Felder Rushing - A Simple Dirt Gardener

I've known Felder Rushing for about eight or ten years. I see him at garden writer conferences. He's easy to notice and hard to forget with his beat up hat, scraggily goatee and his standout Southern accent. I knew he was a successful writer and that he wrote books and that his articles were published in fancy magazines that actually paid him money. I also knew he has a garden growing in the back of his F-150 pickup truck. But until Felder was booked to speak in my home town of Grand Haven, Michigan and I read an article in my hometown paper – I didn’t know how little I knew about Felder.

I did not know that Felder is a self-proclaimed dirt gardener. What's a dirt gardener you ask? Well this is how Felder describes himself:

"I garden for the love of it — not for the challenge of it. I have one basic gardening rule Green side up. Dirt gardeners don't do soil prep — we plant stuff in the dirt. We know a ceramic gnome is just as valuable as a life-size marble naked goddess statue, and that birds are just as interesting as anything out there and they don't ask much of us." He says, “... a plant shared with a friend is as valuable as one ordered from a glossy catalogue. We know where our plants came from — even the ones we stole."

Because Felder gardens in the heat of Mississippi, and I garden in the great white North, I assumed we had little in common. But I was wrong. It turns out we share the idea that gardening and growing plants is fun and simple. So simple that anyone can do it.

The big problem, in my opinion, is that there are way too many expert horticulturists out there telling you how complicated it is to garden. They would have you believe you need to match your flower colors using a color wheel. They say you have to sequence the bloom time of your flowers and to use grey as a foil between red and orange. They'll tell you to double dig your flower beds, do a soil test and to adjust your pH. (I’ve never done any of these things). And of course they'll tell you to “buy my book” to know how to garden.

This is all phooey.

You do not need the help of garden experts to garden. You just have to dig a hole and put a plant in it and water it a bit. Get over the idea that every plant you plant has to live 100 years. Plants are living by definition so of course they die. Just plant it - and don’t take it so personally if it dies. I’ve got a master's degree in horticulture and I've killed hundreds of plants. I'm ok with that. That’s how you learn!

It’s not about you!

When a plant grows well in our garden we say “Look what I did!” And when a plant dies we say “I have such a brown thumb.” Either way we give ourselves way too much credit. The fact is the plants is doing the growing – not us. So dig a hole, put a plant in it and enjoy it. If it struggles or gets too big for it's spot – dig it up and move to another location. If it dies - dig it out and plant something else. If it thrives - enjoy the miracle that plants are living creatures that hang out in our yard.

Growing plants is fun. It’s wondrous. It’s addicting. It’s good for the soul. It’s dirty, yet at the same time it brings us closer to God. It’s suppose to relaxing, so drop the guilt and stress that comes with doing it right or wrong – and just do it.

Felder Rushing is the author or co-author of 15 gardening books; and countless newspaper columns and articles for publications such as Horticulture, Landscape Architecture, Better Homes & Gardens, Fine Gardening, and National Geographic. Felder has been featured three times in full-length articles in the New York Times. He has hosted a television program that was shown across the South, and appeared many times on other TV garden programs. Felder currently co-host’s a call-in garden program on NPR affiliate stations called The Gestalt Gardener.


  1. Great article, Tim. Felder is one of a kind, the kind we need more of. He's what we call a "character " down South. Love his philosophy. Gardening should be fun and uncomplicated.

  2. Well spoken! When people say to me "I heard that plant doesn't like to be moved" I respond: "Well, I guess we're not going to get along, then."

    Added to the list of things I didn't know about Felder Rushing: He juggles tubers.

  3. I truly enjoyed this post. Wonderful. I love the idea of not being afraid, not feeling guilty, and not taking things too personally. What a wonderful view...just do it!

  4. Anonymous7:43 PM

    A great read. I, too, am amazed at all the neighbors impressed with my garden...they all have the same dirt! "Just dig the hole, plant something." Few take the challenge.

  5. Anonymous5:51 AM

    Amen Tim! As a horticulturalist myself, I know I can find myself getting caught up in over-analyzing my garden and stressing about cold hardiness, drought tolerance, too much sun or too much shade, etc, etc. Good to remind ourselves that gardening should be leisure, not work.

  6. AMEN to this. Too much technobale intimidates people no matter what the industry. Think computer geeks that talk over our heads and over-complicate things to the point that we give up or think we can't do it on our own. Who has the time to figure out all that stuff? Don't make it sound so complicated that they don't even want to try. Just plant it! I mean geezche a lot of stuff just grows doesn't it?

    And don't make lawn care so complicated either. Forget the "never cut more than 1/3 of the blade crap. Just raise the mower as high as it goes and mow the same day every week and your (cool season) lawn will be among the best on the block.

  7. I'd say that all the good stuff in life takes some effort...just because something is fun doesn't mean that it isn't also work. Even watching the birds requires a trip to the window or the outdoors. And there are always different levels of accomplishment, not to mention enjoyment. By all means, dig a hole and stick a plant in it... but if you want to know why things might not have done too well, have some more fun and look into it more throughly.

  8. Design principles and other guidelines ARE helpful when you're starting a project, but personal taste is so important, too. What use is a garden if not to please the owner? And to provide the gardener with a lifetime of learning?
    Personally I will never see grey as a foil between red and orange and think it looks nice. Yuck. But that's just me :-)

  9. I love this post, and I think I love Felder Rushing. Interestingly, as I go on a little tour around the blogosphere and a certain mailing list, I'm detecting some indignation in the garden writers' world. Especially among a few who call themselves 'garden coaches' hoping someone will hire them so they can show off how much they know while charging a huge amount to 'help' some unsuspecting suburbanites learn about perennials or pickling cucumbers.

    One of the topics I write about regularly is gardening, and I spend a good deal of time poking fun at myself while encouraging others. Regularly I reassure people, whether in talks or in articles, or even on my blog: Gardening is not brain surgery. If a plant dies, you have a ready-made hole to plant something else in. Even if one of my cherished blue poppies succumbs to the vagaries of winter on the Bay of Fundy...I just plant another one, or plant something else.

    In conversations with beginning gardeners, I've heard time and again how they've been put off by condescending 'experts' who think the newbies should know this, that, and another thing before they even try planting a seed or transplanting a pansy. Well, we didn't have 'experts' back in the beginning, and we've managed to keep on gardening through the millenia. It's certainly fun to learn, whether by reading books or magazines or articles or talking with other gardeners, but gardening is like writing in that the best way to learn is to Just. Do. it.

  10. My intention is not to put anyone down. There is a need for gardening experts and garden coaches. There is also a use for soil testing. But if we tell people you must test your soil, or draw up a landscape plan before you begin, many people will stop dead in their tracks and never enjoy the thrill of growing a plant. We also must me careful not to intimidate beginners. For example, I hate poker. Not the game itself but the way it's portrayed by experts - very complicated. They treat this simple game likes it's more complicated than chess and more mysterious than a secret society. The truth is it's a very simple game.
    If there is to be another generation of gardeners than we must let them know that it's fun. Felder's garden is not a beginners garden. It is, in fact, quite complex. But he makes it fun and gives everyone permission to have fun too.

  11. I love Felder! I've been listening to his podcast for about a year now, I actually was interviewed back in the fall (posted on my blog)... he is fantastic and so fun to banter with.
    Great post!

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  13. Anonymous2:54 AM

    I think the article contains a good message. But what about all the money I have wasted on plants that withered in poor soil? Of course an industry professional wants me to just dig a hole and keep shoving money into the ground. I don't want to sound disapproving because I agree with the "dirt gardening" sensibility. It's just the plant snobs and technicians have much to offer too.

  14. I am not against gardening experts or people giving out advice to help people be more successful. I'm all for it! But I think that we need to be encouraging rather than intimidating in our approach. Most people are fearful about buying plants. I also think that people need to experience failure and be ok with it - as that is how we learn.

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