Tuesday, April 25, 2006


Southernness Weekly


This is the best time of year to take advantage of all the numerous private gardens in the South that you can gain access to via the Garden Conservancy Open Days program. Regional directories for this national initiative are available for a mere $5 at www.gardenconservancy.org or by calling (845) 265-5384. Many days with this insider info you can enjoy these private gardens with little hustle and bustle of crowds. I like to visit these on a weekday and relax with my sketchbook to create drawings for paintings that I do months later when the weather is less agreeable. Remember your camera and go enjoy.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


Southernness Weekly

THE PERFUMER'S ART--Show Set for April 20

We've finally set the date for the first time I'll be showing my palette knife paintings of the botanicals from our private test gardens together with the collection of Southernness scents. It will be Thursday, April 20, 2006 at the Matt Jones Gallery in Tuscaloosa, AL. This gallery is the best-looking gallery in all of Alabama. I'm looking forward to filling the space with all the colors of a grand, Southern garden--and the aromas as well.

This Saturday and Sunday, April 1-2 we will hold our "I Come to the Garden" event at the Governor's Mansion. The programs looks grand. It would be worth your drive from any contiguous state. Open to the public and FREE. Y'all Come.

Saturday, February 25, 2006


Southernness Weekly


Today is the opening day of possibly our country's best display of orchids even though it is in frigid New York City. "The Orchid Show" which lasts until Sunday, April 2 is sponsored by the Tiffany bling company and offers 8,000 orchid specimens at the New York Botanical Gardens. I chuckled when I read the slogan for these gardens--"Discover a place so beautiful you forget you're still in New York City." I really can't imagine ANY Southern city like Charleston or Savannah or Dallas or Raleigh bannering something like that.

This thought just ran through my skull. I bet among the orchids in the New York Botanical Garden collection their are ones looted from Southern conservatories during The War Between the States. We know the Yankees took a number of plants and prized orchids during the Victoria period would have been very desirable. Maybe it's time for some Southern botanical gardens or garden historians to explore repatriating any plants taken illegally from The South.

Well, while we wait on that drama to play out. Let me suggest to you a couple of fragrant orchids you might add to your own conservatory, or sunroom, or apartment ledge. Whether your place is generally hot or cold or humid or arid, orchids are so diverse that there is probably one out there with your name on it. For fragrance in cool conditions, try a "Miltoniopsis," which is sometimes called the "pansy orchid" because its face is sort of pansyoid.

If you have limited space but still want a fragrant orchid, consider the hybrid oncidium popularly known as "Twinkle." When it's treated right it "twinkles" with hundreds of vanilla-scented, white blooms. It blooms for weeks and sometimes twice a year. Don't we wish that could be said for more people.

I've also recently heard of an orchid that smells like chocolate. Sounds pretty heavenly doesn't it? I'll try to track down more on this scented wonder and provide info in a future message. Happy Sniffin' to Y'all, Benn

Friday, February 17, 2006


Southernness Weekly


A friend of mine whose family had a lovely plantation house down near New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina, told me that she had been inspired to "stand tall" after seeing one lone, proud ginger lily amid the ravaged ruins of her garden. Thank God, New Orleanians have plenty of "southernness," that bold spirit of survival.

It is truly impressive what is already being done to revive the gorgeous gardens of New Orleans which only a few months ago were devastated by the floods and winds of Katrina. Most of this effort is being carried out by volunteers and many of those volunteering are Yankees. So much for that cold, heartless stereotype.

The huge, Victorianesque conservatory will be opened by mid-March, 2006 at the N.O. Botanical Gardens. Palms are being replaced and old roses as well. This public garden, one of the finest in the U.S., was originally a plantation down on the bayou only about 150 years ago. It had a vast rose garden that became the basis for the public garden. Remember that lyric from "Mame" about "magnolias will bloom in the mud?" New Orleans is coming back stronger than ever. The South is rising once again.

Want another reason to return to New Orleans besides the food and the jazz? Hearing these great, local musicians is truly heartening, but to see that tea olives and wisteria are again taking root is an even greater sign of rebirth. How about coming to volunteer in this great garden revival? Let me suggest you contact Ms. Genevieve Trimble, president of the garden board, or you might prefer getting involved with the volunteer gardening efforts at beautiful Longue Vue. The head gardener at Longue Vue is Amy Graham.

Gotta shovel and a streetcar full of desire to help the "lost gardens" of this wonderful, Southern port city be resurrected? To every gardener in shoutin' distance, New Orleans says--"Y'all come."

Sunday, February 12, 2006


Southernness Weekly


On Tuesday of this week, I'm invited to speak to a ladies study club in Monroeville, Alabama. There must be something in the water down in this sleepy, Southern town. It is where Truman Capote spent his childhood in the home of relatives he shared with us in his classic, "A Christmas Memory." It is also the home of author and Capote pal, Harper Lee, of "To Kill a Mockingbird" fame. There are tons of other great writers with roots in Monroeville. Monroeville produces writers like New Jersey produces mobsters. Now, there's a town slogan a lot of Alabamians could embrace.

This will be a first opportunity for me to explore with these fellow Southerners what I'm thinking of as "The Seven Lost Gardens of The South." Using our trademarked "Seven Signs of Southernness," I want to escort these ladies through gardens that existed but are now gone in Monroe County.

Here's a preview of the seven lost gardens: 1) TRADITION--There are wonderful, old rambling, white pillared homes in this remote countryside. Many are beautifully preserved, but some indeed appear to be "Too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash." You can be certain that in the past there was a plantation in this part of Alabama that had an elaborately planted pleasure garden. There were probably a number of outstanding plantations and gardens that are now gone with the wind. 2) FAMILY--Many generations living in close proximity are common in this part of Alabama. There are heirloom roses that are known by family names down here--the Biggs rose, the McCoy rose,etc. I understand that the house where Truman Capote lived as a little boy has been razed. However, a bunch of Monroevillians are exploring recreating it. I hope they might also explore the garden that little Truman and his buddy, Scout (?), would have played in. What plants were there? Maybe also look at such Capote works as "The Grass Harp," which is filled with botanical references, and get inspiration for plantings. 3) HERITAGE--This part of Alabama was plantation country and you have large numbers of African Americans who have lived here for centuries. I'm imagining a "lost garden" that had the swept yard tradition that slaves brought from their African territories. Maybe with a "bottle tree" that captured the evil spirits floating through the night air. 4) HOSPITALITY--This "lost garden" might have been loaded with mint for juleps and sugar cane for some of the best sweet tea in the nation. 5) NATURE--This might be a proudly tended grove of native hardwoods. This is lumber country and trees are understood and exalted. 6) PASSION--All these Monroeville writers are blessed with a vast array of colorful, local characters with vivid stories to share. This is not the drab North, this is the buoyant, gorgeous South. Gardens with ruby begonias and purple cannas and saffron zinnias have been enjoyed forever in these parts. 7) PLEASURE--The last of the "lost gardens" to mention is one all about capturing THE most fragrant Southern plants. Here there would have been thriving tea olive shrubs, antique roses, arbors of wisteria, great stands of gardenias, and honeysuckle everywhere.

I hope I can interest the ladies this Tuesday to share their accounts of the "lost gardens of Monroeville." I'll give you an update next week when I return.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Southernness Weekly

February 7, 2006


Yesterday, thousands of people withstood a cold, Georgia February rain waiting their turn to file past the coffin of Coretta Scott King, "The First Lady of American Civil Rights." Among the mourners was the television star Oprah Winfrey. Both Mrs. King and Ms. Winfrey are ladies of The South. Mrs. King is from the long-established Scott family over in Marion, Alabama near the Mississippi line. Ms. Winfrey grew up with less stable roots in Kosciusko, Mississippi.

I'm writing this to share a quote from Ms. Winfrey's remarks yesterday to Mrs. King's children. "I'm happy to be here to pay tribute to (your mother). But, I am happier still to know that I gave her flowers while she yet lived."

After breakfast this morning, I walked through my garden to see if there might be any early jonquils. I saw lots of promising buds, but no yellow blossoms just yet. However, there were enough camellia blooms, that later today, I will clip some and give them to someone I value while that someone is still alive. Giving flowers is a loving gesture in most cultures around the globe. Certainly, it is another great, Southern tradition as we were reminded by Ms. Winfrey's salute to Mrs. King.

Friday, February 03, 2006


Southernness Weekly

February 4, 2006

BLACK HANDS, WHITE FLOWERS--The Lost Gardens of The South

Today in 1861, The Confederate States of America was formed in Montgomery, Alabama. There were many, many reasons that The South decided to take the dramatic course of secession. It was a thoughtful and long-deliberated act. My personal opinion is that it was primarily about the rights of individual states to determine that they did not wish to be governed by a national authority. However, I like to think of myself as a realist. I believe in a "get real" though sensitive-to-all-parties look at slavery in America. And, the continuation of the legal institution of slavery was ONE reason for The War Between the States.

Slavery was legal throughout the U.S. until the 1830s. Indeed, at one point, New York City had the distinction of having the 2nd largest number of African slaves of any city in the U.S. Only Charleston had more slaves than NYC. However, The South did hold on to the right to have slaves for 30 years longer than the Northern states.

You may be wondering how such a mention of the ugly condition of human slavery fits into the lovely discussion of gardening. Most Southerners did not own slaves in antebellum times. And, most gardening was done without slave labor. However, many of our grandest, celebrated pleasure gardens in The South were made possible not just because of visionary plantation owners, rich soil and a temperate climate; but also because of the directed efforts of large numbers of slave garden workers.

February in the the U.S. has been designated as National Black History Month. This seems like a good time for us at Southernness to focus on researching, documenting and honoring the slaves in Southern garden history. Today, I am initiating a project I've titled, "Black Hands, White Flowers." I want to ask your help in this exploration. It is such a vast subject that I do not expect it to be in any way comprehensive. I think we can do a great service however by illuminating this aspect of Southern gardening as we record individual and collective stories of these contributors to antebellum pleasure gardens in The South. Together, I think we have an opportunity to show both the oppression and the opportunities that existed for black slave men and women in "The Lost Gardens of The South." Please accept this as a call for documentation and annecdotal information.

Perhaps February should be Southern History Month and all Southerners could celebrate both the proud spirit of The Confederacy and of the black Southerners who contributed mightily to our history including the history of our gardens.

(Editor's Note: Periodic updates on the role of black slave labor and "The Lost Gardens of The South" will be offered at this site.)

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