LOVED a touching little book on gardening I read recently, titled Philosophy in the Garden by Melbourne philosopher and writer Damon Young, which explores the intimate relationship between authors and their gardens. It is not a how-to book on what, when and how to grow. It is a joyful look at how the great writers, thinkers and philosophers including Aristotle, Marcel Proust, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson and George Orwell found life for their ideas in gardens, be it parks, their back yard or pot plants. The garden for them was variously a retreat, a place of solitude and an inspiration.
Young says George Orwell found gardening a realists’ enterprise that needed practical candour. For him, gardening was a remedy for the delusion of modern life; a reminder of how subtle, changeable and complicated reality is. As Orwell discovered, seed-plus-soil-plus-rain-plus-sunshine is a calculation that can only be upheld as formula for success until falsified when some some variable wilts the lettuce or shrinks the gooseberries. It comes with a warning about clinging to all-too-perfect theories.
This touched a chord with me, thinking about the gardening failures I‘ve had this year, despite doing “everything right”. And how despite our sticking to familiar and recommended methods for success, nature always has the last laugh.
As in recent floods and fires.
And what a difference water from the sky makes.
I was hard pressed to gather any enthusiasm for the garden before the rains came last week. The ground here was hard, lawns crackly underfoot, gardens parched and gasping in a long hot dry spell, no matter what watering we gave it. I could only summon interest in keeping the pots around the house damp and green.
Then, yay, for us, Cyclone Oswald brought a dumping that went for three days. The rain scuttled into all the cracks in the ground, filled the creeks, rivers and dams, overflowed the tanks and saturated the thirsty and grateful plants. Sadly, it also wreaked absolute havoc with people north of here, flooding their towns and regions to unprecedented levels, devastating homes and businesses. I am mindful of these unlucky ones as I offer my gratitude for the rainfall that plumped up our gardens and drooping spirits, while bringing heartache to them.
At our place, the sweet smell of damp earth prevails and I am grateful for the ease with which I can pull out weeds and overgrowth from a ground that is now soft and pliant from the deluge.
I am recharged and revived to tackle the clean up, tidy up and re planting that comes with the late summer, heading into autumn and the promise of milder conditions where shrubs and vegetables can blossom. The smells and sounds after rain seem particularly acute in the early morning and late afternoon. Crickets and myriad insects rise in crescendo from the swollen creek and replenished waterholes, and fragrance of night-scented jessamine wafts into the windows with its distinctive musky almond whiff.
And today I was stopped by a beauty I had overlooked outside the room where I am writing this, when it sent out its lovely perfume this morning, lifted by a gentle breeze up and into my senses. A closer look showed me my Ervatamia coronaria is coming into gorgeous flower, hence the scent attracting my attention. Also known as East Indian rosebay, grape jasmine and moonbeam, this ornamental shrub is fairly indistinct when not in bloom. I have had it for about three years in a large square terracotta pot, where it is co-tenant with variegated rhoeo, the latter’s striking striped cream and pink leaves a foil for the ervatamia‘s sturdy and deep green glossy, but essentially mundane foliage. But its beautiful snow white flowers, comprising five petals, are its crowning, if short-lived, glory right now. There are dozens of them all over the bush and they are releasing a scent that’s intoxicating every time I pass it.
I look upon this low-care dependable plant like a middle child. It’s not the attention-seeking first-born, nor the high-maintenance, demanding and indulged youngest, just the “Malcolm-in-the middle” plodder, who gets on with it mostly under the radar, but then surprises and delights at the most unexpected times. It asks little except a weekly watering and a dose of liquid fertiliser about once every eight weeks or so. It reminds me somewhat of the gardenia but is way easier to get along with. Mine has only shown bad temper once, when it went all jaundice on me, leaves yellowing and curling at the edges. But a couple of tablespoons of epsom salts seemed to right the mineral imbalance or treat whatever was ailing it, and it bounced back heartily.
The ervatamia is a native of northern India and is also cultivated in West Africa. In the open ground, it will grow to about three metres, but with pinch-tipping new growth and selective pruning, it makes a lustrous, enthusiastic pot specimen and as such, it can be moved about to where its fragrance is most appreciated. Its wood has been known to be used to make perfume and it also has had a number of medicinal uses, including as a dental anaesthetic and its roots and leaves have been harvested for herbal remedies.
It’s certainly been a remedy for my gardening malaise and as I bend and gather the post-storm mess and to harness the virulent weed growth, I take visceral pleasure, inhaling its heady top note. Yes, there’s work to be done – plenty of it; removing aphids from the roses, black soot from the gardenias, dead-heading the petunias, chrysanthemums and geraniums, feeding the camelias, trimming back the straggly grevilleas, hibiscus and ginger, pinch-tipping the poinsettia, scooping up barrows loads of leaves, palm fronds and gum branches deposited all over lawns and pathways, yanking out old rotting vegies and turning over the beds ready for autumn.
But the gardening heart, duly massaged, is pumping again and the sounds and smells of outdoors are too delicious to resist.
Whether you “get” gardening or not, why not lead with your nose and plant some fragrance soon?
GardenDrum has a copy of Damon Young’s wonderful book ‘Philosophy in the Garden’ to give away, courtesy of Melbourne University Press.
[February 25 – Congratulations to Elizabeth, who has won last week’s draw – Catherine]