Urban Gardener: Garden Holiday Cheer!

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Urban gardeners are a cheerful, optimistic lot. We are of every conceivable stripe, yes, and we keep an eye on day length, the phases of the moon, the tides that lift all spirits. As we move into the nadir of the year and the Earth’s pole points to true North darkness dominates the day. We wonder; will we ever see sunshine again? Will anything grow? Much ritual surrounds growth and growing we perform rites before the ancient deities of the night. Soon my friends, the planet will tilt furthest from the sun, our homage to the equinox will become magic. Winter’s grip will tighten on the shortest day. Its grasp will clench for a few weeks and mysteriously, under the mulches and covers, life will stir. In an uncertain world, these are qualities we can count on.

Memory dominates gardening. Nothing prompts memory like fragrance, that most primitive and enduring sense. I plant for fragrance, for the enormous spectrum of meaningful scents that define so many if not all of the floral realm. Long before chemistry was removed from botany fragrance was a premier motivation in the garden and the only source for scent. Don’t hesitate, gardeners. Follow in my steps and enjoy a subtle joy, the fragrant garden. It is within the scope of any size garden and one best practiced with others, young and old.

My mother was a city girl from Providence and taught me much about gardening. A mere toddler, she gave me a sprig of Lily of the Valley and told me to breath deep. I can see this moment as if this morning. “Enjoy with your nose, never put this plant in your mouth”. Surely, it must have been a morning early in May when the Lily of the Valley blooms in Providence. The pungent fragrance became a fixture in memory and mind. Early garden lessons endure when linked with a scent. You can do this too and I wish to share happiest times with you and yours.

Every garden plot has room for scent. Scent maybe the primary purpose for cultivating a plant or it may be a happy by product. I happen to love the fragrance of hay and fresh cut grass, not the first reason anyone would mow and save grass. Let’s turn a bit to those plants so easy to grow and rewarding to the nose and spirit, there are many. When one plants for the nose, the spirit is nearby and when an arrow is drawn from the nose to the heart one must be careful not to wound. Here is a gardening experience open to all and from all good will flows to lighten the darkness that surrounds the winter solstice. Here are a few plants I usually grow especially for their fragrance.

Roses! Do grow a rose. The first, second, and third requirement for successful rose cultivation is sunshine. Roses are good companions to tomatoes for much of the same reasons: sunshine is critical for success. Rosa Rugosa is among the most fragrant and tolerates very poor if well drained soils. We know them best as the rose that endures along the edge of Narragansett Bay and seashores throughout New England. They bloom in white, red, pink and both single petal and diploid varieties. They offer very fragrant blooms in June and to a lesser degree throughout the frost free months. Everyone can count on the nutritious colorful rose hips, the rose fruit that is a brilliant orange/red color full of seeds. Harvest the rose petals on dry afternoons for keeping. I snip buds, open blooms, and faded blossoms alike. Hips too!

Preserving fragrant herbs and flowers is child’s play. I string a rope up in the garage rafters or in a dry room, even closets. Make the line high enough to be out of the way and allow free air circulation. Don’t over think this technique but do pay attention. Crop plants cleanly near the base and attempt to keep stray weeds away from each species. Tie the bouquet with a tight knot near the cut stems and hang the entire bunch from the rope upside down. Pry apart the bunch to allow as much air circulation as possible and move on to the next harvest. Soon, intrepid gardeners fill the drying space with clump after clump of fragrant cut plants and wholesome aromas fill the air. The spirit rises to the occasion and joyful gardeners throw themselves into the task. There is more to do.

Our garden season is a long and productive time. Lilacs and Lily of the Valley are present in May, Paper White Narcissus begins even earlier. As time marches on more fragrant plants punctuate the garden season. Who hasn’t stood enchanted, bewitched next to a thick planting of beebalm? The blooms are colorful pinks, rose and mauve, the vigorous stems grow tall and easily spread, the leaves are a principal ingredient in Earl Grey tea. We are intrigued and amused by the antics of bees, the many various types so endangered in the wider world find refuge in our urban gardens. Bees share the beebalm’s beauty with humming birds too. It’s possible to harvest great armfuls of beebalm and hang to dry. The dried herb retains its distinctive fragrance for month after month. Grow this familiar herb and recall our ancestors did as well. Beebalm is a North American plant, sometimes known as bergamont or more properly, Monarda. As part of our American legacy and cross cultural evolution this plant was brought into the garden from the wild and spread around the world.

My rafters are full of dried plants. I have great success with the familiar and maybe not so typical. Anise hyssop offers distinct licorice scent. It comes back reliably each year and easily self sows. Volunteers will appear in your garden plot and move onward into the world. Everyone is familiar with marygolds and chrysanthemum. Yes, gardener, harvest and hang. The flowers and foliage are the fragrant parts for keeping. Lavender is a winner for a reason: the imperial fragrance rules the senses. Do it!

Most of my fragrant plants are tucked into odd corners or associated with actual crops for beneficial companionate planting. Drying is a technique useful for preserving culinary herbs which are often a companion plant that encourage other plants’ growth. I like to grow lemon balm and lemon verbena for crisp citrus scent. Each are ideal for children to grow and perhaps the amateur. Lemon balm is in the mint family and requires much the same conditions to thrive if not as expansive as peppermint or spearmint, both worthy candidates for the sensuous garden.

Plant the scented geraniums. I ignore their initial expense and plant the rose scented geranium next to the rose plants. They share the same general soil and light requirements and have a deep musky fragrance more rose like than actual roses. All grow into fairly large plants and dry well retaining their pungent oils.

More favorites to include in your garden rely upon whimsy and favor. Queen Anne’s Lace offer carroty seed heads. Chamomile offers subtle hay like sweetness. When perusing seed catalogs; look for those plants which offer fragrance. I regard this quality as a first requirement in any plant choice.

Why raise so many fragrant plants? They are a joy to behold, eyes closed, in the nighttime garden, near entrances, with youngsters, mothers and fathers. They engrave happy memories on the mind and enter the soul. The intangible becomes real. Isn’t this the definition of magic?

Strip the hanging bunches of dried flowers and herbs from their stems during the advent season. Fill clean brown paper bags without the stems and woody parts and concentrate leaves, blooms and seedpods together. Toss the leftover debris into the compost. Soon, the happy gardener has a unique and very personal tribute to happy summer days during dark depths of winter. We celebrate the winter solstice with New Years and other holidays. Preserve cheerful memories with the dried reminders of summer, spring and fall. Some may call these mixtures potpourri. I regard the joyful mixture as a prompt, a spur, an incentive to visualize gardens from long ago far into the future. Package your mixtures in affordable boxes or any container of choice to allow fragrance to permeate far beyond. I stuff orphan socks full of lavender and toss into the dresser drawers. Good morning!

When I clench a handful of dried flowers and herbs I’m taken to the garden and the mind releases the cares of the day to live in the moment. This is health, this is happiness, this is inexpensive, simple and well within the scope of every urban gardener. Go ahead, enjoy the shortest days and longest nights. They too will pass.

Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees.