Julie ThomsonComing to your senses

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.

Philosophy in the GardenYoung 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.

Cleveland Point, SE Qld flooding from Cyclone Oswald

Cleveland Point, SE Qld flooding from Cyclone Oswald

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.

Ervatamia coronaria blooms

Ervatamia coronaria blooms

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.

Ervatamia coronaria  with rhoeo

Ervatamia coronaria with rhoeo

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?

Philosophy in the Garden


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]



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Julie Thomson

About Julie Thomson

Journalist, writer, editor, television and book publicist, formerly with ABC Gardening Australia, passionate gardener, soil improver, digger, mulcher, living in acreage splendour near Sunshine Coast, Queensland. Subscribes to the Cicero edict: "I have a garden and a library, so have everything I need." Read my full blog at Julie's Garden Grapevine

17 thoughts on “Coming to your senses

  1. Julie always manages to bring the present situ right home! I just adore her way with words.. I immediately want to rush out and see what’s fragrant in my garden now as well.. Well done, once again Julie.. please publish your own book soon xx j

  2. Congratulations to Julie Thomson for such an an engaging review of Damon Young’s book. I have never read a Philosophy book I am ashamed to admit. Avoid them like the plague (or things worse than Philosophy like digging out Lantana roots) has been my motto. Leave it to someone else more adept at tackling such big issues. However Julie has convinced me and I am now dying to read “Philosophy in the Garden” just as soon as I can.
    The Lantana can wait 🙂

  3. Love your posts, Julie. I’m (almost) with Orwell in his view of gardening and life. In this world of climate change, gardening is truly a challenge but I don’t think there is too much delusion about modern life as we live through a technological revolution.

  4. Just came upon this musing by poet Sylvia Plath and thought it appropriate to share in the philosophy context:
    “I may never be happy, but tonight I am content. Nothing more than an empty house, the warm hazy weariness from a day spent setting strawberry runners in the sun, a glass of cool sweet milk, and a shallow dish of blueberries bathed in cream. Now I know how people can live without books, without college. When one is so tired at the end of a day one must sleep, and at the next dawn there are more strawberry runners to set, and so one goes on living, near the earth. At times like this I’d call myself a fool to ask for more…”

    • Elizabeth, your lovely quote reminds me of Virginia Woolf:

      “The daffodils shone, crocuses rose from their bulbs, and almonds blossomed. (‘SPRING,’ she wrote that March, with happy capitals.) By May, the seemingly aloof, ethereal author spent one warm but breezy afternoon on her hands and knees, getting filthy. ‘Weeding all day to finish the beds,’ she wrote in her diary, ‘in a queer sort of enthusiasm which made me say that this is happiness.’”

  5. I read and I identify…but I could never put into such eloquent & appropriate words how it feels to be out there in nature…in my garden.

  6. The rain rejuvenated Julie, we are still waiting. While temperatures have been above 30 almost all year to date the total rainfall is 5mm in 2 falls each of which wet the surface of the ground and showed what could happen. I am finding it increasingly hard to face the watering, all by hand held hose from our dam which is shared by the cattle. Maybe there is light at the end of the tunnel after all, I hope so, for without the garden I wouldn’t know how to fill the days. Reading about gardening maybe.

  7. I feel for you, Barbara, all the more now as we in SEQ are getting days and days of rain and we are cursing it for not breaking long enough for us to mow and tidy. We are never happy. As you say, in the meanwhile, there are gardening books to read. I’d do a rain dance for you if I knew the steps.

  8. I confess I do all my best thinking in the garden so Damon Young’s book sounds most apt. Thank you Julie for your evocative writing laced with such delicious colloquialisms. I’m encouraged to read that even seasoned experts get the garden “blues” sometimes and itching to get my hands on an Ervatamia coronaria.

  9. Thanks Julie for a thoughtful and inspiring blog. Like Barbara we are still waiting for the rain and although there has been little I can do in my garden as such it has been good to re evaluate and plan for the autumn flurry of activity. In fact this summer has been a reminder of my childhood (life before airconditioners). Endless hot summer days and evenings lots of swimming and time spent outside in the garden late into the night bathing in the sounds smells and slight drop in temperature with my family. I really enjoyed the quotes from George Or well and Virginia wolf and look forward to reading Damon Youngs book.

  10. Hi Julie, Like you I await the rain that has been avoiding us here in Melbourne like the plague for so long. Your description of the cracked soil filling up with welcome rain filled me with hope! I almost wish for some devastating winds just so our gardens can have a drink!
    I’m finding more dead trees and shrubs here now than when we were in ‘The worst drought in 100 years’! It seems the poor little things loved the rain and good times so much of two years ago, they forgot to leave a little in the kitty for the bad times. It’s so devastating seeing so many plants that thrived during those hard times finally succumbing to this summers’ unrelenting heat.
    I love the blog Julie. Keep up the good work.
    By the way Damon that ‘Hot Lips’ salvia always reminds me of Hotlips Hoolihan of M.A.S.H. fame! haha

  11. You write poetically, sensually, and philosophically about your garden and the process of gardening, so much so that I can garden vicariously by reading your blog, Julie. Now that saves a lot of effort and heartbreak when it comes to floods!

    While I don’t have a garden of my own right now, I relish being in gardens, other people’s, parks, even little coffee shops with simple blossoms in zen table vases. Being being the key word. Not doing the gardening. Ideas, solutions, and inspiration present themselves more magically in a garden than anywhere else on earth, to paraphrase a well known saying.

    Thank you for your writing.

    Jane Teresa

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