If your last name is “Farmer,” does it mean you’re destined to become one? In most cases, certainly not. But where Augustus Jenkins Farmer III is concerned, his family name and traditions played an immense role in shaping the plantsman he is today.
Better known as “Jenks,” Farmer will share what he has learned from generations of his South Carolina farming family on Tuesday night at the New Orleans Botanical Garden Foundation’s Spring Symposium at City Park’s Pavilion of the Two Sisters.
After the talk, Farmer will sign copies of his 2014 book, “Deep-Rooted Wisdom,” a compendium of tales of gardeners (his “teachers”) who’ve influenced Farmer’s low-tech, nature friendly approach to growing plants and designing gardens.
One of Farmer’s passions is the crinum lily farm he operates with Tom Hall near Columbia, South Carolina.
“The crinum lily is one of those plants you used to see everywhere but see less and less of. Plants fall out of favor, and that’s what happened to the crinum to some extent,” he said. “But when I was curating plants for the Riverbanks Garden in Columbia and we had to choose a plant to feature in a collection, the crinum won. It’s because it’s a plant that people of all races and nationalities and economic backgrounds can come into the garden and say, ‘My grandmother had one of those,’ and have this vivid and emotional memory.”
Maybe it was because some people decided that crinums were too big for smaller urban gardens, or because folks associated them with country ways. “People developed a kind of backwoods disdain for them,” Farmer said.
But the very plants that are no longer fashionable are those he thinks we should consider, not only to add interest to our home gardens, but to ensure that diverse plant species are preserved for future generations.?Despite his undergraduate degree from Clemson in horticulture and graduate degree from the University of Washington in museum science, Farmer says he doesn’t need an intellectual reason to do what he does. He calls himself a romantic and says his abiding interest in old plants and in the knowledge of his garden elders is an integral part of who is and how he came up.
“It’s the connection that I like, carrying someone’s wisdom on with me,” he explained. “I gave a talk at Epcot Center a month ago and someone brought me a really beautiful old dracaena (a house plant) — cream and pink — that an old lady used to grow and sell at her nursery in old Orlando.
“She had sold off the nursery, so the lady who brought me the plant asked me to distribute it if I could. It would keep the plant going and keep the memory of the old lady and her nursery alive.”
Sometimes, old garden plants have been adapted for what Farmer calls “modern gardens,” generally in more urban settings.
“Abelia is one of those,” he said. “It was popular and then people decided it was too big or didn’t flower enough. But now there is one called ‘Rose Creek’ that’s more compact, no more than waist-high, and its foliage turns burgundy in the winter. Or take the old China rose ‘Martha Gonzales.’ Now there is ‘Speedy Gonzales’ — a new version found in East Texas that’s a tidy climber and has a tiny root ball so it can fit into a small space.”
Another plant Farmer believes should be revisited is wisteria, but not the non-native and highly invasive Asian variety.
“It just wreaks havoc,” Farmer said. “But there are some native wisterias that are an alternative. I like Kentucky wisteria because it isn’t nearly as aggressive and doesn’t grow as big as the Asian wisteria. It blooms after the vine has leafed out, instead of on bare wood.”
Although Farmer cheers sensitive “updates” of old plants, there is a popular one that gives him pause. “Ever-blooming azaleas take away some of the specialness of spring,” he said. “Blooming periods define the seasons, and you lose something when you change that.”
Farmer said that some of the crinum lilies he cultivates bloom from March until winter; others over a shorter time period, such as June and July. Some have smaller leaves with tall flower stalks that hold the blossom high above the foliage; others (like Queen Emma) have giant purple foliage.
Bloom color ranges from white to mauve to “Pepto-Bismol” pink, and some are striped. Grown from bulbs, crinums can be planted almost any time of year, in light shade to full sun.
Another advantage, Farmer said, is that the plant isn’t fussy and can adapt to a variety of growing conditions.
“Where I live, we call them ‘ditch lilies,’” he laughed. “That should tell you a little bit about how tough they are.”