By Ginna Parsons
TUPELO – When you visit Dale Smith’s garden, you might come across such characters as Big Fred the frog, Clipper the fork-tailed bird, Rick the tick and Sting the scorpion.
These critters, made of rock, stone or metal, are among more than 20 that dot Smith’s woodland garden in Tupelo’s Lee Acres.
“We get a lot of people coming through the garden, a lot of groups and individuals who want to come look at it,” Smith said.
And he’s happy to show them around.
Smith, a retired park ranger with the National Park Service, got the idea for his garden in 2008.
“We were trying to bring our personal history back to life in our backyard,” he said. ”We always had trees and wildlife around us when we lived in the National Parks.”
Smith, his wife, Betty, and their two daughters lived in such places as Arizona, Virginia, Alabama, Oklahoma, Utah, Florida, South Dakota and Nebraska. He retired in 1994, spending his last 10 years with the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Smith was sitting in a garden bench under a canopy of trees – he calls it his cathedral – one day about six years ago and he looked to his right and saw nothing but a dead landscape.
“I said to myself, ‘This won’t do,’” Smith said.
So he sat down and drew out a sketch of what he wanted his woodland garden to look like. He put in all the trails he wanted to have, plus benches, bridges and views.
“I showed every tree we had to scale, every drip-line, even the seating area with the Adirondack chairs,” he said. “Then I took the sketch to Philips Garden Center and they laid out a plan for me of what they thought would look good. I looked at it and said, ‘I love it.’”
Philips put in oakleaf hydrangeas, azaleas, deciduous hollies, buckeyes, beautyberries, redbuds, dogwood, cotoneaster and juniper.
“All the big stuff, I let Philips do,” Smith said. “But everything else since 2009 I’ve done myself.”
Smith, 75, particularly wanted the garden to have a woodland influence, with an emphasis on native plants.
“I have Virginia creeper growing up a tree and people say, ‘Why don’t you cut that down?’ and I say, ‘No, it’s native. I love it.’”
A stroll through the garden reveals creeping phlox, woodland phlox, heuchera, Japanese painted ferns, autumn ferns, Virginia bluebells, purple and white trillium, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Solomon’s Seal, foamflower, columbine, Jacob’s ladder, wild woodland geraniums and English bluebells.
“The Virginia bluebells and the phlox have just taken off this year,” he said. “They’ve just been outstanding.”
Smith has also sprinkled dead logs around his woodland wonderland.
“Not only do they look really neat, but they also put the correct amount of humus in the soil,” he said. “So I keep replacing logs when they rot.”’
On one side of Smith’s yard are four compost bins filled with leaves and table scraps in various stages of decomposition.
“Each fall, I drive through the neighborhood and pick up black trash bags filled with leaves,” said Smith, a Lee County Master Gardener. “Last fall, I picked up 400 bags.”
He uses the compost in raised beds where he’s planted English peas, blueberries, broccoli, spinach, lettuces, Swiss chard, kale, tomatoes and parsley.
“I grow an abundance of parsley because monarch butterflies and swallowtail butterflies feed off of it,” he said.
On the opposite side of the yard is a sun garden planted with coreopsis, black-eyed Susans, butterfly weed, goldenrod, purple coneflowers and hyssop.
Near the sun garden is a “feeding station” where the Smiths provide three pounds of birdseed a day to all manner of birds, including cardinals, doves, wrens and bluejays, and some neighborhood squirrels.
“Our squirrels are fat,” he said. “They’re well-fed.”
Fortunately, Smith doesn’t have to feed Big Fred, Clipper, Rick, Sting and the others faux critters sprinkled in his woodland garden.
“When kids come through, I give them a clipboard with a sheet of paper listing all the critters and they check them off as they go through the garden,” he said. “And when I say kids, I mean anywhere from age 4 or 5 to age 90. I have adults that enjoy doing that, too.”
If you’d like to see Smith’s garden, give him a call at (662) 844-1620 to arrange a tour.