An author, ‘born’ gardener, passionate cook and sought-after designer, he’s been described as a Renaissance man and lifestyle expert. And after just five minutes chatting with James Farmer III, one more description comes to mind: old-fashioned Southern gentleman. Knowledgeable and funny, his charming Georgia accent will have you asking another question just so you can hear him say “Yes, ma’am!” one more time. Farmer’s new book, A Time to Plant: Southern-Style Garden Living, just debuted in bookstores and he was recently in St. Louis for a book signing, and as a special guest of the Ladue Garden Club. We asked Farmer about growing up in Georgia and his passion for the garden.
LN: In your new book, and as a contributor to Southern Living, you write about gardening, cooking and design. People look to you for answers—what’s the question you hear most often?
JF: (laughing): The very first question is always the same: Where is Kathleen, Georgia?
LN: And the answer?
JF: Kathleen is an unincorporated area not far from Perry, Ga.—which isn’t a big town, but at least it’s a town! I was born and raised in Kathleen, on my family’s farm.
LN: Do you have some early memories of the garden? Of cooking?
JF: I started gardening at the ripe old age of about 6 months. One of my earliest memories is being in the arms of my grandfather, who loved to work in his garden. I can still remember the scents as he cut roses and tomatoes and hydrangeas. And I learned about traditional Southern cooking from my grandmother, who always cooked from her kitchen garden.
LN: The book features some tempting recipes! Do you like to cook?
JF: Yes ma’am—it’s my therapy! If I’ve been working all day and I can start piddlin’ around the kitchen, I’m rejuvenated, recharged and probably a little bit full.
LN: You mention the importance of “weaving the garden into daily life.” Could you give us an example?
JF: Remember that everything you eat, grew somewhere. Maybe you don’t know the farmer who grew your peaches, but perhaps the tomato you put on your sandwich, and maybe the basil, too, came from your backyard. It’s that wakeup moment when you know: I can live with the garden and the garden can live with me. How can that enrich my life?
LN: What about those of us with a balcony instead of a backyard?
JF: It doesn’t matter if you have a plot or a pot—use what you’ve got! If you can just grow some mint in a pot on your terrace, you can experience garden living. Use that little bit of mint in your tea or tossed in a salad. Or root it in water and make a small bouquet for a friend.
LN: Your book tour includes cities across the U.S. What message do you hope people get from A Time to Plant?
JF: You know, people are intrigued that I’m young, because they when they think about gardening they think about an old man in overalls, pulling a hoe through the cornstalks. But gardening is ageless. I want to take the knowledge of the past and tweak it for my generation.