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Gardening visions dashed by gumbo

Each spring, I again succumb to the siren call of the garden centers, seduced by flat after flat of colorful petunias, marigolds, impatiens, periwinkles, and other flowers; basil, parsley, chives, and assorted herbs; and tomatoes of many varieties.

Like a kid who's been given $20 and turned loose in a candy store, I want it all. After a cold, dreary winter, visions of a junior-sized Bellingrath Gardens dance in my head. A few dozen of this, several flats of that, and a veritable rainbow of flowers and a cornucopia of herbs and tomatoes will burst forth on my piddly in-town lot. A miniature Garden of Eden!

Then, like a hot shower that suddenly turns icy, reality sets in, I glumly pick up two or three six-packs of the few plants I know from two-plus decades of experience may have a passing chance of survival in the “gumbo” clay that comprises my yard, and prepare for the annual struggle with what is without a doubt some of the worst soil on the face of the planet.

When I moved to the Delta to join Farm Press, it was with visions of my gardening horizons expanding exponentially. Lush, fertile land, built up over millennia by the Mighty Mississippi — stick a plant in the ground, step back, and watch it grow. Yeah, right.

When saturated from winter/spring rains, the gumbo clay becomes a gooey, gummy, clumpy mess. In summer heat, when it dries out, giant cracks appear that resemble some madman's patchwork puzzle. My concrete driveway is so broken up from the constant bucking and sinking that our parked cars sit constantly askew, leading me many times to check to see if tires are flat. In the hills of northeast Mississippi where I grew up, we had red clay soils, but at least they were lightened somewhat by sand and rock particles (and after nearly 30 years of seeing black Delta soils, the red clay of my childhood now looks strange).

I am told the lot on which my house sits was once part of an old slough. As if to rub salt into my wounds, neighbors on either side have decent soil. Their lawns and shrubs and flowers thrive. Mine vie for Disaster of the Year award.

The only things I can reliably count on to grow are monkeygrass, which I think would survive if tossed into the middle of an interstate highway; wild purslane, which will be flourishing when man has vanished from the earth; poison ivy, which pops up everywhere and left to its own devices will quickly cover fences, trees, or whatever allows it a toehold; and pine trees, the weeds of the tree kingdom (everyone plants ’em because they grow rapidly, and then regrets it ever after).

Several years ago, when I was paying a tree cutter an arm and a leg to whack down several of the pine-weeds ravaged by the Ice Storm of the Century, I was bemoaning the accursed gumbo soil, and he sagely advised: “Lime. That'll mellow it up.” Hardy, har, har. After a few seasons of dumping lime, the gumbo was as gummy as ever. About the only difference I could see was that, mysteriously, cedar seedlings began sprouting everywhere (cedars love limey soils), presumably from seeds dropped by birds.

And slugs. Those slimy, disgusting critters love to live and multiply under the clods of gumbo clay, whence they come out in battalions at night to chew down those yummy garden center plants. Hostas? Love ’em. Marigolds? Chew ’em right to the ground. Tomatoes? Yum, yum.

There are farmers, I know, who manage to produce crops on these heavy clay soils, mostly rice. My hat is off to them, and each year when I go through this exercise in gardening futility, I appreciate anew the hardiness of the people who settled the Delta, tamed it, and made it an agricultural wonder.


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