Jimmy Turner, the Dallas Arboretum’s chief horticulturalist, combines homespun humor with a green thumb to really make a garden grow
GREAT PUMPKIN FEST
Autumn at the Arboretum, 8525 Garland Road. Sept. 19â€“Nov. 1. $8.
Jimmy Turner goes by many names: the Dirt Diva, the Garden God, the Horti Ho" — and even Mouth of the South" (a moniker given to him by Southern Living). But if you want to stay on the good side of this fast-talking, quick-witted senior director of gardens for the Dallas Arboretum, you better not call him a pansy … at least if you don’t want to get knocked on the head with a shovel, which young Jimmy did to taunting bully Skeeter Davis while growing up in East Texas.
It wasn’t that Turner objected to the pansy-flower comparison so much (he actually finds them to be a very colorful and resilient plant); it was more of a survival-of-the-fittest moment for this self-confessed "queer and fat kid" growing up in rural Lone Oak, Texas (or as he calls it, "A town so small it was named for one tree").
"I always tell my mama the reason that I’m gay is because I had to take cold-water baths in a number-three washtub," says Turner, who spent his formative years living in a tent in one of Texas’ hottest summers on record before moving into the rustic family farmhouse. "I am Spam-sucking trailer trash made good. Yes, I have lived the good ol’ days. I can make biscuits and a three-layer cake over an open flame … and I would never do it again."
But like many of the plants he cultivates, from such humble seeds grew a formidable adult. Turner is now responsible for every "root, leaf and tree" on display at the Dallas Arboretum and says he has always known exactly what he wanted to do with his life. "I came out of the womb looking for the next plant," he says.
Turner graduated from East Texas State ("Texas Neanderthal University" he calls it) with a bachelor’s degree in horticulture, followed by a master’s from Penn State. He briefly considered a career in academia, but was urged by his professors to reconsider an occupation with less need for diplomacy and politics. "There’s always been a screen door between my mouth and brain, and it’s just been wedged open more and more over the past 50 years," he says.
Following graduation, Turner began working at a nursery. He later transitioned to a landscaping firm with a brief, miserable stint as an apprentice pastry chef in between. Then, about seven years ago Turner was offered his dream job: king of all things flora at the Arboretum.
Under his auspices, and with a crew of about 25, Turner oversees all of the Arboretum’s garden design; the department installations and staff; budget; garden lectures and articles; and his pride and joy: the trial gardens, which tests plants that can survive in Texas’ extreme climate. (It boasts the tagline: "If we can’t kill it, no one can.")
Says Turner about his all-encompassing workload, "I’m one of those people who’s obsessive/compulsive, right brain, Type-A, ADD, and all the bad things you could put in a person … which is good because if I don’t have a lot to do, then I get bored and leave."
Fortunately, boredom is not an option. Three times a year, Turner and his team of diligent wood sprites transform the grounds entirely. For Autumn in the Arboretum, which opens Sept.19, this includes unloading about 40,000 pumpkins and four semis loaded with squashes and gourds (some as large as 60 pounds) that will be used to float in fountains, to shape into sculptures and to scatter amongst more than 3,500 mums and 150,000 fall blooming flowers planted to add seasonal color.
The day after Thanksgiving, it’s all cleared out to make way for the Arboretum’s biggest attraction: Dallas Blooms. During this annual springtime event, the crew plants more than 400,000 bulbs and 200,000 to 300,000 bedding plants over a six-week period.
As if planting pandemonium weren’t enough, one of the highlights of Turner’s year is the trial garden plant sale, held in May, which pits plant lovers (hortivultures?) against one another for limited amounts of seedlings and sprouts that have survived to thrive. On a catty scale, it ranks somewhere between a 50-percent-off sale at Neiman’s Last Call and the lily pond fight scene from Dynasty. According to Turner, "Plant sales are not for the weak or the faint of heart; there are a limited amount of things for a few people."
But if anyone makes us want to try it, it’s Turner.
When he’s not writing, speaking or dreaming about gardening, Turner dishes out some of his tell-tale "Jimmy-isms." Among them:
On friendship: "If you can’t be skinny, make your friends fatter."
On soil: "It’s like putting on makeup … you don’t do your eyes before you put on your foundation, dear. Spend money on soil amendments before you buy the flowers."
On the banes of his existence: squirrels, kids and brides: "You think you have problems? I had 36 school buses full of school kids here today."
On bedding plants: "Annuals are just nature’s version of a slip cover."
On flowering bushes: "They make better fall color than poison ivy."
On career: "The success of my garden is built on the compost of my failures."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 18, 2009.