Garden Practice: Food, Flowers, Research, People.

Aunt Francis's Garden. Yell County, Arkansas.

It’s gardening season here in Arkansas, and both my daily life and research seem to be circling things in bloom. The tomatoes are ripe; the pole beans are taller than me, and the peppers are plentiful. I love coming home from running errands to find squash, zucchini, snow and purple hull peas on my front porch left by anonymous kind friends who plant for a purposeful surplus. I enjoy the few calm moments I  spend in my own garden picking herbs or engaging in that necessary yet futile feeling task of weeding. And then there are the flowers. The magical, beautiful flowers. But I’ll get to them in a minute.

Here are just a few ramblings and ruminations on fieldwork, garden work, grief work, and dreams for the garden I plan to someday create.


Raised beds of beans. Photo by Bryan Moats.

Within the vast field of cultural studies garden topics are becoming increasingly popular. Wholistic food education in particular is gaining national attention, and famous folks like Jamie Oliver, for example, are working hard to get kids interested in the food they eat. School garden projects are popping up everywhere, and it’s all just so inspiring. Recently fellow Arkansas folklorist Rachel Reynolds-Luster worked with teachers, students, and community members to create a Edible Schoolyard-inspired school garden in her home in Couch, Missouri. From what I hear, the upcoming issue of CARTS will feature stories about school and community gardens.   I can’t even begin to touch on the depth of all these wonderful goings on that fall under the community gardening and food topic. But I have inculded a a few links at the bottom of this page if you want to learn more. If you have a suggestion for a link I have not included please let me know.


California Giant zineas next to the Greasy Grits beans.

I love flower gardening.  So did my mother. When she came to visit us in Kentucky in 2007 we took her to a local butterfly habitat and she was amazed and full of laughter, watching all those butterflies as they landed on our clothing. One of my future goals is to create a memorial butterfly/bee garden in honor of my mother and many others who have lost their lives to cancer in the Yell County area (and that’s a lot of people, folks). In my dream the garden will be on site at the McElroy House, in the same spot my grandfather once kept his flower garden. In fact, discovering some of his iris in the tangled weeds near his house first led me to think about the McElroy House as a concept.  This memorial garden will be right beside the center’s veggie garden, for which I also have big plans (If you want to know more about the goals for the McElroy House: Center for Regional Folklore and Oral History go here).

When I first started thinking about the butterfly and bee garden I spent some time reading articles and how-to books on the subject. The pictures were beautiful, and the articles somewhat helpful, but what has really helps me conceptualize future plans for the garden is experimenting with my own.  Everything I do outside these days seems to be garden practice. I’ve learned to pay attention to what leaf and flowers shapes work well together,  which plants seem to encourage one anther’s growth and which ones seem to stall when placed too close. I observe how the colors complement each other or drown each other out. Mistakes make the best teachers.  I’ve recently learned that bachelor’s button simply will not transplant, daisies have to be routinely deadheaded or cut to retain their beauty, and – just as the little tag said – blanket flowers really can’t take wet soil. Having learned these lessons from observation I won’t soon forget them. I also try not to over-think things and strike a balance between informed decisions and random accidents. I believe a good flower garden is a bit reckless looking.

I’m rather new to flower gardening, and I have so many lessons yet to learn. This experimental garden I am creating in the front yard is only my second. The first real flower garden was the small flower-lined walk we had in Bowling Green, KY. It started out as a kind of afterthought, but I soon became obsessed with waiting for things to bloom. I can remember walking our walkway in the mornings, barefoot, coffee in hand, to examine each plant’s daily changes.

Bryan in our first flower garden in Kentucky.

But this new garden is quite a bit larger. It runs the length of our house, and has a circular annex out front. In Bowling Green I simply added to a garden that was already there, but here in Arkansas I started from scratch, making a bed from the thick grass and weeds.

I started the garden for two reasons. When we came back to Arkansas we moved across the street from my parents. My mother was dying of cancer, and I knew she  was going to be spending a lot of time on the couch. She loved flower gardens, had a passion for the color red, and admired hummingbirds and butterflies. When she looked out her living room window every morning I wanted her to see nothing but color, motion, and life.

Arkansas Garden in June of 2010.

The second reason was purely selfish. I needed the life it would bring. Caregiving is terribly difficult.  Helping someone face their final days leaves the caregiver craving any semblance of growth and renewal. Moments when my mother was resting, and I felt overcome by the weight of knowing I was losing her – and there was nothing I or anyone else could do to keep her here – I would cross the street to my front yard and just start digging.

Two years later I am still digging, and I’ve managed to dig up a rather large portion of the front yard. My end goal (with this house or wherever we wind up making our home) is to leave nothing but a few walking patches through the grass. Just enough to get the reel mower through. The rest of the yard will be covered in wild, crazy, colorful flowers. I imagine myself walking through my flower-filled yard remembering my mother and calling out the different flower names to my playful boys. In talking to others who have lost loved ones, I have discovered that the urge to plant a garden during illness or after loss is quite common. Every time I see a flower garden I wonder which of their plants have ties to people they have lost. Maybe that makes me morbid, I think more likely it’s just part of the mental landscape of anyone whose lost someone very close to them.

Close up of garden.

A few days before my mother died she asked me to push her wheelchair to the front door so she could look at the flowers. It was October, but the zinnias were still fuschia and pink, tall and bright; the orange, red-trimmed marigolds had grown round and heavy with blooms, and the deep purple morning glories wound around the bamboo poles and front porch columns, reaching all the way to the roof. I pushed her to door and she stared out through the glass for a few moments, said something about the flowers looking pretty, and then asked me to help her lay down again. It turned out to be the last time she got out of bed. Almost two years after her death I still think of that moment almost daily.

After she died I found out that gardening was actually nothing new to me as I had originally supposed. According to my mother’s detailed daily planners, which I began reading after her death, she gardened often when she was pregnant with me. Her jotted down notes reveal which flowers were planted on which days. A few marigolds put in the ground on Monday, a hibiscus on Tuesday, cannas on Wednesday. Coming across these notes brought back forgotten memories of helping her tend to the flowers, deadheading the petunias and marigolds she always kept on the front porch. In fact, her hydrangeas, hibiscus, and liliacs still bloom each year, reminding me that some things we put in the ground will outlive us by decades.

So until I can create the McElroy House garden I work in my own. I watch which flowers bring in the bees, the butterflies, the hummingbirds. I try different varieties; I save seeds; I talk to farmers and gardeners; I try different plants in different places and combinations. And as a folklorist, I pay attention to how plants have a way of connecting us to other people.

Research: The Garden and the Gardener

Surprise squash in the compost pile.

Recently myself and Utah folklorist-extraordinaire, Nelda Ault, began working on some garden research, looking at how home gardens differ between central and northwest Arkansas and her native Utah. Both of us are interested in the realm of folklore and education, and one of our goals with this fieldwork is to look at the garden through the eyes of its caretaker. How did the garden come to be? How did the gardener learn to garden? Why do they keep doing it year after year? These are the kind of questions we’ll be asking.

We’re both very interested in how regional traditions can help connect youth with older members of their communities and vice versa. Learning more about both the passion and practicality that gardeners bring to their creations hold such promise for community youth education projects. We will be presenting our research at the 2010 American Folklore Society Conference held in Nashville, Tennesse.


Site of McElroy home place. Cotton Town, Yell County, Arkansas

As a child my mother often took me to the sight of her father’s old home place, pointing out the tree near where her grandparents— Rostus and Ivy McElory— built their home in what used to be the  Cardon Bottoms community. Last year when visiting the site with my cousins I dug up some wild yarrow and brought it back home to my garden.  It took root and began blooming this year. I often wonder if that same yarrow was growing when my grandfather was young.

I placed the yarrow right next to the lilies I had recently bought from a woman in Dardanelle who was having a plant sale to scale back her large garden. Her husband was ill, and she was his primary caretaker. We talked about flowers and care giving as I made my purchases, which also included orange dayliless that remind me of my good friend Tonya Taylor. The lilies are next to the marigolds I’ve been growing from saved seeds my mother gave me the year I moved back to Arkansas.

A garden is naturally filled with the flowers of interesting people, and I’ve worked hard to make it so. After my mother died and I tried to figure out what to do with my hands now that my caregiving duties were over, I emailed friends requesting they tell me their favorite flowers so I could purposefully plant them along side the ones I stumble onto. There are Texas bluebells from Mo, Coral Bells for Kristen, Tulips for Wendy, roses for Rebekah, and the daylillies for Tonya, as I mentioned above.  There is a Gardenia Heather helped me plant; a Peony from Marcia, and the tulips from Kristin, all presents I received for my birthday, an event Rachel helped to make happen . Many of the flowers come from plants  people dug up from their own yards, leaving them on my front porch for me to find and transplant. I have zinnia seeds my mother gave me the first year I moved back; mums from the woman who used to live in my grandparents house, plants given to us for my mother’s funeral. There are dogwood trees on the garden’s outskirts sent from fellow folklore graduate students in honor of my mother.

Dogwood tree sent in honor of my mother

I’ll keep going. There is a thrift plant from my cousin and sorrel  from my grandparents home. There are hollyhocks from Nelda. There is a butterfly bush, which we purchased per the suggestion of the honey vendor at the Pope County Farmers Market when we asked him what we could do to help combat the decreasing bee population.  And I have hundreds of daisies, Mom’s favorite flower, all planted from seed after she died.

Gardening is such an exercise in storytelling.  It’s about listening, observing, putting down (sometimes pulling up) roots. All those plants I water every morning  have a story and a larger community of people connected to them.  Sure, I’ve pushed my hand to make my garden especially story-populated, but talk to pretty much any flower gardener, and they’ll have similar tales of their plants origins .  In a sense the plants are tradition bearers in their own right. They tell their own story and help to tell ours as well.

Daisies for Mom

The analogies are endless and spill over one another. It would be easy to perhaps over analyze how the garden and folklore research are alike. But I am reminded of what poet besmilr brigham’s daughter, Heloise Wilson, told me once during an interview about her mother’s work. She recalled how she and her and mother and father once spent an afternoon discussing John Galsworthy’s story “Justice.” Her memories of that discussion have stuck with me and come to mind today:

And with anything, [we discussed] how did the writer give a certain sense of the story      to the reader? What did they do to achieve that? trying to take things apart and        analyze them and not kill it.  Be careful you don’t kill it in the process. Keep a little  distance there.

So I think it will suffice to say that what amazes me most about gardening is that in the peace and quiet of working the soil— whether I’m working to grow food or just create beauty—I am lost in thoughts about the human experience with all its struggles and grace.  When I first started gardening I set out to grow flowers. But I wound up listening to stories.


  1. Janna says:

    Simply Beautiful! I can feel the hurt of loosing a loved one mixed in with the hope of things to come. Inspiring in a way that tells me to slow down and listen for the stories around me.
    Thank you for sharing from the heart.

  2. meredith says:

    Thanks so much, Janna.

  3. Wisteria in the City « Tending the Bittersweets says:

    […] Garden Practice: Food, Flowers, Research, People. […]