the oldest compost pile in Louisiana

In Louisiana, as botanist Charles M. Allen says, compost happens. Charles usually says that just to get a laugh but it is undoubtedly a true statement. Decomposition is part of the landscape along in the central Gulf coast. In general, things break-down quickly here, and feed the earth.

On a recent trip to Briarwood, Caroline Dorman’s fabulous horticultural home place, I was being driven about in a golf cart by Jessie and Richard Johnson, when we passed what Richard called the compost pile. I wasn’t particularly impressed at first, but I should have known better.

The pile appeared very unassuming. It looked like a long brush pile to me. I am guessing it was about eighty or a hundred feet long and maybe ten to fifteen feet wide, situated under the forested canopy of large trees on a relatively flat piece of ground.

Richard, who has curated these gardens for 42 years, said that he initiated the idea of the compost pile in the earliest part of his tenure. He said that the Briarwood folks simply collect limbs and organic debris and pile them on and let nature take its course. No fuss, no muss. In time, the pitched material settles down through decomposition and gravity and creates the finest, most precious commodity: compost.



above: “workers” at the Briarwood “Tom Sawyer Day” event, gather limbs for the compost pile.

Harvesting the compost is a ritual at Briarwood. It is mined when the time comes, no sooner. Whenever the garden needs some compost here or there, a section of the pile is “opened up” and mined for its black gold. Richard says he uses a screen to “sift out” the finished product. Its just like panning for gold, really. But I suspect compost panning is a bit more of a sure bet: its there, you just have to get to it.

I am not sure if this method would work very well without the shaded tree canopy. I would guess that weeds would settle in and management would be a bit more difficult. There’s no doubt, too, that there is a copious amount of bacterial activity available for culture, living on this ancient forest floor. So you may not be as successful at the Johnsons are without that. But then maybe so…

Its worth a try.

Richard and Jessie have all but handed over the largest responsibilities of the garden care to their most-capable son, Rick. So a new generation has been given the reigns of the compost heap and I am sure Rick will do his darndest to nurture and care for this biological heirloom. The heap will continue to be the factor in helping preserve Miss Carrie’s precious plants and gardens as Rick takes the baton and figuratively runs with it.



above: Bloodroot, emerging from dormancy (click on the photos to enlarge)




Bloodroot in full blossom




the bog garden, as it looks, about the first week of April




azalea in the bog garden




native azalea, perhaps R. prunifolium?





…and Mountain Laurel…. some of the plants nourished with Miss Carrie’s compost

If you have the interest, make plans to visit Briarwood during their Annual Spring Picnic. If you’ve not been, you are sorely lacking. The tiny town of Saline, Louisiana is not too far to go at all.

…from Rick…

Annual Briarwood Spring Picnic – Come and join us for a special day here at the nature preserve. We will have the log house and writers cabin open for visiting plus we will conduct special guided tours throughout the preserve. I will be conducting a special tour along the Cow Oak Flats trail which is a new trail hereĀ at the preserve.
Registration starts at 10:00 a.m.
Morning tour starts at 10:30
Lunch from 11:30 – 1:30
Music from 11:00 – 2:00
Door prizes and raffle at 1:00
Afternoon tour starts at 1:30

For ticket purchase information email me at and I will send you the ticket purchase form.


Caroline Dorman’s homeplace

I visited Briarwood today, the Caroline Dorman Nature Preserve. I’m still walking on air.

If you haven’t been there before, I feel for you. What have you been doing with yourself, anyway?

Richard Johnson met me at the Visitor’s Center upon my arrival. Jesse Johnson, Richard’s wife, joined us shortly and we sat for some time catching up, sitting in chairs in front of a good, hot fire.


Richard and Jesse have been curators of the CD Nature Preserve for over forty years. The fire they’d built was in a wonderful art-piece-of-a-fireplace, originally built by a local craftsman, in 1916. The chimney itself is an achievement. Richard told me the story of the original house having fallen into complete disrepair when he came onto the scene and he proceeded to separate the old building from the brick edifice all those years ago, and lovingly built a new structure geared toward guests gathered around these double sided hearths.

We caught up on conversation enough and then decided to bolt via golf cart to the woods! But before we did, we short-detoured to the garden at the edge of the building where Jesse re-introduced me my old friend Daphne. Daphne, the flowering shrub, that is, full in bloom, as usual, in the dead of winter. And I met her cousin, too.


Daphne odora, Fragrant Daphne, is typically pink-ish in color and particularly delightful to the nose.


the all-white cultivar of Daphne, available for our enjoyment, too. So sweet!


…and there was this area, clearly designated by pine knots, but subtle in form, a smattering of an Ericaceaous and highly edible blueberry family member procured many years ago somewhere in Tennessee by this nurturing couple. When I crushed the leaf between my fingers, it was a strong scent of cooling-breezy-wintergreen. Then I tasted it. It tasted just like a wintergreen Lifesavers-brand candy. It was delicious! Jesse told me that Dr. Dale Thomas(the botanist) told her that he had once made a meal of these in the field. I can understand why! YumYum!

In just a few minutes in the golf cart, we were pulling up to the Bay Garden, unloading ourselves from the cart to mosey around. The Bay Garden was begun around 1930, Jesse said, when Miss Caroline decided that this seep-bog area would be a perfect place to experiment with Louisiana Iris and bog-loving native plants. A significant part of the history of Louisiana iris entering into the world of horticulture happened at this spot all those years ago. Ms. Dorman was one of the most vocal promoters of the Louisiana Iris and of Louisiana wild things and wild areas. And her Bay Garden is the central nervous system of historic horticultural prestige when it comes to wild things in this region. You aught to see it the first week April, ya’ll. Its a marvelous thing.


hundreds of iris, well out of dormancy, many wonderful cultivars collected and grown with tender loving care. Richard created walkways from large, old belts once used on steam engines, to run mechanical equipment.


This collection of iris has been curated for over 80 years, in this spot. …in Ms. Carrie’s Bay Garden.


Mr. Johnson grew up near Briarwood and worked around the property as a young child for Ms. Carrie. His stories are enchanting and other-worldly.


Smooth Phlox Phlox glabbarima, Jesse says, is kind of weedy in the garden. I’m pretty sure that’s a good thing when it comes to this plant.


Frogbelly Pitcher Plant Sarracinia purpurea in the pitcher plant area of the Bay Garden. Jesse told me that the different species they had introduced had created many unusual hybrids


“Little Marie” Iris virginica new growth provides a bi-color foliage show way-before flowers spikes start.



Jesse’s wheelbarrow in the Bay Garden makes for a good glove holder. Those gloves should be bronzed one day.


Richard kindly took time to show me what I would have missed otherwise: a really robust Black Gum with bark that resembled shingles on a house. This is a really big and beautiful gum. There is so much to see all around that its hard to brain filter.


Dog toothed Violet pokes itself through leaves on the forest floor as it emerges from winter slumber


We stopped at the frog pond where Mrs. Jesse looked for and found, submerged underwater, salamander eggs


there were two different species incubating there. She reached in and pulled out a clump of the salamander “gel”. The little babies were inside, resting comfortably.


Another species was in much smaller “containers”. This one was about an inch around and in it, the little babies were much more visible They were all wiggley. It was a good day had by all, even the reptiles, I think.


What is so amazing about Briarwood is that a demure but very determined woman planted so many wonderful plants so many years ago. You can now, because of her hard work and persistence, see hundreds of absolutely breathtaking specimens of native and non-native plants. Most certainly the best place to gain a perspective of what plants do after eighty or more years in the ground in this neck of the woods. In 1925, Ms Carrie had the pond near the house built. Of course she planted it up! The pond was but a palette by which to paint a beautiful picture. We stopped to relax and behold her artistry. I had to step back in order to fully take in and comprehend the Cliftonias within the composition. I had not seen any in the wild as big as these. As we completed our tour, we made our way back to the Visitor’s Center, we drove past the old Grandad Long Leaf pine, the biggest one on the property. I asked how old it might be and Richard told me maybe 350 years but that Ms. Carrie would never let anyone core it to count the rings, to reveal its age. “She said it wasn’t any of our business”, he quipped.

…………….get out into the woods, ya’ll……..