Rufus Edmisten Rediscovers His Roots As “The Weekend Gardener”

Throughout North Carolina and beyond, Rufus Edmisten is widely known as a political powerhouse. He served as Deputy Chief Counsel to the Watergate Committee under U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin, as this state’s Attorney General and Secretary of State, and since 1996 has maintained a governmental relations practice that is now known as Edmisten & Webb Law.

Closer to home, he has an entirely different following, far removed from the corridors of power in Washington and Raleigh. Edmisten serves as guest host of “The Weekend Gardener,” an “award-winning radio talk show” that airs from 8 to 11 a.m. every Saturday morning on WPTF.

The show, hosted by Mike Raley since it first aired in 1985, is believed to be the longest-running radio program of its kind in the country. Going back further still, it succeeded a 15-minute program known as “The Tar Heel Gardener” which was hosted by Professor John H. Harris of N.C. State University and aired for 40 years.


 Rufus Edmisten, right, is joined by longtime Weekend Gardener hosts Mike Raley and Anne Clapp. This photo is courtesy of WPTF.

Rufus Edmisten, right, is joined by longtime Weekend Gardener hosts Mike Raley and Anne Clapp. This photo is courtesy of WPTF.

Edmisten has been a regular on the show for approximately 15 years.

“I must say that I would hug whoever it was who told me 15 years ago that Rufus was a great gardener,” Raley said. “I thought, ‘where would he have time?’ I was just surprised that this gregarious politician would be interested in something like that. So I called his office, and I guess I talked to Cheryl (Executive Assistant Cheryl Mattingly), and he was on within the next couple of weeks. He said it sounded intriguing to him.

Edmisten, he added, particularly enjoys doing the remote broadcasts.

“He is such a people person. It is one thing to do it in the studio, but getting out there and politicking is something that he likes to do. And he truly is a wonderful gardener. He has a great general knowledge of gardening, and he also has some specialties. Quite often he will jump in and have answers to a lot of questions that come up during the show.”

Edmisten came by his love of gardening naturally.

“I grew up on a farm outside of Boone in a little community called Perkinsville,” Edmisten said. “We had a 75-acre farm. If you get much flat land in the mountains, you are very lucky. We had enough to grow some crops. We grew our allotment of tobacco, and grew corn for the cattle we raised, and meadow hay for the horses and cattle.

“And Mama always had a flower garden.”

At an early age, Edmisten learned an important distinction between gardening and farming.

“There were three older brothers, then my sister, then me and my younger brother. I figured out if I could convince my mama to ask me to stay and help her with her gardening that I was going to have a much easier time than going down to the bottomland and doing the sweaty hoeing of the corn and tobacco and all of that, and to walk a half mile to get down there anyway.

“So I convinced Mama that I was her best help.”

His mother, Edmisten continues, was affectionately known as the “Church Flower Lady.”

“We attended Three Forks Baptist Church, which went back several generations, and I remember she wanted it to look good every Sunday,” Edmisten said. “She would grow rows of flowers simply for the church, with a good mixture of gladiolus, because she said they were always good to be a backup for the other flowers, and peonies. There were always plenty of flower bulbs in the spring, and plenty of roses.

“I would help her most of the time – she liked to get there on Saturday night to arrange the church. There was a little table up front of the pastor’s podium, and I distinctly remember it said, ‘In Remembrance of Me.’ That is where the flowers went every Sunday. She loved getting compliments from the congregation about ‘Mama Nell’s beautiful flowers.’ That is how I developed my love of gardening.”

As Edmisten recalls it, his road to becoming a local radio celebrity started with a phone call that went something like this:

Raley: I hear you like gardening.

Edmisten: Yes, I like to let people plant tomatoes and then let them give them to me.

Raley: Then how about coming on the show as a guest one time?

“I told him that I did not have any formal training in horticulture or anything that would come close to someone who could name one plant by its Latin name,” Edmisten said. “But I told him I would be glad to come, and I did.

“He told me that all kinds of crazy people will call, but not to be flustered by it, and just pass it along. I told him that I assumed religion and politics do not go on the show, and he said that was exactly right. I told him that certainly there were some people who were going to call in with some political stuff, and he said, ‘I’ll handle that.’ And he has done that so skillfully.”

Rufus Edmisten takes the mic and keeps everyone smiling on the Weekend Gardener. This photo is courtesy of WPTF.

Rufus Edmisten takes the mic and keeps everyone smiling on the Weekend Gardener. This photo is courtesy of WPTF.

After a couple of guest appearances, Edmisten became a regular on the show.

“He is so friendly,” Raley said, “and he would not have come on had he not been interested in the possibility. Over the last 10 years he has gotten more active in the show and does not like to miss them. I think it is an outlet for him. He can talk, laugh and tell stories – where else can you do that?”

“After I went that second time, it sort of became addictive,” Edmisten said. “I was actually learning more than I was giving out from the experts that Mike assembles, like Pam Beck and my dear friend Phil Campbell from Campbell Road Nursery, Nelsa Cox from The Garden Hut in Fuquay-Varina, and the extension agents that we have on, and folks like that.

“I have received more than I have given, and that is why it became additive. I can remember only three times in 15 years that I have missed one.”

Not even a recent visit to the hospital could keep Edmisten off the air on Saturday morning.

“About three weeks ago I had some swelling in my legs and they put me in the hospital for a couple of days … and one of them was a Saturday,” Edmisten said. “I alerted the nursing staff and others around there that I was going to be on my cell phone from 8 o’clock to 11 that morning, and I was going to be talking about what will probably sound like some crazy stuff. I told them I was going to be on a radio show, but to come on in and take my blood pressure, whatever you need to do.

“They took my temperature, my blood pressure, and other things I am not going to mention! I went from that whole three-hour show sitting in a chair at Rex Hospital.”

All is well, Edmisten assures, and that is welcome news to all of his friends in political circles and the legal community, and all of his fans out there in radioland.

“I still come to work four days a week,” said Edmisten, who turned 80 last summer. “I still have a good set of clients who believe I can open doors for them.

“And the show is something I have truly enjoyed. It is a fun thing in my life.”

Russell Rawlings is director of external affairs and communications for the North Carolina Bar Association.