations have propagated and shared plants, you feel more comfortable trying a stem cutting yourself. Chapter 7 and 8 discuss hardware: making garden structures by hand and with natural material instead of buying everything from a store and using basic hand tools. Scavenging, my favorite chapter, is looking for the gem among the trash, looking for the plant that everyone forgot. It honors the lifelong tradition of finding and preserving plants in neglected areas. Chapter 10 teaches a holistic approach to insects and weeds and the last chapter, “Finding the Spirit,” encourages you to tell your own story through your garden while being aware that how you garden can impact the future of the land, as well as those around you.
Although Jenks has written for many national gardening magazines, this is his first book and I hope there are more to come. Born and raised on Beech Island, South Carolina, Jenks has a B.S. in Horticulture from Clemson University and a Master’s degree in Public Garden Management and Forestry from the University of Washington. He has spent years designing the Moore Farms Botanical Garden and the Riverbanks Botanical Garden, both in South Carolina. Although he still designs gardens, writes, and travels giving lectures, he and his partner Tom Hall operate LushLife Nursery and grow crinums for sale. Check out his great web site at http://www.jenksfarmer.com. Deep Rooted Wisdom: Skills and Stories from Generations of Gardeners was published in March 2014 by Timber Press, Portland, OR; with a foreword by Felder Rushing.