Lessons From the Past

Q & A with Author: Augustus Jenkins Farmer

A self-proclaimed “plantsman,” Augustus Jenkins “Jenks” Farmer began growing his own plants as a young boy after stealing some seeds from the nuns at a convent, near where he went to school. “I think I was sitting there with my Scooby Doo lunchbox and I saw some flowers I wanted to grow, so I took the seeds,” says Farmer. He adds that he liked going to classes at the Catholic school he attended out in the country. “They never tried to convert us or anything!”

Today, Farmer is known for using oldschool techniques and common sense to both grow and teach others to grow plants of all kinds. His book, Deep Rooted Wisdom – Skills and Stories from Generations of Gardeners is a book that isn’t like traditional gardening books, but rather a book that gives advice, some of it heralded from mentors who also helped Farmer.

Q : What was your inspiration for the book?

A : I was writing the book about how horticulture and agriculture had changes. How it had become something I’m not proud of; chemical driven, product driven, destructive to the environment. A friend said it me: “Hold on, this is a manifesto that NOBODY wants to read. Why don’t you wrap these lessons in stories of the people who taught you to love plants? Your mentors who still garden the way you love?” I mean, look at people like Dr. Roy Ogle (who recently died), the man who developed sweet potatoes, beans and okra that we all still eat today! He was an old-school conservative who was in the Battle of the Bulge and whose professional mission was to help Southerners get better nutrition. When someone like that says, “If things don’t change, we are on the brink of famine,” I get inspired and driven to write fast!

Q : What kind of education and training did you have to help make you into a farmer/plantsman?

A : I have a B.S. in Horticulture from Clemson University and an MS in Botanical Garden Management (i.e. museum curation) from the University of Washington. I did International Student Exchange at the University of Zambia, but most importantly, I traveled a lot to visit botanical gardens, hike in the wild and observe plants in the Americas, Asia and Africa.

Q : You call yourself a plantsman – please explain.

A : I’m a man who loves plants – comprehensively. I love plants for the things they provide for: nutrients, flowers and animals. Plants can also be a catalyst for conversation, carriers of stories, and can be used for setting a feeling and capturing the spirit of a place. They are used for soil building and for the connecting of the earth. I find most of the other professional terms cumbersome – horticulturist? Landscape architect sounds so sterile. Garden designer sounds pretentious. Farmer is ok, but also limited and confuses people with my actual last name!

Q : What is your favorite season for growing plants?

A : For growing, the heat of summer – July through September, when our climate is pumping light, heat, nutrients and water; or in other words: all the reasons the European farmers settled here to be able to grow. But then the cool days of October through November for really enjoying how big and beautiful those sub-tropical plans have grown during the summer.

Q : What advice would you have for other promising/hopeful gardeners who feel they have no talent when it comes to growing things?

A : It’s all about attention. When you have time to pay attention to your plants, you’ll be able to be successful. Most people are focused on children, golf, or work. When things change in your life and you get to really pay attention, then the green thumb grows.

Q : When did you know you HAD to write this book?

A : After Daddy died, I found myself reaching for the phone to ask him a question – “How do I get the soil pH right? Where did you get 50lb bags of guano in the 1940s? I soon realized a very special generation was going away and that I wanted to capture some of their stories and lessons in a way that made it so a new generation was going to be able to have them for when they had time and desire. I do lots of presentations and lectures based on this book. Usually, the audience is older adults and seniors, but I tell them I really wrote this book for their children and grandchildren. I tell them they will enjoy the stories, but to pass it on to the millennials, because they’re the ones that will need to the lessons.

Q : What made you choose the folks you did to profile and get the advice from for this book?

A : I started with people I know; my mentors, including professors, self-taught gardeners and friends. You know, I grew up going to pick peas and going to cemeteries to visit and hanging out with old people. Timber Press asked me to expand it out of the region. So, I started asking those same people for contacts like themselves in different parts of the United States (in similar growing zones.) I love being in the mid-west, those people are welcoming people with a rural history, similar to Southerners. (They just talk funny.) I did a long trip to Indianapolis, Michigan and Ohio. Also, as a teen, I spent some formative time in Miami and I worked in an AG college in Haiti, so I called on my contacts in those areas, too.

Q : How did your family history play a part in how you feel about gardening and farming?

A : Part of my family were farmers, more like share cropper types (one of my grands had the first tractor in Hampton County, S.C.) The other half of my family was big scale cotton farmers. Both loved the land and plants. And they loved the tools, equipment and animals used in caring for it. But, in retrospect, I see smaller farmers who took care of things better, kept their places working and their dirt healthy. The larger farmers in Southern agriculture were often greedy – they abused the land and soil, leading to starvation and mass migration. But, they are the ones often glorified. The contrasts seen over many years, even as a boy, made me love a quiet, thoughtful, soulful approach to growing both food and flowers.

Q : Can you share any other stories about the mentors and teachers you feature in your book?

A : Gloria Farmer (his mother) represents lots of what I’ve talked about. When I was little, she worked as a bookkeeper, took care of a crazy old house and family. She worked in the veggie garden some, but didn’t really garden. When Daddy got sick, she had to stay home, to stay within an ear shot of the house. So, she started gardening for pleasure. And, she reconnected with her mother’s friends – old ladies who grew flowers. She learned to propagate their flowers, learned the old names of them and she made, while Daddy sat on the front porch, a spectacular Southern cottage garden. It was full of flowers and memories, so she made it a gathering place, and her plants could go home with people – both children and adults who visited from all over the South. Grandchildren, cousins, nieces and more all remember this place she made, and remember her and will for a long time through her plants. She’s over 80 years old now and still working in the garden this morning, as I talk to you. Farmer adds that since his book came out, one of the people he profiled has passed on and one is being claimed by Alzheimers. “I’m so glad I had that time with them,” says Farmer.

A busy man, this plantsman spends half his time in Augusta on the farm and the other in Columbia, S.C., when he’s not lecturing or helping others grow their own gardens.

Written by Elizabeth Tate