P. Allen Smith, an expert on gardening and garden design, is a busy guy.

 

He is the host of three TV shows — two on PBS, one syndicated. Some episodes are filmed at Moss Mountain Farm, his 650-acre estate near Little Rock, Ark., but he travels frequently to other areas of the country, and Europe, as well.


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He has written numerous books on gardening, and one cookbook. He’s an advocate for the local food movement, organic gardening and the preservation of heritage poultry breeds.

And he’s also a speaker.

Smith is scheduled to present a lecture, “Naturally: The Love of Gardening,” on Wednesday at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens as part of the museum’s Garden Month, which continues through March 30.

He talked about garden-related topics in a telephone interview as he headed back to Arkansas after a speaking engagement in Branson, Mo.

What are some of the things you plan to talk about in your lecture here?

The best way to describe the lecture — and what the title suggests — is that gardening is certainly an activity that I enjoy, and the growing of things is something that I find hugely rewarding. But beyond that, I think that gardening is an artistic expression, and gardening and landscape design is picture-making. So one is pulled into this opportunity to express themselves with plants, with a living palette, not unlike a painter mighty apply oil paint to a canvas. …

Good garden design is good picture-making. … When I look at a landscape, and I look at a garden, I’m always thinking about what is this going to become, what kind of picture am I making with it — it being the materials, the plants and then of course what I’m fortifying those plants with if I’m preparing a bed, or feeding them.

Is there one aspect of gardening that gives you the most satisfaction?

Well, I like to prepare the soil. I know that sounds very dull. But I love good soil, and I love making good soil. It in itself is its own organism, its own universe, if you will. And it’s very satisfying to make good soil. And I like to plant things. I’m not so big on picking things. I’m not a good harvester. I’d rather grow the tomatoes than pick them. I don’t know why.

But it still involves working with your hands, which seems to inspire many people who garden.

I have very strong feelings about this. Gardening is what I call one of the hand arts. They extend into sewing and pottery making and cooking, any number of things, playing the piano or any number of musical instruments. All these things are the hand arts, and I think they inform the mind in a way that we haven’t completely understood yet — and may never.

But there’s something deeply satisfying about using your hands. I think that one gets the same kind of reduction in blood pressure, sticking your hands in the soil and working in the soil, or at least I do, as I get when I’m petting my dog. It’s a connection that’s a really fundamental, basic human connection. You can feel it.

Do you take time for for questions when you speak to groups?

I do allow for questions. In fact, if it’s a very interesting group, and an engaged group, I often just like to come in and sit on a stool in front of the audience and answer questions. As a way of getting into some of these things, it just naturally happens, I think.

Do people tend to want specific advice, or are they more likely to seek reassurance because they doubt their own gardening skills?

Both of those. Or even broader than that, [discusing gardening] in a deep philosophical way. Those are the most rewarding conversations for me.

Should gardeners accept that there will probably be a certain amount of failure?

Well, that’s certainly what I encourage and preach, that it’s not perfection we’re trying to achieve, it’s the process. The end is a beautiful thing, but the end is sort of an illusion, it’s part of a cycle. And we just sort of see the bloom as the peak, the end, but it’s really it’s part of a cycle that you have to recognize. I’ve often said that the pursuit of perfection is folly. Perfection is an illusion, and it can set expectations in a way that leaves us flat and disappointed.

There’s also the mindset that you may hear a lot, which is, “But I kill everything I touch.”

I do hear that a lot. What a defeatist attitude. I’d love to meet their mother, to get to the root of some of that. [He laughs.]

You’ve made a strong case for container gardening over the years. Is that because many people with an interest in gardening have a limited amount of space?

It certainly is part of it. But my container gardening ministry is about trying to get people comfortable in growing things. It’s a place to start. And I believe in small victories. You can take on a project like that and not feel overwhelmed. It seems like so many things in life that people jump into sort of willy-nilly and take on too much, then they’re doomed to fail. And if you can help them take their enthusiasm and curb it a little bit, and approach it in a more circumscribed way, then you’re setting them up for a greater chance of successs.

How would you complete this sentence? I prefer to grow my food organically because …

I prefer to grow my food organically because it benefits the planet, my family, my friends and myself. I think it’s so important that we think about what we’re doing. If everybody did that, if there was a higher level of consciousness about those kinds of things, before it would be a different place we live in today.

You talk to people like they’re your next-door neighbors. Is that an Arkansas specialty? Bill Clinton seems to have the same ability.

[He laughs.] Well, I remember my grandad, who was a very wise man, said you have to learn to minister to people’s understanding. And just, everybody’s on this journey, and trying to figure things out. I think what you want to do is encourage them, and the best way to do that is to make them feel OK about not knowing everything. …

I think that’s all in your demeanor and your use of the language, and how you approach people. If your goal is to help people, then you’ve got to understand where they’re coming from, and to do that, you’ve got to get them comfortable, and they’re share that with you in various ways. And then you can, together, crack the problem.

David Crumpler: (904) 359-4164