As I stepped down off the perfectly air-conditioned tour bus, the oppressive 105 degree heat and humidity slapped me squarely in the face. After taking a moment to gather my bearings, I joined the rest of the tour group for a quick stroll to the shade of an oak tree standing guard in front of an elegant, yet simple large farmhouse.
The owner of the farm came out to greet the group of 46 university extension agents from 22 different states touring horticultural spots in Arkansas before the National Association of County Agriculture Agents Conference.
The farm was Moss Mountain Farm, and the owner greeting the gathered crowed was P. Allen Smith, a gardener and farmer of international acclaim, whose shows on public television and HGTV entertain and educate millions. We were all excited to be there despite the nearly soul-crushing heat.
This was the first stop of several for our two-day tour through northern Arkansas. The trip included a visit to a flower and berry farm, the Heifer International ranch (the organization that asks people to send gifts of livestock to poor countries overseas), the University of Arkansas fruit research station (the largest breeder of blackberries in the world), an organic farm, and a tree and bee farm.
These tours are fun because you get to learn so much about horticulture in the area while networking with colleagues from across the country. This year, we had the added benefit of meeting with and touring the farm and garden of a bona fide celebrity.
I’m not sure what I expected from the trip. Because he is considered the Martha Stewart of the South, I expected Smith’s gardens to be immaculate and for his demeanor to be friendly but distant.
I was surprised on both accounts. We were greeted with warmth and Southern hospitality, with stories about why he grows certain plants and his favorite things to grow.
As we made our way through the vegetable garden, Allen (he goes by Allen) invited us to eat anything we saw that looked tasty and to “feel free to pull weeds as you go.” And there were weeds.
That made me really appreciate the gardens — they weren’t totally manicured and sterile. There were weeds. There were diseases. There were bugs. There were flowers with dead blossoms. It was like being at your own home garden, only on a larger and grander scale.
Each spot we visited, from the vegetable garden, to the rose garden and the terrace garden behind the house overlooking the Arkansas river below, was a delight. Simple, yet elegant, almost like visiting someone’s home whose eclectic style both puts you at ease and excites you.
Like when all the furniture, artwork and little bits of clutter show a life full of experiences with a nonchalant grace and simplicity. That’s what this garden was — simple yet elegant, nonchalant yet breathtaking.
As we passed by a tall fig tree in the terrace garden, we were all invited to sample as many figs as we liked, enjoying their warm sweetness. Many of our party had never before in their lives eaten a fresh fig, having only experienced them in dried or cookie form. They were a true delight.
The farm is dedicated to education, from gardening to his other passion, chickens (which he actually likes more than gardening), livestock, beekeeping and sustainable living.
While the house may look like it has been sitting on the mountain for more than 100 years, it is in fact only a few years old. It was built and decorated to look old, but the building was featured in several seasons of his television shows.
As our tour finished, we made our way inside to a lovely (and air conditioned) meeting space where we were served cold slices of Arkansas watermelon, cookies and freshly squeezed strawberry lemonade.
Along the walls were bundles of old farm tools and large paintings depicting vegetables that he painted himself and one art auction house cleverly titled P. Allen Smith’s Big Ass Vegetables.
Allen stayed with us for a while to answer more questions and tell us the story of how he got his first chicken as a child, which involved chasing it through a women’s dress shop and cornering it a dressing room with a not-so-fully-dressed woman inside.
One of the questions from the group was what his favorite tomato varieties were. He named his favorite cherry tomato (Sweet 100s) and his favorite canning/paste tomato (Roma). But the best part was when he named his favorite slicing tomato, which is West Virginia’s own Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter.
I, of course, had to let him know of the Mountain State origin of the Mortgage Lifter. (This was not the only stop we made where the favored tomato was Mortgage Lifter either.)
Before we boarded the bus with its glorious air conditioning, I was able to grab a quick, yet sweaty, picture with the gardening legend. I left the farm feeling all warm (both physically and emotionally) and an even bigger fan of Smith’s. It will certainly be a visit to remember.