A garden of memoriesKoestler’s collection of flowers, plants takes her back

Published 11:00 pm Friday, September 14, 2012

Family, tradition and memories are important to Southerners, but to a Southern gardener, certain plants are often interwoven with these in a unique way. Cherished garden plants keep alive the memories of family, friends, good times, good smells and happy events.

Janis Koestler’s garden is a collection of memories ranging from her earliest childhood to more recent times.

Koestler, a seventh-generation Vicksburg resident, and her family live on an oddly shaped 1.75-acre lot, which they purchased about five years ago. It is shaped liked a pie wedge with an extra piece jutting out.

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Part of the back and side yards is terraced. Mature trees provide some backyard shade, and that odd piece, which juts out from the main wedge, has full sun, which makes it the ideal location for a nice vegetable garden.

From an early age, Koestler liked to help her mother in the garden. With four children in the family, life was busy and full of energetic competition and the normal arguments between young siblings.

Koestler said her mother used to say a lot could be settled in one’s mind while pulling weeds in the garden. It was a refuge to help eliminate stress in her life, a philosophy continues to work well for modern-day gardeners.

Koestler moved from a house in town that had a cottage-style garden with an abundance of plants, but very little grass. In fact, she said she could use a weed wacker rather than a lawn mower to handle the grass in that yard. Each spring the garden turned blue when the larkspur bloomed. She just let them reseed to come up again the following year, as she did with other annual favorites such as zinnias.

Four weeks were needed to pack up the inside and two weeks just to pot the plants she wanted to move.

All in all, Koestler moved 300, 3-gallon pots and 10, 30-gallon tree pots out to the new location. Quite a feat in September.

Many plants were from her childhood home. Others came from her grandmother on her father’s side, aunts, neighbors, friends and co-workers. Seldom has she been able to turn down a plant or seeds passed along from another gardener, she said, laughing.

Koestler moved hydrangeas, both lacecap and macrophylla, a half-dozen roses, wisteria, Louisiana and bearded iris, red and white spider lilies, five different cannas, tiger lilies, arum, a magnolia seedling, bridal wreathe spirea, pink flowering almond and 4 o’clock tubers. She also potted flowering quince, two types of banana trees, red alstroemeria (also known as Peruvian lily), orange and double orange daylilies, rudbeckia, Century Plant agaves, in which several larkspur seeds hitched a ride, three different crinum lilies, amaryllis, naked ladies, Texas Star hibiscus and asparagus. She brought a tapioca tree seedling (Casaba, a tropical understory tree), which Jeff Richards helped her identify. She is not sure how it got in her former garden, but it was interesting and she is glad that she moved it.

More pots contained ruella, Lucifer crocosmia, Festiva Maxima peonies, pecan and silver maple seedlings, ferns, perilla, daffodils, Roman hyacinths, muscari and spiderwort. She moved several houseplants inherited from her mother, which were at least 40 years old, including two crotons, sansevieria and a night-blooming cereus. A special miniature daylily given to her about 30 years ago by a woman on Harrison Street was also moved. Koestler thinks that it might be one of the parent plants that developed the popular ever-blooming cultivar Stella Dora. Quite similar in bloom to the Stella, it is definitely smaller and looks slightly different.

Many of her plants have a story attached. She tried to grow yellow 4 o’clocks from seeds collected at her aunt’s house for years, but they failed to come true to color. She finally dug up a tuber and now they bloom bright yellow outside her kitchen every summer afternoon producing that scent she fondly remembers from her aunt’s garden.

She also recalls the summer day when she and her mother dug up the wisteria on a trip to Warner Tully Camp, where her mother was the nurse that summer. A favorite rose bush, which was bright red and fragrant, grew under her childhood bedroom window. Her mother used to bring petals inside the house to make potpourri.

Another story involves alliums, which are members of the garlic family. Her mother always grew them near her roses to help deter disease, a practice currently utilized by organic rose growers.

Camellias, Anthony Waterer spirea, butterfly bushes, gardenias, Asiatic lilies, salvias, lambs ear, gaura, sweet olive, Savannah hollies, sasanquas, azaleas and a ”fragrant” mock orange, which fellow Master Gardener Barry Payne shared with her, have been added to her garden in addition to the plants she moved.

The soil was rich in her previous yard and she never had to fertilize. Lots of cow manure, soil conditioner and topsoil were needed in the beds at her current house before planting, she said.

Watering due to drought conditions and for the plants she grows in containers has been time-consuming. Her garden, however, has been a labor of love and I think she would definitely agree with the old saying, “Time spent working in the garden is never wasted.”

That reconnection to the past adds something beneficial to our lives, both mentally and physically.

Miriam Jabour, a Master Gardener and Master Flower Show judge, has been active in the Openwood Plantation Garden Club for over 35 years. Write to her at 1114 Windy Lake Drive, Vicksburg MS 39183.