Randolph’s Greenhouses sits on a nondescript stretch of highway in West Tennessee on the outskirts of Jackson. There you’ll find Rita Randolph, one of the country’s top container garden artists at work, running from one greenhouse to another, making her next potted creation or selling a flat of annuals or perennials to a customer.
Fine Gardening magazine recently showcased Randolph’s work in a special edition on container gardens. But now during the hot southern days of late August, Randolph has closed her nursery as she does every year, and has turned her attention to a different type of artistic creation – making concrete garden art. For example, she’s making concrete leaves from impressions of the real thing. Leaves of hosta, elephant ears, banana plants, pipers, and other large-leaf plants cut from her greenhouses serve as real-life molds for her work.
She also conducts classes during August on Saturdays and Sundays for those who would like to learn this special craft. I took one of Randolph’s concrete leaf-making classes yesterday. Mixing the concrete by hand, shaping and working the wet sand to form to perfect foundation for the leaf, and painstakingly applying the concrete one small “patty” at a time over the leaf itself made for laborious and tedious work. It also required an artistic touch and eye to replicate the natural folds and undulations of the plant’s leaf.
I spent almost three hours working on the first phase of a two-foot by three-foot elephant ear leaf impression. I had to leave it there to cure for at least a week before I can pick it up, and then attempt to paint it. So the jury is still out on how my concrete leaf will actually turn out. But the time spent at Randolph’s gave me the opportunity to view her own beautiful concrete leaf creations, in every size and shape, hue and texture.
Her leaf work already rivals some of the best in the country, including those made by famed garden art designers George Little and David Lewis of Bainbridge Island, Washington, whose garden and artwork I saw two years ago on a trip to nearby Seattle.
Randolph estimates she’s already made (or assisted others in making) over 1,000 concrete leaves. That’s a lot of concrete, sand, mixing, and dirt under the fingernails. But dirt under the fingernails is nothing new for Randolph, who has been in and around plants all of her life. Twenty-six years ago, she bought the now 62-year old nursery business from her parents, the source of her passion for plants.
Randolph’s recipe for success as an innovative garden artist is instructive for those of us in other professions. First, distinguish yourself through creativity and an eye for design. Next, you’ll need to work hard – very hard — and get more than a little dirt under your fingernails. And finally, be passionate about what you do. If so, you might just find yourself leaving a good impression on your own clientele.