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.

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?


I am into modeling.

I would show you pictures of my work, but there are likely legal ramifications that I do not care to risk.

Oh, not this kind of modeling

Image Source: The Fashion Spot
Image Source: The Fashion Spot

but the considerably more interesting and equally glamorous, this kind of modeling.

Regression Model
Image Source: Economic & Social Research Council. I do not work here.

As the last leaves of our apple tree (which is a very late variety called Garden Delicious) are falling, I started wondering about this year’s harvest and chilling hours. 2014 was a very warm year, and while the weather these days is nippy, we had warm days all the way through Christmas Eve. With the sort of freakish coincidence that is common these days, CNN’s Breaking News announced just now that 2014 was Earth’s warmest on record. While one year of warmth does not make a trend, it did make for a welcome change – we could enjoy being in the garden without needing to dash inside for jackets as soon as the sun set.

Our fruit trees, apple, Asian pear, plum, cherry, peach and persimmon, all need a certain number of hours of chilling to bloom, leaf out, and set fruit successfully. I am worried that if we do not accumulate enough chilling hours by the time of the normal bloom season, we’ll have low fruit set and poor leaf growth.

The UC Davis Fruit & Nut Research & Information site has a wealth of information, models (hence the reference to modeling) to calculate accumulated chilling hours and data from weather stations throughout the state. The station nearest where I live shows that this current season, which runs from the beginning of November through the end of February, the chilling hours accumulated is less than half of that this time last year.

My apple tree and Elberta peach tree both have chilling requirements of 600 hours, from the Dave Wilson Nursery website. Since we are midway through the season, and at just barely over half the minimum chilling needed, there is a chance that the trees might bloom unevenly, or flower buds may not open at all. This is disappointing since fruit of both trees is delicious. The implications of a warm winter for those growing fruit commercially is very serious. Central Valley farmers had half or less than their normal harvest last year.

There isn’t a way to get around volatile climate changes of course. Planting low chill varieties brings with it its own set of problems – buds opening too soon and getting damaged by frost and that sort of thing.

Most of us here lead lives far too busy to even step into our backyards, let alone care about what goes on there with regards to chilling hours, bee populations and other horticultural concerns. If fruit trees produce poor harvests year after year, for no fault of theirs, fewer people would be interested in planting or keeping them in their backyards. While most people would never grow fruit trees with the sort of interest bordering on obsession that I do, a gnarled apple in the yard, a little strawberry patch are simple pleasures that we would do well to hold on to as long as we can.


I am about halfway through Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, which is currently on the New York Times Bestseller List ranked #13 in the Nonfiction Hardcover category. (Isn’t having separate lists for hardcover and paperback, literally, judging books by their covers?) She makes a compelling case for women to value and pursue their careers with usable advice on navigating the corporate “jungle gym” when you’re a woman. I’m slowly warming up to the book, although for me, the possibility of leaving the corporate craziness is increasingly attractive. I’d much rather garden.

My idea of a fulfilling life is to live in harmony with the earth, grow as much as possible of my own food, raise animals, and respect and enjoy the beauty and bounty of nature. I try to create a microcosm of my ideal life by growing a few vegetables and practicing organic gardening techniques. I’m still making a case for having a couple chickens and a rooster in the backyard, which the city allows. However, this proposal was met with violent opposition from the rest of the family. So, no fresh eggs in the mornings. For now.

Self-sowed seedling of African daisy
Self-sowed seedling of African daisy

I strongly recommend gardening, obviously. A seed sprouting, the botanical equivalent of a baby being born is magical, more so if you consider the science of it all. In his fascinating book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, physicist Richard Feynman argues how knowing the science behind a beautiful thing such as a flower does not detract from it’s beauty; it makes it more beautiful and awe-inspiring. The detailed quote is below:

“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

So, when I’m out in the garden, mentally designing fabulous borders and focal points in my mind while digging a hole to plant my latest acquisition, I’ll sometimes pause, look around and let myself be astounded by the magic happening all around me. I highly recommend it.