Author: Katherine Laughlin

Manure and other Winter Thoughts


January is an introspective month for me. I look inward and take solace in the quiet, winter landscape. I try to redirect the urge to jump up to getting things done and sitting in silence. It’s as though the earth is at rest and I am meant to be, too. Though the sky is clear and the infinite star-filled cosmos feels like it’s within my grasp, my tendency is to look down at the wonder beneath my feet at the delight any gardener or farmer; the soil. Good old terra firma or Mother Earth.

In fact, it’s during these cold weeks ahead we clean the barns and poultry houses mining the gold that’s built up over the previous seasons. Yes, manure, nutrient-rich, life-restoring manure. An inauspicious chore to some, but I actually look forward to this ritual because I have seen with my own eyes what it can do to my soil. It’s like an elixir or spring tonic that feeds an invisible universe below us. It’s the microbial activity that lies at the heart of creating healthy living soil.

My first memory of recognizing this power in the soil and manure, in particular, was when I was a little kid in the vegetable garden of my grandmother Smith. The generous vegetable patch was directly adjacent to a large barn with warm southwest exposure. Through the eyes of a child, her garden was different; the plants were larger and they seemed darker green and, well, it just appeared more alive.


You see, my grandparents, milked a small herd of dairy cows, mainly Jerseys and Guernseys each morning and evening. Of course, an important by-product of the rich milk was the manure from the cows. This black ‘gold’ was hauled from the hall and stalls of the barn into the garden and spread over fields in winter. But, it wasn’t until spring when it’s power was fully manifest in the plants that grew in what must have been, at least to me, the most verdant plot of ground on the planet.


I recall, in particular, the enormous leaves of the yellow crookneck squash and okra plants that made me feel lilliputian. Ma Smith directed me to gently twist and pull the young squash from the center of these colossal plants and place the vegetables into her basket. For a curious 3rd grader it was like a thrilling expedition into some mysterious tropical rain forest in search of rare gems. It was a space that stirred my imagination.

It would be many years later when I would fully understand what was going on in the soil that had made such an impression on me as a child. Oh, I had read insensitively through information on Sir Albert Howard and pored over his ‘Agricultural Testament’. But, after reading ‘Teaming with Microbes’ I became a total soil nerd. For months after reading the book twice over and raving on about the authors, Lowenfelds and Lewis, I recall friends politely asking me what I was currently reading… and I would say enthusiastically ‘Teaming with Microbes’ and then proceed to wear them out about the soil nutritional web beneath our feet. Nothing like the zeal of a new convert, right? As you can imagine, this did little to improve my social life.

Today, recognizing the importance of the complexity of our planet’s soil couldn’t be more important. I recently read an article by Heather Hansman about sustainability and our food system, it’s well worth a read. While it’s exciting that we are now finally reaching new levels of understanding out the complexity of the soil (it seems Ma Smith knew, at least intuited, it all the time). That universe in a teaspoon of soil is one of nature’s greatest marvels.

Click here to read.

The message in this article took me back to this summer when I lead a road trip with friends through the great Mississippi Delta, known for its rich, deep alluvial soil, as bountiful as the Nile River delta of ancient times. Stopping along the way it was hauntingly silent, almost dead, yet we were among the verdant fields. The crops of soybeans, cotton, and corn, stretching as far as the distant horizon, without a single weed or a fence row among them. Every plant a clone of the other, all perfectly uniform. A very different scene than from my childhood or Ma Smith’s garden where weeds and fence row hedges shared space among the crops.


The difference today is the use of chemicals and genetically modified organisms, in the genetics of the food we eat or feed to livestock. The soil is being saturated year in and year out with petrochemical-based fertilizers and chemicals such as glyphosate (Round-up), dicamba and defoliants. The fence rows are all gone, in the name of greater efficiencies and yields.

Over the course of the 200 plus miles on a hot afternoon, as we traversed along with the Mississippi River levy, we saw just nine songbirds and only once did an insect hit our windshield. Remarkable. It was like a scene from Rachel Carson’s 1962 bestseller ‘Silent Spring’.  A very different delta than I recall as a child when my brothers and I walked the fields quail hunting with my granddad. Then, the fence and hedgerows were intact and served as habitat for quail and other species. ‘Weeds’ grew in the fields that by today’s standards would be seen as unkempt and poor agricultural practices. But, be sure that those weeds play an important role in the larger ecology. Where are the bobwhite quail and other birds today? The proverbial canaries in the coal mine.

Sappy nostalgia for days gone by? I don’t think so. Destruction of the planet is going on around us at every turn and at a disturbing pace. Often in a veiled and silent way. In this time of retrospection, I often read the works of Wendell Berry, poet, farmer and environmental activist from Henry County, Kentucky. I find both comfort and discomfort in his words. A few years ago Robert Redford created a documentary called ‘Look and See’ about Wendell and his view on the world. The opening and trailer to the documentary is powerful; it’s a poem by Wendell himself set to video and read by him.


In this month, while the earth rests, look and see what’s around you. Look up at the mystery of the cosmos and reach down and marvel at a handful of soil. Find peace in silence.




P. Allen Smith

Community Matters

This year’s family Christmas party was different. I guess it’s the way I’m seeing the world these days. It supported observations I’ve made and a view that I’ve been developing for a while. You see, by and large, everything was much the same as usual with our annual family gathering at the farm. A home-cooked meal was shared and enjoyed with all the holiday comfort foods of our ancestors. Much of the fare was from the farm itself, such as the turkeys, roasted hens, turnip greens, hot pepper sauce, green tomato chow chow and, of course, Josephine Foster’s cornbread dressing. And, as our tradition holds, it’s always pot-luck in the category of desserts. And, a very competitive sport I might add, with great aunts defending their titles and pitted against nieces and cousins vying for the most compliments.  All great fun. Cousin Carmen won again this year, hands down, with her famous coconut cake (I’ll do what I can to squeeze the recipe from her for you). It rivals the coconut cake at The Peninsula Grill in Charleston.

What caught my attention this year is something we rarely see these days, and that is a gathering of people, a community if you will, of multiple generations. Out of the 109 guests (a record-breaker) five generations were present, with ages ranging from 3 to 93 years of age. They had come from far and wide to carry on a tradition that was started by my great-grandparents during the 1920’s, the Foster Family Christmas gathering. In those early days, it was held on Christmas Eve and that tradition carried on until my great grandmother, Josephine Crutchfield Foster, died. Today we gather in the same spirit of fellowship, telling family stories and just spending time together, but these days it’s held the weekend before Christmas and at Moss Mountain Farm.

The great diaspora of families in this country seems to be at an all-time high. In our isolated family gathering alone there were kinsmen from six states, and as far away as Washington state. To further underscore the far-flung, cousin Tim couldn’t make it in time, as he was returning from Antarctica (not the place he calls home, but on assignment with Nat Geo). But, you see my point, due to multiple factors we are all living in a dispersed and fractured world. The reasons are many –  jobs, educational opportunities, technology, health conditions the list goes on. Also, our obsession and dependence on the automobile and the ways communities are designed and built have spread us all hither and yon. When I really stop and think about it the reunion/party this year and those in attendance was something of a Christmas miracle.

But, this huge cultural shift is broader than what might be observed as a ‘one-off’ holiday phenomenon. It is simply a microcosm that demonstrates a larger need in the culture. Clearly we want and need to be together, increasingly so. There is something deep within us that is longing for togetherness. I see it everywhere. This lack of connectivity impacts our everyday lives. None more than the youngest and most senior in our society. Bringing together these two extremes of ages in our population is essential. We are losing something of great value when the young cannot be influenced by the older generation’s wisdom, life history, and experience. The knowledge that my great grandmothers and grandparents passed on to me has been invaluable throughout my own life.

My great aunt Mallie, 93 years old, going strong!

On the flip side, the curiosity, energy, and vitality of youth bring a certain joy and inspiration to older members of our society. The younger members bring on new ideas and ways of seeing the world. Their idealism and energy is refreshing and hopeful to older generations. For example, one little cousin has inspired the entire family with her love of animals and birds. The older generations love to hear about her discoveries, experiences, and accomplishments, and she is only 11 years old. Self-esteem and confidence are bolstered in the child, and inspiration and wonder is incited in the older generations through this simple example of the importance of multi-generational connectivity.

My nephew surprised everyone by dressing up as Santa!

Then there is technology. Only time will tell where it takes us. Facebook, Instagram, WeChat, FaceTime, etc. all have moved swiftly and deeply into our personal lives. Be certain that none of these platforms singularly or collectively are ANY substitute for the simple notion of being together and communicating face to face, one on one. The great irony for me, in this world we call the Information Age, is that real and meaningful communication between humans seems to have suffered, not improved. Today there appears to be more miscommunication, misunderstanding, and disconnection than ever before.  I know plenty who now only communicate via text, instant messenger, or email.  These forms of communication are seen by them, I suppose, as more efficient. Hardly the case, I say, more mistakes, misconceptions, and miscommunications are the rule rather than the exception. And, more often than not, leading to more wasted time and mind-share in the attempts to sort out the ensuing entanglements of not speaking directly. A disturbing trend, indeed.

Creating places and spaces that encourage, if not invite, people of all ages to experience more meaningful time together is a step in the right direction. This, no doubt will take time. Yet I’ve seen this happen at Moss Mountain Farm, another small example for the desire for connecting that has happened very quickly. Each year guests from around the country gather at the farm as a form of ‘community,’ where they spend time together, walk among nature and the gardens, dine with one another, and hopefully leave feeling reconnected, perhaps even making some new friends along the way. The family Christmas party, like our farm tour visitation, seems to grow in numbers each year. This is a constant reminder to me that we all need forms of togetherness, connection, and community.

Happily, during these visits when everyone is together, rarely is anyone on their phones, with the exception of capturing a few photographs of one another in a place that invites living in the moment and being together. Another hopeful sign.

As we look into 2020 I’ll be looking into various forms of community, human and otherwise. It’s an important concept that impacts so many aspects of life.  I hope you’ll share your observations and thoughts along the way.


Our Peony Garden: 7 Tips for Success

I’m a hopeless collector….of everything; you name it. Books, funky art, even funky friends, chickens, daffodils and lots of other flowers.

So, it’s easy to understand why I’d be be drawn to peonies too…like, in a big way. They are truly the queen of the flowers. You know, those kinds of flowers that evoke that… ‘Oh! Be still my heart’ kind of moments in life when you see them.

Allen with fresh cut peonies at Moss Mountain Farm

I’ve planted peonies in fits and starts my whole life, but mainly for others. Occasionally you’ll find a design client with enough space and passion for the flower to really go all out, but those are fairly uncommon these days. For the most part, many gardeners want a few in the garden integrated among other perennials, and I will be the first to say there is nothing wrong with that. Peonies, any way you want to grow them, get my attention and full support. However, I will say that over the years I’ve learned a few things about harnessing my enthusiasm and succumbing to my weaknesses…peonies being one of them. Perhaps the most important lesson in order to avoid heartache, no matter the scale of your planting, is to get it right the first time. So last year, true to my uncontrollable and unbridled passions, I embarked on a garden of 360 peonies from Gilbert H Wild. Yep… 360 plants ( tubers), 36 varieties, 10 each. The results were spectacular.

Peony Garden at Moss Mountain Farm

Here are some of my notes and takes aways from the field to consider if you’re serious about peonies. Hopefully, you’ll find them helpful:

  1. They don’t like to be disturbed. So plant them in a good place and leave them. So what’s a good place you might asking. Well, full sun or a spot with at least six hours of sunlight. I prefer morning light over hot afternoon. They need good average soil that drains well. Peonies do not like ‘wet feet’, so plant in well-draining soil or else the tubers will surely rot. And don’t scrimp on adding good amendments to the soil, like plenty of humus and well-rotted manure (Yeah, manure. Go make a friend with a farmer).
  2. Let’s face it, these flowers are extremely ephemeral, like most beauty. So plant multiple varieties that bloom early, mid and late in the season. This will extend the blooming season and your joy. And stop complaining about how the flowers don’t last long! Enjoy the moment and be content. Years ago a customer came into our nursery and wanted a landscape that was evergreen, bloomed all year and was low maintenance. I suggested they move to another hemisphere, perhaps near the equator or take up residency on another planet.

    ‘Krinkled White’ Peony
  3. Buy nice tubers (as I said, ours all came from Gilbert H Wild and Son) with 4 to 5 eyes and take your time planting them.
    Don’t skimp on size, or if you do, don’t complain if they don’t bloom the first year. And, don’t plant the tubers too deep. The eyes are red and needn’t be too deep underground. In the North, deeper planting is advised, but here in the South, I’ve only covered the eyes with about 1/2 inch of soil with great success.

    Peony tuber from Gilbert H. Wild


  4. Choose varieties suited to your climate. Peonies, by their very nature, prefer a cold winter. So if you live in Minnesota you probably grow amazing Peonies, but not so much in Texas. Sorry, it’s just a fact of life. Look at it this way, you don’t see fields of Texas bluebonnets in St. Paul, Minneapolis, right? So, it’s a trade off, like so much of life. I will say, however, I’ve found that the early bloomers perform the best in my zone 8a garden. Old standbys like ‘Festiva Maxima,’ ‘Sarah Bernhardt,’ as well as ‘Coral Charm,’ ‘Coral Sunset ‘ and many other single bloom types.
    ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ Peony


  5. Once they have bloomed I remove the seed heads. There’s no reason for the plant to continue to put energy into seed production when I’d rather it pour its resources into making larger tubers, which means… you guessed, it will have larger and more abundant blooms next year.
  6. And, another tip… for the first couple of years refrain from cutting the blooms from the plants with extra long stems (Yes, tempting, I know.) The plants with extra long stems and plenty of foliage left intact are your friends, so don’t get greedy the first few years. You see, these remaining stems and leaves are the workhorses of the plant and continue to help build larger stronger future tubers and thereby more plentiful blooms in seasons to come. Later, once the clumps are established you can cut blooms with long luxurious stems.
  7. Oh, and one last thing, the ANTS.
    Of all the questions I receive about peonies, those concerned about the tiny ants that congregate on the flower buds outweigh all questions combined. These ants are drawn to the sweet nectar-like sap that the bud produces. They do no harm to the peony, or will they you. Just rinse them off with cool water and let them go about their day…live and let live!

Below are a few photos of our new peony garden after only one year after being planted at Moss Mountain Farm, and some of the resulting blooms.

‘Largo’ Peony


Field of Peonies at Moss Mountain Farm


‘Mons Jules Elie’ peony


To learn more about growing peonies, check out the video below!

Tips for Growing Peony Growing Peonies

Caring for Pollinators

Many home gardeners and those in the agriculture industry know we have a pollinator problem on our hands. We need pollinators, such as bees, butterflies and birds, to enjoy some of our favorite fruits, vegetables and flowers. However, some threats to pollinators include, habitat loss, pollution, the introduction of non-native animals and plants, and climate change. And while we may not be able to address all of these, activities like beekeeping, planting native species and increasing habitat can provide relief to these helpful garden assistants.

Not all of us have time to start keeping bees, but it’s fairly easy to create little pollinator gardens full of native wildflowers to give them a place to land. Pollinators are creatures of habit, and though their natural habitat may be overtaken by construction sites or development, they will stay in the same areas and won’t travel very far to find food or shelter. That’s why it’s important to have patches of wildflowers and comfortable areas for them to live and work.

In an effort to help these vital gardening assistants, I have joined with First Community Bank for the “Bloom with Us” project which will install 20 pollinator gardens in the bank’s locations across Arkansas and Missouri. These gardens will begin growing in the first week of March and will not only be beneficial for pollinators but also beautiful for the members of the community.  It’s a win-win!

I hope you’ll drop by to stop and smell the flowers, and maybe even glimpse a few bees and butterflies at work or play. If you’d like to find out more about planting pollinator friendly gardens in your backyard, check out the planting guides at





And for more information on how you can support pollinators in your world, check out my YouTube video below and subscribe to our YouTube channel.