It was a cool October morning. Jesse Yancy, a writer, cook and gardener woke up before the sun rose, and set out to work on his garden. His garden, in Belhaven, is an oasis for early morning walkers, kids and dogs alike. What was once a small parking lot, is now a towering labyrinth of wild flowers, and colorful plants. Vines bearing curvy gourds rest along twine string connecting to a central bamboo support pole, creating an earthen ceiling, covering a coy pond and a bucket of red, naked ladies.
A couple of young women tell each other about their children running through the garden coming out saying that they “need to get pumpkins because Mr.Yancy needs them.” The joggers are standing in front of a bamboo gate and trellis, designed like a Japanese arch way,(designed by Yancy and Howard Bahr) bound together by thick cotton cord and vines. Through the archway, the path goes down brick stairs and to the garden floor. There are cinder blocks holding poles made of bamboo or crape myrtle limbs, propping up string lights which weave through the canopy. In the center of the garden is a large metal flag pole, with the proposed new Mississippi state flag on it.
Yancy, also blogger, moved to Jackson to take care of his brother in 2003. He is originally from Bruce, a small town in the northern part of the state.
“As far as the blog goes, Mississippi Sideboard, that’s been going on for about 12 years. I’ve been writing about food for 20 years, and even before that I was a chef around north Mississippi, then south Mississippi, the Florida panhandle, then I got homesick so I came home and finished my journalism degree at Ole Miss.
“I moved to Jackson in 2003 to take care of my brother, and he passed away. Then, my sister fell ill and she passed away in 2007, and I started the garden the next year in 2008—She was a gardener, and I wanted to do something to help remember her.
“I just went out there with a shovel and started digging. 12 years later, this is it.”
Yancy’s garden is well known for its large, sometimes up to nine-foot, sunflower plants. The garden is also home to a variety of herbs such as purple and green basil, heirloom tomatoes, corn and vines bearing voluptuous green gourds. The lavish 12-foot banana plant spills from out of the thick brush over the street, reaching for the sun. There are small Buddha icons and milk cartons filled with soil and popsicle stick labels protruding from them on the ground; all kinds of varieties of plants. Near the base of the flagpole is a sundial with a red clay potholder resting on its face. The garden swings together in the wind like a chaotic heap of life dancing under the sun
“This is what I would call a guerilla garden.”
For readers scratching their head, a guerilla garden is a garden with plants clipped from other places and is often not located on one’s own property. In this case, the garden is in a parking lot Yancy does not own. but that he says is something he owes to Wydell Nejam.
“Mr. Nejam has been overwhelmingly generous. He is my landlord, he is my friend and he is essentially a patron of this garden—He is letting me do this.”
When he is not using his green thumb to work in his garden, he is probably writing with it for his blog, Mississippi Sideboard. Mississippi Sideboard is a collection of archived stories pertaining to Jackson culture.
“One of the things I do with the blog is to publish materials that have local interest that otherwise would be lost. For instance, recently I published “The Last Mississippi Spot” by Hosford Fontaine and its about Allison’s Wells, which used to be in Way, Mississippi, before it burned in 1963. And it was a satellite of Jackson Society and the arts; when it burned it was considered a city wide—even statewide calamity. And a lot of people have not heard of it. This book that Hosford wrote is just wonderful, it’s got recipes, it’s a memoir and today even the name Allison’s Wells reverberates with a lot of people.”
“I wanted to do a piece on Charlotte Capers, who was the director of the Mississippi department of archives and she literally created modern archives. When she started working there in 1938 there were three people, and now its like a mega-state department.
“This is our history, this is us, this is who we are. These tales inform the present and I don’t want these things to be lost.”
Aside from gardening and writing, Yancy enjoys cooking.
“I was cooking professionally for almost 12 years, so it was more than a hobby. But let me tell you, cooking as a profession is something for younger men. Older men who call themselves chefs, they’re administrators, they aren’t in the kitchen doing 12-hour shifts. They are telling people what to do, they are the conductors in the orchestra.
“If you have enough patience you can learn to cook almost anything. Souffles are always tricky and merengues depend on the weather, you know. Basically, I got too old to cook professionally and I couldn’t afford a restaurant, so I went back to college and got my journalism degree from Ole Miss. I have enough for a master’s degree but frankly I don’t want to be in academics.
“Jackson is kind of special though because it really doesn’t have an accent. It is between Memphis barbecue and a New Orleans Gumbo, arcadian French thing. It’s got a sort of schizophrenia personality.
Yancy’s garden is far from a private temptation. For many members of the community, it is a place welcome for visitors who want to pick fresh herbs, a place to walk through and feel surrounded by nature, a garden of secret Buddha statues and hidden flowers.
“it’s part of the community, you known I like for kids to come in and I think its important that they know where their food comes from. I think it’s important for a kid to pick a tomato. Kids are so much fun in the garden, you can keep them out, you know, ‘Don’t go in there or ill put a bug in your ear.’ And they’ll run away thinking I’m actually gonna put a bug in there and the parents just say ‘why didn’t I think of that.’
“Every year, around this time I have a pumpkin cemetery, its my compost of course, so what I do is put up a sign that says pumpkin cemetery and kids come and bring their pumpkins, its almost ceremonial its like ‘Alright, were gonna bring Jesse our pumpkins today.’ Some of them even dress up to bring me their pumpkin I think its hilarious. And next spring I have pumpkins coming up all over the damn place.”
The wild and teeming garden grows up to only several feet under the newly adopted Mississippi state flag which rests on a pole in the gardens center. Yancy says he hopes to see the flag adopted state-wide.