Dr. Dirt’s’ Edwards sanctuary full of flowers and fauna

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 9, 2000

Leon Goldsberry, also known as Dr. Dirt, stands in the backyard garden behind his Edwards home. He said he works in his garden from sun up to sundown six days a week unless he’s working on a client’s garden. (The Vicksburg Post/PAT SHANNAHAN)

EDWARDS It’s the sunflowers that most people notice first. Dozens of them, 10 feet high, tower cheerfully over visitors to the ordinary white house of the man they call “Dr. Dirt.”

What’s inside the gate resembles a typical cottage garden less than an amusement park of flora, a maze of colors and delicate fragrance with walls of banana plants and roses and prickly pear cactus, all side by side.

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For Leon Goldsberry, the garden is his sanctuary, his statement and his shrine.

“I do this to give praise to the most high God,” Goldsberry said. “This is what He did on the third day.”

Goldsberry spends most of the daylight hours in his garden, six days a week, wearing a bandana as he works with his hands in the dirt, grafting, transplanting, weeding and watering.

He took the name “Dr. Dirt” from a gardening show he once heard on the radio, but if there’s one thing in the garden he is proud of, it’s his dirt. There’s no soil, no mulch, no chemical fertilizers in his garden, only honest, untampered-with Mississippi dirt.

“There’s too many things in this world that aren’t real,” he said, holding up a clod of the brown crumbly stuff. “This is real dirt.”

The dirt isn’t the only thing that’s real. Eschewing concrete bird baths and other standard garden fare, Goldsberry roots his fantastical flora firmly in the real world with bits and pieces of his own life.

A ring of old bottles, half-buried, surrounds one planter of bright flowers. The bottles, familiar to Mississippians a generation ago, bear names like Nehi and Nu-Grape. Goldsberry remembers the bottles from his childhood. His mother didn’t want to throw them away, because they were pretty.

In other places, shiny silver hubcaps decorate the garden path. A broken refrigerator and an old washer have both become planters, and manage to look far from run down, like they have been given a second chance at life.

“I’ll take anything and make a pot out of it,” he said. “Anything.”

The garden is also dedicated to the memory of his mother, Millie, he said. A native of Edwards and Tallulah, he moved back from Canada six years ago when she took ill.

He started the garden for her, he said, and he has carried it on since she died.

The cottage garden isn’t the only place his green thumb works it’s magic, though. Goldsberry designs gardens and landscaping for neighbors and others around town, sometimes charging a fee, sometimes not.

He gave a local bank a makeover recently, and in his spare time planted flowers at a four-way stop on the end of his street. He did the public spot for free. He wanted the neighborhood to look nice, he said.

“Black neighborhoods look terrible throughout America,” Goldsberry said. “We need to plant more flowers, and make Mississippi beautiful; it’s a beautiful state.”

Goldsberry is 53, and he plans to keep his hands in the dirt “until I die,” he said.

Not bothering with gloves, he crushed a clod of dirt between his fingers.

“This is what we come from, and this is what we’re going back to,” he said.

The sign on the front gate that says “Millie’s Garden” is surrounded by red roses, his mother’s favorite. A prickly pear cactus stands guard nearby and lantana blankets the path with tiny blooms.

“Dr. Dirt” scoffs at the notion that the garden surrounding his little white house is somehow impressive or even awe-inspiring.

“I don’t consider it a lot,” he said. “People say there’s no room for more, but I tell them, there’s room right where you’re standing.’ “