Gardening for the Soul

By Sara Harrell Banks

Southern gardens are as unique and elusive as the “Southern Mystique,” and the memorable ones are fragrant with flowers that bring summer to our hearts. At the heart of each garden is scent, what someone has described as “a power without a name” – a mystery, a sacredness. And for the true gardener, gardens offer sanctuary within their green walls. The thirteenth-century Persian poet Rumi wrote: “This outward spring and garden are a reflection of the inward garden.”

When Mary, the young heroine in Frances Burnett’s The Secret Garden, discovered the door to that garden, she saw “high walls covered with the leafless stems of climbing roses, which were so thick they were matted together.” It was the hazy tangle that intrigued young readers, enchanted by the idea of a mysterious garden that was also, for the lonely child, a sanctuary.

My first memory of a garden, and the realization of it, was at my Aunt Margaret’s house in Alabama. From the green, leafy shelter of the magnolia tree, I watched as my grandmother tamed wild birds. She stood in a haze of blue larkspur, her arms held up, as the birds fluttered down and fed from her open hands. That’s when the awareness of a garden and its possibilities became magical for me.

Aunt Margaret’s garden bore her personality – bright, generous and open. There was a kind of ease, a benign carelessness in the sprawling beds of old-fashioned flowers; stocks, larkspur, sweet alyssum, pansies, snapdragons and love-in-a-mist. She worked it herself, planting sweet peas on a blustery March day, later training the vines on Turkey wire. In the late fall, she planted bulbs of cluster narcissus, known in the South as seventeen sisters, and dug cone-shaped holes in the rich, dark earth for her beloved roses.

Describing flowers as “old-fashioned” is not to impart some out-of-date virtue of the “old times that are not forgotten” school of Southern gardening, but simply to describe those that colored our lives in a simpler time when our mothers, aunts and grandmothers were planting them.

Each garden is marked by the personality of its gardener. Not long ago, a friend and I had visited a nursery and spent the best part of the morning going up and down the rows of beds, pulling our red wagons, pinching the leaves of herbs, discovering treasures. When it was time to go and we’d each chosen our plants, my friend looked at the wagon filled with my choices: rosemary, dianthus, lemon thyme, lamb’s ears, and scented geraniums.

“Good grief,” she said, “does everything you plant have to sprawl?”

Her plants, neat and tidy, mirrored her personality while mine, I realized with some dismay, mirrored my own.

Southern gardens were planted primarily by women and were works of art in the same sense that a handmade quilt is a work of art. History and time are written in roses; the Cherokee rose, with a faint smell of gardenia, was native to our land when new settlers arrived. Sweetbriar or Eglantine, is the first rose to bloom in spring. From various parts of the South, the Maréchal Neil rose with its scent of orris root and tea, was brought as cuttings from the “old home place” by new brides, its yellow bells shading and perfuming verandas.

Memory is triggered by smells; the scent of night-blooming lilies, faintly decadent and languorous, recalls for me hidden courtyards of New Orleans, while the intense scent of lotus blossoms conjures up a hidden pond near Aunt Margaret’s house. It also places me there in a dress of pale pink organdy fashioned by my grandmother, a seamstress with an Alabama softness and a quicksilver needle. The fragrance of Catherine Mermet roses takes me back to summer afternoons when as children, we used to color in the garden; the tea scent mingled with the smell of crayons, waxy and warm in the sun.

Louise Beebe Wilder wrote in The Fragrant Path that, “fragrance speaks more clearly to age than to youth…with the young it may not pass much beyond the olfactory nerve, but with those who have started down the far side of the hill, it reaches into the heart.” It is memory created by the older for the young that holds and takes us back, time after time, to that precious place. For me, a garden without scent is a hollow heart.

People who are anosmic or who have no sense of smell, do not garden in the same way as those of us who are hyperosmic. They must miss the sense of déja vu when suddenly assailed by the haunting scent of Carolina jasmine, the wild fragrance of wet acacia or the tender sweetness of wisteria, blooming in purple panoply in the branches of old trees. We can’t describe scent, but only the emotion it engenders. Helen Keller, writing of her days in the South, called this sense of smell “the fallen angel.”

Remembered gardens are not the formal, carefully tended beds attached to fine plantations, but gardens where honeysuckle perfumed hot, summer nights, and gardenias with buds like tightly furled fairy umbrellas opened suddenly, their creamy petals like a woman’s fine skin, their fragrance sensuous and compelling.

Old-fashioned flowers never bear the onerous description of “improved” in garden catalogs, because they aren’t. At some unfortunate point in time, annuals imported from the topics and subtropics became fashionable in this country. Salvia, ageratum, coleus and showy scentless flowers took the place of less showy petunias, black-eyed Susans and the evening-scented jasmine-tobacco, Nicotiana.

But the plants that border suburban lawns have nothing that in later years will evoke memory; a particular quality of moonlight, a mockingbird’s song at dawn, or the poignancy of something lost and not returning. The heart and soul of a garden is held in its fragrance, in the way that a tiny seed or bulb holds the promise of the flower to come.

The outward garden is good for us; it promises sunshine and work and new discoveries. It is the inward garden that nourishes our soul.

About this writer

  • Sara Harrell BanksSara Harrell Banks grew up in Alabama and Georgia where she was raised by a number of odd but loving relatives. The author of fourteen books, her newest book (after a hiatus of four years), will be published by Peachtree Publishers in Spring 2010. Known as “the Bedouin” Harrell by friends and family, she currently lives in High Point, N.C.

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