I appreciate all seasons, but the relaxed Mississippi autumn brings out a joyous if wistful rush in me.
Gardening isn’t all how-to advice (which isn’t universally accepted anyway – such is the fate of all garden experts); sometimes it’s more stop-and-smell-the-roses.
But a real pleasure for me are the wistful emails I get from far-flung readers who, like me, have long ago flown the nest, but keep in touch through their hometown newspapers. Smallish daily and weekly papers with their purely local stories, events and photos are crucial bonds for folks, even those far away.
So, to all y’all who are separated from the South’s heart comforts, here’s a short rundown on garden delights you’d savor were you to visit home right now.
My muse got started when I noticed some kids laughing at me the other day. Funny how even we old guys can’t resist making swish-crackling noises by shuffling and kicking through drifts of fallen leaves, and we smile when folks who notice “get” what we’re up to (just being kids).
Sometimes there’s a lump underfoot; bend down to inspect and you might find a half-buried pecan. Get a chance, show the kids what my grandfather taught me - how to crack them open by squeezing two at a time in the palm of your hand.
Though most trees are bare, the cedars, magnolias and hollies are still buffering chilly north winds. Naked ginkgo trees have a brilliant yellow carpet underneath, and the sweet smell of illicit leaf piles burning wafts through the air, mingling with wood smoke from chimneys and outdoor fire pits. And through the thinned trees and cold, clear air we can hear trains passing crossings from miles away.
But early-flowering “paperwhite” Narcissus are up and beginning to flower with their almost sickly-sweet fragrance, and in a particularly Southern combination they are skirting magnificent camellias with swirls of Nandina shrubs bent under heavy loads of bright red berries.
On top of the usual flashes of red cardinals and lavender-blue jays chasing one another from the birdbath, and chittering little budgies on the feeders, and flocks of winter migrant birds – the robins, still-golden finches, and perky cedar waxwings with their tiny blood-red drops on the tips of inner feathers - are busily scouring the cedars for berries and scratching around in the fallen leaves.
It’s holiday time here, no matter your faith, and in spite of the grouchy evening news, the people in your hometown are cheery, partly from excitement over wearing gloves and hats again in the chill air makes us feel like we’re in “fancy dress.”
I just cut down my frost-browned okra, which reminded me to unpack a pod painted as a Tim Burtonesque Santa ornament to hang amongst Nandina berries and Spanish moss. We did this when I was a kid in the Delta, using white glue, glitter and paint to create glitzy baubles from sweetgum balls, trumpet vine pods and pecans. The kitchen smelt cake-like from flat cookies baked to paint as more ornaments.
Mama wouldn’t let us use much Spanish moss as faux tinsel because she said “you’ll bring bird cooties inside.” But she did let us stick small crape myrtle or hardy spiny orange branches in a vase and festoon the twigs with colorful sugar gumdrops.
Whether doors and lamp posts are graced with magnolia and holly wreaths with wired-on gold-painted pine cones or an electric-candled Hanukkah menorah lit in a window, it’s all about hospitality and good cheer.
Peace and goodwill this fine Magnolia state autumn, everyone - if you’re away, come home for a walk around town.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to firstname.lastname@example.org