Bulb Bonanza was held at Robert Mills Carriage House, with displays of bulbs outside the meeting room.
Commonly referred to as “everyone’s favorite gardener,” horticulturist Jenks Farmer recently reunited with his former long-time partner Jim Martin.
“Jim is the most important and influential person alive in South Carolina’s public horticulture realm,” Farmer said.
The horticulturist duo spoke at Historic Columbia’s Bulb Bonanza on Nov. 4.
Now is the time to plant spring bulbs, plants with a “stem that is the resting stage of certain seed plants,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
Farmer talked about perennializing bulbs, meaning ensuring they come back every year because of the South’s climate and unique soil.
Some flowers such as daffodils do not return in the South because it doesn’t get cold enough.
Bulbs have been around Southern gardens for generations.
Bulb gardening “tells stories, it gives us an opportunity to connect,” Farmer said.
Martin talked about bulbs that don’t perennialize – ones providing joy, pleasure and color for one year, something that’s especially important for public displays.
The allium cristophii plant, for example – the Star of Persia – has a big flower head that dries up and doesn’t perennialize. People like to spray paint the blooms or put them on their Christmas trees.
Where it began
The duo began gardening at the state’s largest tourist attraction – Riverbanks Zoo & Garden.
Martin was hired to turn exhibits into immersive experiences with plants, such as bamboo and palms, to create animals’ habitats.
Then Martin hired Farmer to launch the botanical gardens.
“The botanical gardens are really pretty,” said Riverbanks Zoo aquarium employee Brabee Pirnie. “They’re prepping their winter plants right now and just set up the lights for Christmas.”
Martin and Farmer, who’s a published author, also talked about their many other local collaborations.
Farmer’s books were for sale, along with bulbs.
“The event was everything a garden talk and book signing should be,” said attendee Michell Thurmond. “Jenks (Farmer) is an exceptional human.”
‘The book tells things that were never told’
A typical book by Farmer includes tips and tricks on how to farm.
But his fourth book, his latest, differs from the rest.
Garden Disruptors is a creative nonfiction story about the people who built the botanical garden at Riverbanks Zoo.
Farmer and Martin answered questions about the book “because it’s been a little bit controversial,” Farmer said.
Columbia was a small, conservative city in 1990. It was big news when the Riverbanks hired two openly gay men as horticulturists.
Farmer also talked about how Southern gardens have been intricately tied to racism.
“The book tells things that were never told,” Farmer said. “And how I came to deal with that, and then to fall in love with that little town.”
What’s going on now
Now, Farmer keeps busy with projects around the Southeast.
He just finished a big project in Florence, South Carolina, and has an ongoing project on the coast near Pawleys Island.
Twice a week Farmer writes a small social media essay called Plant People, in which he talks about a plant-person and what their plant obsession is.
Farmer’s obsession is a crinum that South Carolinians love, he said.
“It’s like giant amaryllis, which is primarily an African plant,” Farmer said. “And we are one of the largest growers of that in the country.”
Farmer also manages his family’s farm, which is about an hour outside of Columbia and features a nursery with specialty bulbs.
Many groups also come to the farm for Lunch & Learn, an event including tours and food.
Frequent groups include visitors from the University of South Carolina Aiken biology department, the USC Aiken Horticulture Club and Augusta Technical College.
“We also have agritourism events like happy hour,” Farmer said. “We need to tell stories to connect people to (the) past – past mistakes as well as past good parts of our history.”