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I began seeing that all the lessons of life grow in the garden -- everything from birth to growth, nurturing, love, passion, and sometimes heartbreak. As a writer, I saw a wonderful challenge and opportunity: Tell those lessons, and others, through gardening -- mine and others'. Focusing on these life stories, I hoped, would make my writing accessible to gardeners and non-gardeners alike.


"All life's lessons grow in the garden: Birth, nurturing, love, heartbreak, success, joy and so many more." -- from Gardening Life by Lee May

Author and journalist Lee May strides into a room and you know he is there. He is a tall, well dressed man over 50. I first saw him at a small town North Carolina book talk. The audience took to him right away. After all, we are all gardeners.

Lee May writes about the people he has met through his interest in gardening and in life. In his essays, collected in Gardening Life, he tosses together characters and tales about plants and places. It is a wonderful mulch from a natural storyteller. Folks seem to let themselves "be" in their garden and Lee May is there to tell us what he has seen, what he has heard and how it all felt.

In Gardening Life, you meet the people in Lee May's life: his wife, Lyn, his father, the subject of an earlier memoir, In My Father's Garden, and many other folks who chat easily with the author as old friends might about plants and trees and ornamentals and grass.

"Nothin's gonna come and get in your lap," [his father] said. "You got to work for it."

But Lee May doesn't appear to working at it at all. He is a former hard news Washington correspondent and Atlanta bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times who, one fine day in mid-career, walked away.

He still wears the well-cut correspondent's jacket but a silk shirt and bolo replace what must have been power ties and button downs. He is a news journalist turned gardening life essayist, columnist, and obviously happy man.

His is a task so joyful to him that gardening life becomes a verb. He digs and waters and plants and gardeners of every ilk sprout and climb and spread the wonderful stories of their gardens all around him. And luckily for us he shares.

Lee May's gardening columns and feature stories have appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 1992. He is a senior contributing editor for Southern Accents magazine.

He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Grand Prize and the National Conference of Christians and Jews Gold Medal for outstanding contributions to better human relations. He is a member of the board of the Atlanta Botanical Garden and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Lee May and his wife, Lyn May, executive director of an adolescent pregnancy prevention program, live in Atlanta and have a home and garden in the North Georgia mountains. Together, the Mays have five grown daughters. Their current house mates are two cats, Vincent and Buuud.

Recently, I asked him via e-mail about his writing.


Janice A. Farringer: Writing is a solitary job. Gardening is largely about making personal choices and taking personal action with a spade, but your writing about gardening is all about people. How did you begin to view gardening as an opportunity for social commentary?

Lee May: My discovery began with my reunion with my father in 1989, after 39 years of separation, without telephone calls, letters or visits. As we got to know each other through our shared love of digging in the dirt, I saw the power of gardening to bring people together.

Soon after, I began seeing that all the lessons of life grow in the garden -- everything from birth to growth, nurturing, love, passion, and sometimes heartbreak. As a writer, I saw a wonderful challenge and opportunity: Tell those lessons, and others, through gardening -- mine and others'. Focusing on these life stories, I hoped, would make my writing accessible to gardeners and non-gardeners alike.

Your distinguished career as a hard news journalist must have prepared you in some way for your current work. The two areas of writing seem so different. Are you able to see how your years in news prepared you for writing about very personal gardening topics?

To be sure, I learned -- and continue to use -- much from those news days. While the subjects do differ, gardening-writing and news writing both benefit from interest in people, clear, concise writing, attention to details, knowledge of the subject.

You have a very easy way of incorporating a personal, almost diary-style into your essays. Do you keep a diary or journal? Do you use it as source material?

No, I don't keep a diary. The beauty of writing my passions is the images last -- unlike those surrounding subjects I once focused on as a Washington correspondent: subcommittee hearings, State Department briefings and such. And, because I do keep appointment books, I can find times and dates if I need them.

In the South, before "New" was added to its description, there was a streak of thunderous feeling for the land, the land, the land. It ran through farmers and gardeners equally. Are you a product of that kind of rootedness and how did that shape your gardening life in other parts of the country before you returned to the South?

I grew up at one with the land. Love and respect for it was a natural outgrowth of having lived off it for so many years. Reverence for it stemmed from never having much of it. Those of us who migrated "up South" took our agrarian ways with us to Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, New York and all the other industrial Meccas.

In East St. Louis, Illinois and Cleveland, my relatives always grew something to eat, even though by then we could afford to buy vegetables from stores. Thus, it was always clear to me that gardening and the connections with the earth and with other people were the goal, not just what was grown. I have transferred that history from food gardening to ornamental gardening, a fact that never ceased to amaze my birth father.

In your own small urban garden and your mountain retreat, there must be similarities in the types or colors or even heights of plants you have sought to grow. Are your favorites a chance thing, perhaps based on form or fashion, or picked entirely from pleasant human associations? Perhaps this is the essence of the differences among gardeners.

My gardens are planned only to the extent that I set out to cover all the gardening ground in both places. After that, they evolved through my bringing home "souvenirs" from travels, gifts from friends and strangers, and purchases of plants that begged me to take them.

Certain plants are in my gardens because they remind me of Big Momma: rose of Sharon, prickly pear, mimosa, not considered elegant by many gardeners but old-timey plants most grandmothers grew. Height, color, size play minimal roles; I like them tall, short and in all colors.

Many individual plants evoke memories and serve as reminders of good times, while some now make the bad times seem better. Each of my Japanese maples and Japanese black pines recall gardens I saw and loved when I visited California. Too, they take me to Kyoto and other places I've never been.

An azalea I bought in Biloxi blooms sweetly, wiping out the memory of the story I was covering during my visit to that Gulf Coast town: conflicts between Southeast Asians and the native population.

Always, the most pungent memories come from fragrant plants, as the sense of smell is the most evocative of senses. Sweet shrub, magnolia blossoms, gardenia always remind me of my childhood in Meridian, Mississippi, where sultry nights held great promise. And mystery.

For a man in mid-life to be so self revelatory was a surprise to me in your work. Perhaps I am laboring under not only a male but a Southern stereotype. You speak publicly of your feelings as easily as you write of them. Is this from some years on a therapist's couch or were you always verbal and open with your feelings?

I was not always so open. It was time, however, and not the couch that opened me up. Aging is a freeing process; it teaches me that revealing feelings can be instructive to others, entertaining sometimes -- rather than dangerous, which is what I thought as a younger man.

A caveat: There is a danger in revealing too much. Some things a reader just doesn't need -- or want -- to know. Certain revelations can embarrass both the reader and the writer. So, the writer has to know when to stop... revealing. | September 1999


Janice A. Farringer is a writer and creative writing teacher living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.