YOU KNOW HOW IT GOES: You open your email and have to weed out the invasive solicitations and spam first. But then sometimes you get rewarded, like I did last Oct. 8 after clicking on a message with the subject line “website advice.”
“I am Travis Cox, gardener and lover of all things outdoors,” it began. “I am in the 11th grade. I’m the youngest Master Gardener in my state (became a MG’er in 2014) and am interested in starting a website to share my love of gardening with the world.”
And this: “I am 17 years old and I have gardened all my life.”
Travis’s timing was impeccable. Just days before, a 30-something garden friend and I had been talking about a subject that troubles not just us, but the entire horticulture industry: Will subsequent generations take to gardening like my generation, and my parents’ and grandparents’ did? Even at his age, my 30-something friend is something of an oddity when he stares out at lecture halls full of people twice his age at garden events where he’s the speaker.
Where is the succession plan in all those auditoriums of people my age and older whom we both address?
And then Travis Cox appeared, as if to quiet our fears.
I think I surprised Travis when I suggested we meet on Skype so he could tell me more, the first of a string of continuing conversations. I would later learn that our calls also apparently achieved a small first step in one mission-statement item on the About page of the new WordPress website Travis has built for himself, The Garden Scout.
The About page says that Travis, “…wishes to bridge the gap between older, more experienced gardeners and younger gardeners seeking to explore the world of plants through interacting with nature.”
BETWEEN REALLY SERIOUS plant talk—”Have you ever grown Paris polyphylla?” he asks, referring to a fairly obscure, truly weird-looking Chinese Trillium cousin, because his has lain dormant for a year after transplanting and he is worried—I learn that he enjoys home-schooling. Besides a structured curriculum that includes a book a week (one recent stretch: “Jane Eyre,” “Pride and Prejudice” and “Robinson Crusoe”) he also takes courses at the local community college.
I learn too, that he lives on the cusp of Zone 7b and 8a in northern Louisiana, which is “not swampy or bayous, but slightly hilly—the real mountains start up toward Arkansas.” That there are massive water oaks (Quercus nigra) all around, but also a stand of giant bamboo that somebody let loose (uh-oh). That he made his first garden in 2008, with an assist by his information technologist father (and a tiller). That his mother is a wildlife biologist.
That he dreams of studying landscape architecture. I hear that designer-DNA surfacing when Travis talks about his works-in-progress:
“My own garden is pretty much just one great, big experiment,” he says. “I like formal structure and classic design, but modern elements, such as grasses and informal plantings, are also part of the plan. In 2014, I ripped out all of the existing plants and began to remake my garden, one space at a time.”
So far, he has “a fully functioning organic vegetable garden, a beginning woodland garden, and a large garden that houses all the rest of my ornamental and edible oddities.” A small orchard borders one side of the garden, and is surrounded by a large field.
“I’m already thinking of what I could do with that field!” (Oh how I miss my own Manifest Destiny days, listening to that expansive thinking.)
I hear about the car trip to Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina that ranks among the best vacations ever—well, at least for Travis.
“We had to practically drag my sister along, because she’s not interested in plants—but she’s used to it by now,” he admits.
That he’s been giving his first talks to garden clubs (topics include “basic cottage gardening”) and has 2,600-plus followers on Instagram. And that he loves the garden writing of the late Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter in England.
What? We read the same stuff? Who told him about Christo, anyhow?
“My library has a huge gardening section, thankfully,” he says, “so I’d bring home armloads every week. I like to just research stuff, and in a Beth Chatto book I stumbled across a reference to him—and of course I had to go find out more.”
The thought that Travis Cox of Louisiana, age 17, is reading Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd makes me less afraid for the world.
Speaking of books, a Travis-ism:
“My garden always keeps me on my toes as to what will happen next, kind of like a well-written book.” (A whole essay on why he gardens is at this link.)
OUR CALLS are punctuated with wide-ranging questions, beyond the cultural needs of that recalcitrant Paris: What WordPress plug-ins do I use for extra functionality on my website? Do I have any solutions for hedge bindweed, which we both suffer from? Do I know Pam Penick, the Austin-based blogger he much admires?
And I have my own questions, including the obvious ones about what brought Travis to the garden.
“When I was younger, my family would often take me out in my grandparent’s garden and teach me the names of various plants, like maple, magnolia, rose, etc.,” he says. “They always thought it important that I grow up being outdoors and build up real-life experiences doing things that would help me in the long run, not just sitting inside playing video games for hours a day like I see some of my generation doing.”
Can he recall his first plant? Seeds for magenta four-o-clocks, Mirabilis jalapa, were a gift from his grandfather, and he still grows them.
His latest plants? Tropical arums; species calla lilies; senna (in the border above with canna and more, Senna alata, the popcorn plant); lots of asters (despite fighting the disease of aster yellows); an African horned melon he ordered accidentally; a recent experiment with growing sugarcane (all the way through to making syrup), and the list goes on.
Is there one thing Travis doesn’t, or wouldn’t like to, grow?
Do I want to hear a funny story? he asks, in response. Do tell.
“Everyone here is obsessed with growing tomatoes, but I am sensitive to tomatoes, so I don’t eat them,” he says.
We have the Skype video function turned off, but I can tell that he is grinning now.
“When they ask ‘What kind of tomatoes do you grow?’ I say, ‘I don’t.’”
No surprise, since there is not a thing that is mundane or expected about Travis Cox, Master Gardener. Nothing at all, a fact for which I am very grateful.
I hope that you will go meet him, as I have, and say hello.