The Transplanted Gardener: A good judge of sharing

Photo courtesy of Craig Summers Black.
Judge Odell McGhee grows spreading plants such as lamb’s ear in his garden – and his friends’ gardens too.

True to his transplanted Southern roots, Odell McGhee is a passionate proponent of pass-along plants. “I don’t think you should ever have to buy a flower,” he says. “If you have a flower someone likes, give them a little piece. Sharing – that’s what gardening is about.”

This simple act of horticultural presentation will do you good in two ways, Mr. McGhee says:

1) You get this feel-good sense of accomplishment: “Giving someone a plant, and then seeing it grow in their garden, it’s like going over to their house and seeing [your] artwork on their wall. You see it and think: ‘I did that.’ ”

2) Your garden receives an injection of history and character: “When someone gives you a plant, you think of them every time you walk by it. The man who works on my car gave me some plants. I have a couple things my mother gave me before she died. She brought plants on the plane. I’ve got rocks from people in my former office. I was the crazy guy who wanted rocks. I think of these people every day. It’s history right in the garden. In gardening, you find another way to relate to people.”

McGhee gardens at the Des Moines, Iowa, home he shares with his wife. They do not, however, share garden duties.

“We’re not big outdoorsmen – neither one of us,” he says. “But I like to garden. I’ll be out there all day long. My family always knows where to find me. My wife doesn’t garden, but she likes to show it to people.”

The garden descends abruptly behind the house in what are now four tiers or terraces. (“Before, it was a big nothing.”) Up high – closest to the house – is a brick and stone patio and dining area. As the garden gets farther and farther from the house, the formality is lessened. By the time you get down to the stream, the garden is almost a woodland.

“My concept is to bring the garden all the way to the house. It’s a big hanging garden,” says McGhee, who, when he isn’t wearing garden togs, dons the robes of a judge. “You can sit almost anywhere and get a different perspective. You should have different feels in a garden – different mood areas: quiet, serene, hectic. I’m trying. I haven’t done it yet.”

And despite – or maybe because of – the formality of court proceedings, he views his garden as anything but. “I don’t believe in having too formal of a garden. I don’t like eight of the same plants in a row. I like highs and lows. I like things to brush up against each other.”

McGhee began gardening as a child, growing up in Mississippi the son of a sharecropper.

“I’m a country boy – never grew out of it. My mother always had a flower garden, and my father always had truck patches. I went out a few times and picked cotton. I’ve cut down sugar cane.

“Times were hard. But it was also heaven. Money was never a problem because we never had any. We gave to people – vegetables, flowers, baking. And people gave to us. Everybody shared.”

Everybody – even though in hard-time Mississippi – had at least a few flowers.

“My mother stressed that you should surround yourself with a little beauty. Even in a world gone awry, you will always have a sense of serenity.”

McGee shares this feeling as well. On several occasions, he has told people in his courtroom, “If you don’t have any place to get married, you can get married in my garden.” And they do.

Or he asks the entire office over for lunch.

“People told me it was nice to get away. It’s so easy to do, but we don’t do it enough. We had a nice big old white tablecloth flowing in the wind.”

Or maybe it’s a quiet evening with just one other couple, "one of the greatest things I can think of.”

The garden, however, is a work in progress – and will remain so.

“A garden is never done,” he says. “My ultimate plan is to just feel good about it.”

To read more by Craig Summers Black, click here and go to the end of the post for more links.

And don't forget the Monitor's garden photo contest on Flickr. Click here for the details.

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