Aah, fragrance!

Aah, fragrance! That elusive, evocative, and deeply personal quality of flowers that is so often unexplored in most gardens. Right now, in high summer, my garden is offering up an olfactory buffet.

Coming home after dinner with an old friend from my undergrad days, we were stopped mid-conversation with the the distinctive scent of night blooming jasmine, Cestrum nocturnum, now in full bloom. It was a happy coincidence; years ago this very friend had reminisced about the intoxicating fragrance of Queen of the Night or Hasna Hena as it is known in our native Bengal. I am easily enticed and immediately had a tiny plant in a 4 inch pot shipped to me. After fours years of unimpressive performance, the plant, now a robust 7 feet tall shrub, has finally started to make its presence felt. And how! I haven’t walked around the neighborhood at night to see how far its fragrance wafted, but at least fifty feet away it hung heavily in the air – you couldn’t breathe without smelling it. I watched with a sense of pride and triumph as my friend closed her eyes and took a deep breath, a wave of memories washing over her. Because that’s the thing, it’s so much more than the scent itself, a slight whiff can transport you to the time and place and person where the fragrance left its imprint.

Another jasmine in bloom now in my garden, a true jasmine in this case, is the Arabian jasmine, Jasminum sambac. I grow a few varieties; Mysore Mulli is the one with the strongest fragrance, Belle of India, the most beautiful. Heady, sensuous and redolent of warm, languorous evenings. My one potted bush has really outdone herself this year. To step out onto the patio is to be enveloped in its fragrance. Where and when I grew up, movies at the cinema were a special event – the ladies dressed up in bright silk sarees, a touch of gold jewelry, and the traditional garland of jasmine pinned to long braided hair. I imagine whispered conversations among the couples in the darkened theater, the scent of jasmine wordlessly promising more pleasures to come.

Gardening and the senses

Why write a gardening blog when gardening is so much about all five senses – sight, sound, smell, touch and taste – think dark purple plums with the dichotomy of their tart skin and juicy, sweet flesh. We are just wrapping up plum season and getting impatient for peaches.

Google does this amazing thing where it sends a collage of selected images from this day several years ago. It recently sent me pictures taken in the garden six years ago. We had just moved in and hadn’t gotten to working on the outdoors yet. It was interesting to see how much the garden has changed, grown, or overgrown as my husband would insist, in just six years.

While the pictures help recollect what the garden looked like for a moment in time, the memories of what the garden felt like are forgotten. I can now only imagine what must have been my great delight when I saw and smelled for the first time the rose borders in their peak May bloom. Or discovered the perfection that are our mandarins once I had figured out the right time to pick them.

The mandarins on our tree start looking perfectly ripe long before they attain a corresponding perfection in taste. I couldn’t resist having a mandarin straight off the tree first thing in the morning as they glowed enticingly in the crisp spring sunshine. But what a shattering disappointment – they tasted terrible! My frantic search for the fertilizer, supplement, soil test or other magic elixir that would make my mandarins taste as good as they looked was a definite indicator of my growing obsession, but no one was paying attention.

I discovered that a chemical in toothpaste, sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), makes orange juice taste bitter if you have it right after brushing your teeth, which is what I was doing with the mandarins. And that if you have enough fruit to spare, then tasting a mandarin every week to critically judge whether it’s time is good practice. And once the time has arrived, then oh joy! Baskets and baskets of fruit to be picked, and happily and proudly shared with neighbors and friends.

I often wonder how long we will live in this house. The owners before us stayed 7 years and we are approaching that mark. If we ever do move out, this blog and its sporadic entries will serve as a diary of my thoughts and experiences as I slowly built up the garden and made it what it is today.

3000 words

Since a picture is worth a thousand words…

A few pictures of my garden from earlier this year:IMG_20170508_184833Bottom center are a couple of my potted citrus trees, Oroblanco grapefruit and Moro blood orange. Right behind them are three of my potted figs. All of them have fruit now and it’s surprising to see the variety of colors, shapes and sizes of figs especially if you’re only used to store bought fresh figs which are likely Mission.

The roses are just coming into bloom, the two poppies – red and black Papaver commutatum ‘Ladybird’ and pink Eschscholzia californica ‘Rose Chiffon’ are in peak bloom, bordered along the front by blue Penstemon heterphyllus ‘Margarita BOP’.IMG_20170614_180432A pillar of pink dipladenia ‘Pretty in Pink’, blooming in shades of pink. The flowers have an unmistakable vanilla fragrance, which does not waft, but it’s there if you inhale deeply enough. Along the front of the picture leaves aglow in the sun is my pomegranate ‘Parfianka’. This tree is surrounded by heavenly smelling Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’. The scarlet blossoms of the pomegranate are beautifully framed by the swaying wands of the lavender.IMG_20170508_184845My showpiece flower bed in front of the fountain in a riot of color with butter yellow fragrant Julia Child roses, tall and elegant magenta Agrostemma githago ‘Milas’, a short, inky dark iris ‘Wild Wings’ with velvety black falls, nonstop bloom machine Gaillardia x grandiflora ‘Mesa Peach’, red geum ‘Blazing Sunset’, another prolific bloomer violet Scabiosa columbaria ‘Butterfly Blue’ and tall white Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Amelia’.

The fountain behind the bed works, probably, but after the long, long California drought, we have resisted the temptation to fill it up and turn it on again. For the flowers, I didn’t start with a color palette in mind, which is obvious! I simply bought the plants I liked and made room for them. The beds are full to bursting now and most plants need drastic thinning but I haven’t had the heart nor the energy to do it.


Winter Quietude

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost

Don’t quite know what brought this poem, one of my favorites, to mind suddenly today. Maybe as I was enjoying the hush of a winter afternoon, I was reminded of a walk I took through a wood a decade ago, three thousand miles away in upstate New York. It had snowed heavily the previous night, and in the early hours of the morning, the snow was soft, pristine, sparkling. For someone like me, unused to snow, it was truly a winter wonderland. I took off for a walk by myself through a wood nearby and was awestruck by the utter silence – no rustling leaves, no snapping twigs, no small animals scurrying away. Even the waterfall waited frozen in place. The only sounds were of my breathing and footfalls sinking into the snow. Since then, I started noticing and appreciating how much quieter everything is in winter. And I have always loved this.

To more prosaic matters – weather in Northern California has been checking off all the right boxes. Adequate rain? Check. (More than adequate, some would say.) Sufficient chilling hours? Check. Respite from days of rain to allow restless, outdoorsy Californians to step out and bask in the sun? Check! I was out today spraying all the freshly pruned roses with lime sulfur. A cup of lime sulfur to a gallon of water. One year I made the mistake of waiting too long to spray and the roses had already leafed out. The result was white spotted leaves for the rest of the season. Short of individually scrubbing each leaf there was no way to get those damned spots out. (Hello Shakespeare!)

I also took the pruners to my relatively newly planted pomegranate. It’s a Parfianka pomegranate, and despite being about 3 ft tall it produced several pomegranates last year. It’s planted in a very visible location, right by the edge of the patio. So while productivity is desirable, a beautiful shape and balanced structure are more so. With some trepidation, I removed several trunks leaving two. I also pruned several of the branches to encourage more lateral branching. Let’s see how that works out.

My love of citrus has brought my count of citrus trees to fourteen, not including the in-ground lemon and mandarin trees. This winter, in a burst of citrus-lust, I bought a Vaniglia Sanguigno blood orange, a New Zealand lemonade, a Kishu seedless mandarin, a Trovita orange and a Rio Red grapefruit, all shipped from Four Winds Nursery. My usual haunts, Orchard Supply Hardware and Dale Hardware were all out of anything interesting.

Moro Blood Orange

My Moro blood orange produced several shockingly berry-red-fleshed fruit this year. I’d read in the GardenWeb forums that blood oranges hold well on the tree so I let them stay really long. The ones that had reached a truly dark red coloration tasted amazing – like an orange with a bit of tartness but also with additional depths of flavor. Some people describe it as berry-tasting. No matter how it’s described, I was really pleased with the flavor.

My Oro Blanco grapefruit produced far too many fruit for a small potted tree. I didn’t notice how many fruit there were on the tree until they had ripened completely. The fruit this year were not quite satisfying – I had a hint of how wonderfully sweet and fragrant they could be, but this was overwhelmed by strong bitterness. Not sure if insufficient heat contributed to this or other cultural issues.

Citrus Harvest Lineup – Oro Blanco grapefruit, Moro blood oranges, Bearss Seedless Limes 

The Bearss seedless lime has been very prolific. It produced more limes than I could possibly consume. We did have lots and lots of guacamole. And a squeeze of lime to a red lentil soup (masoor dal) or any lentil dish, heightens all the other flavors. Highly recommended. Especially for a cold winter afternoon.

Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

Parfianka Pomegranate and Hidcote Lavender

The title of this post is from John Keats’ “To Autumn”.

I grew up on a wholesome diet of romantic English poetry. While mostly forgotten, a line or two often float up unbidden, and so aptly describe my own thoughts, I can do no more than salute the poet.

For a gardener, Spring and Summer is when all the action is – hectic, lengthening days, a near over-abundance of color, and in California especially, brilliant blue skies and intense sun. I enjoy Spring and Summer, but lately I find myself savoring the “mellowness” of Fall more and more.

The air crisp, like a perfectly ripe apple, the sunshine softer, as if through a veil. I especially enjoy the feeling of finally being able to put down my tools – the shovel, the sprayer, the pruner (at least until rose pruning after Christmas) and sacks of fertilizer. This is partly an illusion of course: there are still bulbs to be planted which have been over-ordered, which is par for the course.

This year, I ordered three varieties of fragrant daffodils – Bridal Crown, Geranium and Golden Dawn, fragrant Pink Splendor lilies, indescribable-colored Eye of the Tiger Dutch Irises, and since I’m all about California natives this year, two Brodiaea varieties Queen Fabiola and Californica Babylon. All from John Scheepers. These are going to be my last but one plants to go into the ground this year. I have some seeds to sow as well, mostly California natives again – California poppies, Baby Blue Eyes, Clarkias, from Swallowtail Seeds.

This Fall our fruit trees outdid themselves: our Izu persimmon, now in its second year in our garden, our Garden Delicious (yes, you read that right) apple, Parfianka pomegranate and Black Knight passion fruit all produced generous crops of flavorful fruit.

The Izu persimmon suffered last year from being underwatered and dropped all of its young fruit. This year, I carefully watered the still relatively small tree adequately resulting in perfect, large persimmons. We had to share part of the crop with squirrels/birds/fruit bats/some other nocturnal animal which took bites out of some of the especially delectable looking fruit before I draped the tree with bird netting.

The Black Knight passion fruit was a new addition this year from Raintree Nursery. It’s a Passiflora edulis cultivar with large, egg-shaped, smoky purple-colored fruit. It grew strongly in a 14 inch. pot and produced a lot of flowers, nearly all of which have grown into fruit. The fruit has the most enticing perfume, a mix of guava and mango, with a sweet-tart taste of mango and mandarin.

Black Knight Passionfruit

The Garden Delicious apple, which is a genetically dwarf apple, as opposed to grafted on dwarfing rootstock, is perfect for small home orchards. The fruit is quite small, not the most visually appealing, but quite perfect tasting – a satisfying crunch, a good blend of sweetness and tartness and excellent flavor.

And finally the pomegranate with the exotic moniker of Parfianka. She (well, it has to be a she) was planted from a pot to the ground and rewarded us with about 10 pomegranates. Deciding on the right time to harvest was a challenge; we finally plucked the fruit when we started seeing pomegranates in the farmers market. The fruit is good, and as with any pomegranate, the aftermath of getting the seeds out is rather bloody – we still need to learn how to elegantly manage that.

And so that’s the story of our “mellow fruitfulness”. I’m looking forward to more chilly evenings with mugs of steaming hot chocolate, day dreaming about how next year’s garden is going to be, while enjoying the respite from the work it all entails.

How about you?