My Summer Garden of Scents & Sensibilities: a meditation on the ordinary.
5 min read
Although not another interpretation on Jane Austen’s work (shockingly I was never a fan), each time I wander into my little patch of controlled wilderness, publicly known as my backyard, I sense the parallels. The scents in my garden are much the same — they evoke very personal and intimate responses, allowing some things to make sense, leaving me sometimes frustrated as I wish for more, but often in deep anticipation of the possibilities.
Most summer gardens are bursting with colorful things — beautiful annuals and perennials bringing bees, butterflies and hummingbirds; vegetable patches bearing bounties of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants or bobbing heads of onion blooms, or shady spots under fruit trees laden with luscious sun kissed goodness. The dull hum of Nature’s most industrious workers, the cool shade and softly fragrant breezes shape every gardener’s dreams with light dreamy caresses of a late blooming rose, a rambunctious night blooming gardenia or a coy but defiant ginger lily.
My garden dreams include many such things, the one I tend is a bountiful outdoor space filled with delightful beauties, and then some. Much of it attracts bees and butterflies but nearly all of what I value most remains untouched until I harvest anything. I am a gardener whose fruits of labor are not fruits at all.
Mine is a garden of many scents. It appears as an abundance of textures for those who notice, and rewards those who venture closer with a plethora of aromas. Clustered in obscure ways, amidst the showy annuals that brings the butterflies, and allowed to grow as it desires, this ‘garden’ shares its bounty with me as freely as the room I give it. There are pots of various ages, holding recycled soil from other pots whose plants didn’t survive my absent-mindedness or the heat. There are garden beds with layers and layers of plants, overcrowded, competing for attention every year and yet blooming every year without fail. There are pots with the remnants of dead roots that seem to have sprung to life in the company of others- because they wanted the company. There are forgotten corners all through the garden filled with plants from many owners before us. And there are other spots that offer testament that nothing deliberately planted will grow there.
The summer sun swings high and sharp, the summer moon glides warmly across the night sky and while they dance, Nature’s bounty quietly flourishes.
Over the last decade, I have meticulously gathered different scents, my edible aromatics. Some repay my sporadic sense of care with beautiful blooms, others share unexpected surprises with me, at their own convenience. But they all have a purpose — to be feed my soul, and my taste buds.
A creeping pink-throat jasmine survived my forgetfulness and decided to revive itself, so I am looking forward to soaking the buds in a pot of warm water for a jasmine tea next Spring. An old-fashioned rose showered its beautiful fragrant petals for me and I was able to make a rose petal candy that will take us through the year. One of the two mint patches decided to burst into bloom a few days ago, a tall top-heavy spike towering over the bright green leaves. It grows in two shades of green — from cuttings procured from two different bunches from the grocery store. Although the flavors aren’t any different, their colors offer two beautiful jewel tones to gaze at — their pebbled leaves taut with flavor, waiting for a pot of minty chicken do-pyaza, or a cool lemonade. A lemongrass clump has multiplied in its pot because it can, its chartreuse yellow leaves creating an unexpected burst of color as the late afternoon sun hits its blades. These sharp slivers, the leaves wait for simmering pots of simple syrup, or become bundled up into a cup of cha. Another Arabian jasmine perfumes the air when its sweet aroma cuts the Georgia humidity like a cool blade.
The thyme has taken over a pot and its fragrant stems are often preferred by nesting birds. Watching the birds meticulously prune the twigs they want to use offers a marvelous perspective on the ‘creatures great and small’. A rooting turmeric rhizome has survived a Georgia winter and its lush leaves taunt me — will they serve to hold other dumplings, or even be made into a paste with lemon juice into a chutney for grilled fish? Perhaps I can harvest some of it for fresh turmeric. I let the bee balm bloom because the bees enjoyed them more — or I would have made a bee-balm tea. The purple basil sits tucked in with the catnip, the green basil is nestled against a clump of garlic chives and garlic. The rue offers its ruffled sage leaves as a soft invitation to be held and caressed.
The saffron did not survive our winter, maybe I will try again? The rosemary and lavender decided not to be part of this wild collection, the cilantro tempts the critters too much, so it does not survive either. A lone chamomile survived after many attempts at replanting and sixteen years later is blooming quietly in another forgotten corner, reminding me of the day my daughter first came home. The lime leaves wait for pots of Thai stews and coconut milk to swim in. Or perhaps they will become one of two chutneys, lovingly converted into flavor nuggets, they will bring unexpected joy to our summer starved plates, a comforting balm to our souls in winter.
My white sage gave off a single tall spike of lavender-like flowers, contrasting its silvery white leaves. Its leaves will cleanse the house one evening, taking with its wisps of smoke our messages, our prayers to the powers that be. The leaves of my non-fruiting speckled banana will protect Modak (dumplings) as they steam for Ganesh Chaturthi, they will be part of the rituals, along with small bundles of durva grass, ordinary Bermuda grass, that makes a backdrop to all of this. And the Tulsi, my one beloved, spreads its leggy twigs on my window sill, protected from the elements, sanctifying my cha on some mornings, but more often, the prayer altar as often as I let it.
None of these are showy. But my garden of greens, of fruitless — yet eternally fruitful bounties, provides extravagant ways to achieve mindfulness. It offers me an opportunity to see the beauty in outwardly plain things, sensing the details that we would take for granted, allowing me to relishing texture, aroma and flavor.
Recognizing the uniqueness of each is a calming way to appreciate nature. Much like the title of an old book by a woman who didn’t live long enough to see her work admired, this garden is filled with often overlooked things — simple joys that we all seek, nurtured from pieces found most easily at the garden center.