In the garden with Felder: Gardens are more than good looks

August 18, 2018 10:02:14 PM



A garden is much more sensory than mere looks; sometimes more memorable features can be found -- eyes closed -- right outside the door. 


Some are haunting enough to keep us home, in a way, even when we're far removed by distance or time.  


I generally head overseas starting in late May to report on the Chelsea Flower Show and others, then travel farther afield to study new plants, innovative construction materials and design trends. So I've gradually gotten out of the habit of planting tomatoes or tending a lawn when nobody'll be there to appreciate my Mississippi garden's summer charms.  


Besides, when I get home there's usually enough growing season left before fall to plant and harvest enough peppers to fill a big corner of my freezer with homegrown goodness.  


Meanwhile, though avoiding the nearly insufferably sultry weather of the Deep South summers is blissful, after being gone from my little Fondren cottage garden for extended periods the things I first begin to forget are subtle features ordinarily taken for granted. Especially nuanced sounds and fragrances.  


But I can shut my eyes and imagine how my largely self-supporting summer garden is progressing, including well into the cooler evening as the cacophony of daytime songbirds and fluttering of hummingbirds slowly dampens to reveal distant "thunder lightening" and a couple of owls in a half-hollow tree. And how by dusk the sing-song din of cicadas will ebb, bringing into relief the chirping of crickets and gecko lizards along with booming tree frogs and whatever whining mosquitoes make it past the porch fan.  


But most of all I pine for garden fragrance. While fragrance helps attract some insects and bats looking for food or mates, and repels others that might find the plants munchable, I enjoy them for both immediate pleasure and evocative memories of my earliest garden exposures.  


Banana shrub, ginger lily, Clerodendrum and paperwhites conjure an innocent childhood of poking around my horticulturist great-grandmother's fancy garden; four o'clocks will always be from summer evenings languishing on the porch of my Delta grandmother's air conditioner-free double-wide shotgun shack, talking about everyone who wasn't there.  


Heck, who doesn't appreciate a waft of petrichor, the earthy "mushroom musk" that steams from turned compost or is drawn from warm soil by an approaching summer thunderstorm's low pressure? 


While overseas I often come across magnolia, gardenia, Purple Wave petunia, star jasmine, honeysuckle, ligustrum, mimosa and shrub roses, their aromatic allures are nearly lost in the cool days of northern climates. It takes warmth to bring them out; heat causes fragrant flowers, freshly-mowed lawns and fresh-picked tomatoes to release their volatile oils upwards, where humidity causes them to hang mid-air, waiting for our noses to swoon into them.  


Just brushing through my sprawling lantana, oregano, mint and rosemary, all planted beside walks, can release eau de jardin. Not that the odors are always pleasant; to be honest, I think spirea and pyracantha flowers, like crushed marigold leaves, reek of dirty socks.  


Like 'em or not, each of these has its own signature attar, sometimes overpowering when several are coming from every direction. 


Gardens are more than good looks; slow down and hear the wildlife, smell the heady bouquets right outside your window.  


And share them with youngsters. I'm grateful to know that for the rest of their lives my children will think of their Dad whenever they smell flowers we've grown together.  


Evocative charms can get overlooked in the rush of Life ... until you realize you're missing them. Which reminds me that it's time to get back home, lest I miss the sweet appeal of my grandmother's four o'clocks. 


Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the "Gestalt Gardener" on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to [email protected]