A gardener profile of Loy Moncrief
Story and Photos by Nellie Neal
Loy Moncrief gardens like he does everything else – with a deft combination of hard work and high purpose. Stewardship comes naturally to him and it shows in more than two decades of beautification efforts in Jackson and Hinds County.
These days, Loy’s gardens spread from his neat home in the Broadmoor neighborhood of Jackson to Wells Memorial United Methodist Church, where two gardens receive his regular attention. “A garden is more than a bunch of plants,” he says, and proceeds to wow this visitor with a fascinating collection. The diversity is stunning and each plays a role in creating four seasons of color and interesting landscape features. Some of Moncrief’s favorite plants include the well known, like old-fashioned jonquils (Narcissus jonquilla), white iris (I. virginica), deep-red-leafed fringe flower (Loropetalum rubrum), and sago palms (Cycas revoluta). Other, less common specimens deliver more color: yellow paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) and candelabra tree (Senna alata), bold red St. Joseph’s lily (Hippeastrum x johnsonii), and the crisp, late summer white of butterfly ginger (Hedychium coronarium). There’s much more – this list doesn’t begin to include the wildly colorful pots such as orange firecracker flowers (Crossandra infundibuliformis), coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides), and Begonia that drip from every surface. From treetop to ground level and all year round, Loy’s dramatic plant material grabs the eye with color, form, and inspiring lines. The result is a joyful, contemplative, very personal, and masculine space.
Lots of people garden, few do so in public. When asked why his efforts have spread far beyond his own backyard, Moncrief offers a profound understatement. “Projects grow,” he says, and proceeds to talk seamlessly about the Reflection Garden and Edible Forest at his church, the plants sales he conducts annually and volunteers that support them, and the development of his personal garden.
His calendar suits his mission to garden for good and well. Each fall he empties his greenhouse for a plant sale and soon begins to root cuttings of his tropical plants for the next sale and next year’s plantings. He’s always starting something or acquiring another plant to nurture and share, he enjoys this week’s beauty with a wink at what is to come. The daily, weekly, annual rhythm of the garden, Loy tells me, “It’s how I function. I get bored and I go outside.”
Raised in Brookhaven and educated at Millsaps and LSU, Moncrief brings a strong sense of intention and quiet discipline to life and gardening. Loy’s spirit and work ethic come together to foster contemplation and meditation at Wells Church and, nearby, an active, community-centered vibe in the Jesse Gates Edible Forest. This garden began as a green space, took on raised beds, and became a pilot project for edible urban forestry of the Mississippi Urban Forestry Commission and Mississippi Department of Agriculture. The good news is that the trees are growing into a sustainable urban orchard. The challenge is that the raised beds are shaded more each year and soon must be moved. Moncrief smiles, contemplating the next big step and what it will take to become reality.
A tour of his garden with Loy leaves one feeling exhilarated and ready to take on more – confident it will all come together. His enthusiasm, which could be exhausting, is instead infectious. He attributes most of that personal discipline first and foremost to his mother (“a drill sergeant,” he says, smiling) who put a rake in his 8-year-old hand. He liked it and kept raking, thank goodness. When adult life dealt him unbearable tragedy, Moncrief found comfort again in that rake and in a shovel – and in the way both the labor and the tangible results made him feel. “Nurture life in the face of grief,” he advises, “get a cat, a goldfish, start a garden.”
Good advice, that.