Walk on the Wild Side

A bottle tree in the sunshine is something to see, glittering like spotlit costume jewelry hanging off some giraffe-necked runway model. But a bottle tree has to be just so. When you hang the bottles on the branches, you have to make certain they don't collect water, or they might break during a freeze. And while they're hanging there, they have to look right, too: When it comes to yard art, that's the part that's art.

Felder Rushing has seven bottle trees in his yard, ranging from one sporting a single glass vessel to one bedecked with more than a hundred. A goateed and ponytailed eighth-generation gardener, admitted dumpster diver and extension horticulturist from Mississippi more or less born with soil under his nails, Rushing is well-known not only in gardening circles across his state, but in national gardening magazines and online as well. And while he's a natural-born expert when it comes to growing things, he's also a rustic muse who encourages people to dress up their gardens with unexpected whimsies. That's exactly what he'll be doing Wednesday when he speaks at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

"I'm the answer guy--I tell people what they oughtta do, and I'm real bottom-line," Rushing explains in an elfin drawl. But he's not opinionated--no, sir. If you can convince him of something, he'll gladly change his mind. Take compost, for instance. Rushing gently derides the notion that making it is a complicated, scientific task. "Oh, I've made compost in three weeks, but nobody cared," he says. "You just gotta pile it up."

Though as a professional advisor he holds the insecure hands of novice gardeners, Rushing's true oeuvre, of course, is his knack for ornamentation--something he relishes passing on to anyone who will listen. "I like to keep my gardening separate from my horticulture," he explains. "One is about the 'how,' but the other is about the 'why.'" And how: He can cultivate homegrown counsel on that subject for hours without an ounce of fear. "I work for the government," he announces, "and they can't fire me, because I'm married to a lawyer."

A champion of spontaneous frivolity, Rushing is quick to acknowledge the power of the folk mentality when planning--or not planning--your garden's course. "I've seen fantastic sculptures at Versailles of eight-foot naked goddesses," he notes. "But that wouldn't work in my neighborhood."

What would? Rushing is a true free spirit in that respect. "Some do things on purpose, but some poor folks just do it and they don't even know what they're doing, bless their hearts. I'm always looking for ways to get away with stuff. If you want to grow wildflowers in your front yard but want the neighbors off ya, put an edge around it--accessorize it. Stick out a wagon wheel or a plow on a stick or a sign that says 'butterfly crossing'--do just enough to say, 'I'm doing this on purpose; it's accessorized, so cut me some slack.' People are gonna talk about you anyway."

Still, Rushing has his standards. "Have fun, but be appropriate," he proposes. "I don't want to see no more naked statues in suburbia. Keep your goddesses in your backyard." The important thing in yard art, Rushing stipulates, is that you express yourself. Homemade, he adds, is better than store-bought. And it helps if your efforts make people think. "If it doesn't make you think, it ain't art," he contends.

In Rushing's world, beauty is truly in the eyes of the beholder. "In Chicago, I've seen a beautiful Calder sculpture called 'Flamingo,' but I've also seen a place in Texas with 750 plastic pink flamingos scattered across a hillside covered with bluebonnets. Who's to say which is better? Both are really neat. Then in downtown Atlanta, there's a giant flamingo made out of car parts. The rule of flamingos is: Two is tacky, but more than two is anything goes."

Above all, Rushing thinks gardeners should have fun: "You can do some bizarre stuff with pruning sheers," he suggests. "What you can do to a poodle should be considered illegal, but poodles don't care, and shrubs don't care, either. I've seen people dumber than dirt do magnificent things with topiary." By the same token, he insists a plain grass lawn isn't going to be interesting to look at unless it's been perfectly edged and neatly manicured with geometric precision. "I saw one example that was unbelievably anal-retentive--it was so perfect, people would actually stop and stare at it."

Rushing's own garden is another story altogether. "First up the walk, you see a nice, neat garden with name tags," he illustrates. "But if you look up close, you'll see there's nothing written on the tags, and there's nothing growing there, either. It's just a name-tag garden--because people expect a state horticulturist to have a horticulturist-looking garden." Beyond that is a cottage-style tangle of fountains and arbors and water gardens and wildflowers and tire planters and winding footpaths. "I have yard art everywhere," Rushing adds. "Stuff by folk artists, stuff my kids made, and some trashy stuff I put together to make the tourists go away. From the street, you can't see more than five feet into it.

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