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You Can Have Fields of Flowers

This gardener grows flowers as if they were crops.

The way Pansy Johnson sees it, if one flower is pretty, a dozen are prettier.

And why stop at a dozen when you could have hundreds or thousands more?

That's the way she raises flowers on the 61-acre property she owns with her husband, Clabern, on the edge of Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park north of Memphis.

Instead of gardening in defined beds, Johnson grows flowers the way farmers raise crops — in rows and fields.

"I just like them," she said when asked why she grows fields of poppies, larkspur, and zinnias; rows of calla lilies, tuberoses, gladiolus, feverfew, lilies and dahlias; hedges of hydrangeas and ornamental grass and huge stands of bamboo.

"She's been crazy about flowers for as long as I can remember," said Clabern.

About three years ago, when they turned their fabric business over to their daughter and son-in-law, Pansy threw her energy into growing real flowers in a big way.

Pansy occasionally sells calla lilies or tuberoses to florists, but she doesn't deliver, and few will take the time to come to her.

But she rarely cuts flowers to use in bouquets herself. "They last longer in the yard, and I like for them to go to seed," she said.

Seeds drive her flower production. "I love seeds," she said. "I buy seeds and save seeds. I never bought a larkspur or poppy plant."

She's most enthusiastic about her recent success in growing masses of calla lilies from seed. The tender plant is usually grown from rhizomes, and that's how Pansy started, too. She didn't dig up the rhizomes that first fall, and they all froze.

While weeding a second planting, she accidentally pulled up a calla lily and noticed seeds at the ends of the roots.

She decided to see what would happen if she let some seeds mature and dry. She sowed them early the next May. "They didn't bloom the first year, but they did the next," she said.

Instead of digging up the plants, she covers them in the fall with a layer of ground leaves, 8 to 10 inches deep. In the spring, she rakes all but a thin layer of the leaves away and puts them in a compost pile.

"We believe in returning everything to the earth," Pansy said. They use leaves generated on their own property for mulch but help themselves to bagged leaves and pine needles set out for collection on tree-lined streets all over Memphis.

The thick mulch also insulates her tuberoses, a plant that won't make it through the winter unless it is dug up and stored or covered with mulch.

"I don't dig up anything for the winter except my glads," she said.

Seeing the results of her work makes her feel good. She's even happier when people stop to look or take pictures. She'll usually cut a few flowers for anyone who asks.

The area around the house, where most gardeners concentrate their efforts, is devoid of flowers and pretty shrubs.

Pansy calls it ugly. "The dogs own it," she said.

But if she turns her head in any direction, her eyes are filled with fields of flowers.

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