I’m like most gardeners, I think, in that most mornings, the first thing I do—even before coffee, and often before a shower—is go out back and visit my plants. There’s the usual fluttering of birds I’ve disturbed at the feeder, and often the white flash of a bunny’s rump disappearing into the tomato patch. (The bunnies are breeding like, well, bunnies hereabouts this year. I’ve never in my life seen a baby bunny before, and this summer, I’ve seen three. Or maybe the same one three times?) I water the hanging baskets, which are always dry as dust, check the contents of the feeder, pick a handful of tomatoes (hooray!), and do a bit of desultory deadheading. It’s a wonderful way to begin the day.
Now that a lot of the midsummer plants are fading—the larkspur are done for, the evening primrose has given up the ghost, and the poppies are on their last legs, though I do seem to have grown myself some poppyseeds in the seed capsules of my big, beautiful Pepperboxes—the late-summer and autumn flowers are peeking through. Petunias I haven’t seen in months are shyly extending their heads above the dried foliage surrounding them; portulaca, with room to finally spread out, are putting on a show. And the marigolds are coming to the forefront. I’m torn about marigolds. Generally, I prefer my plants a little less … well, common. Any danged fool can grow marigolds, so what’s in it for me? But every time I get on my high horse and think I won’t plant them, I remember how steadfast they are in the bleak heat of August, and how they never say die until Thanksgiving rolls around. So I stick some in.
What I forget when I plant them is the scent they have on steamy summer mornings when I snap off spent blossoms with my (green-tinged, broken) fingernails. Nothing else smells like marigolds. They’re pungent, musky, sharp, halfway unpleasant, halfway alluring. And the scent always brings with it a flood of memories. Back when I was in grade school, we had an annual harvest festival kind of thing for which we were encouraged to create flower arrangements with materials from our home gardens (because of course back then, everyone had a home garden). My mom, a practical woman with four kids, grew a lot of marigolds, I think because she could count on them to still be blooming when the grade-school harvest fest rolled around. I spent a lot of time, back when I was seven and eight and nine, poking marigold stems into different containers—vases, plastic-bag-lined boxes, even hollowed-out eggplants and cabbages. Being awarded a blue ribbon from our teacher-judges was a huge thrill.
I doubt there are school districts anywhere that run those sorts of contests anymore. Busy working moms and dads don’t have time even to grow carefree marigolds. Of course, they do—they just don’t realize how truly carefree marigolds are. We also used to start seeds in school and bring them home in Dixie cups for our parents to plant. Maybe I’ll find a way to make sure some schoolkids get a chance to start marigold seeds next spring.
Photo by Drprasadraj.