Down to Earth: Dividing the Yarrows

Herbalist Jim Long explains how a Texas couple makes him realize his luck.

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Many times, I have turned unannounced visitors away with ­regret, but this couple had come so far that I didn’t want to disappoint them.

Early spring, when perennial herbs are just coming out of dormancy, is the ideal time to divide and renew them. Yarrow, mint, oreg­ano, thyme, comfrey, lamb’s-ears, mo­narda, echinacea, and lemon balm are among the many herbs that benefit from being divided every three to four years. Dividing herbs gives me the opportunity to remove them from their growing beds and spend some time improving the soil. In late February and early March, when temperatures fluctuate between 10° and 60°F, I till the soil deeply, working in compost and sphagnum peat. I don’t divide lavender or sage, but even these herbs benefit from being lifted so that the beds may be tilled. I renew each herb bed every few years.

One warm and pleasant late winter day, I was dividing my yarrow, humming as I lifted each plant with a potato fork, cut the root-bound clumps into several divisions with an old, sharp butcher knife, and quickly replanted them into a newly tilled raised bed. I anticipated ending up with several times as many plants as when I started. I was interrupted at my task by the arrival of visitors.

They were an older couple from Fort Worth, Texas, who said they’d driven to the Ozarks just to visit my garden. I explained that my garden and shop are open only one day a week from May to October except for groups and advance reservations. Many times, I have turned unannounced visitors away with regret, but this couple had come so far that I didn’t want to disappoint them. I reluctantly stopped my work and agreed to give them a tour of my winter garden.

We walked along the gravel pathways and talked. As we strolled, I picked sprigs of rosemary and lemon thyme, as well as snippets from the newly emerging mints. Handing each one to the woman, I would say, “Smell and taste this.”

She tried each tiny sprig, exclaiming over how fresh and welcome it was in the still-winter air. “Here, honey,” she would say as she handed the sprigs to her husband. “Taste how good this is!”

The woman was full of excitement and enthusiasm. She asked many questions, explaining that she had a few herbs but not nearly the three or four hundred kinds I grow. Some of the plants had not yet shown any new growth, but she read the labels to get an idea of what would fill the empty spots in warmer weather.

The man only grunted. He stared off at the corners of the garden and down into the woods. The longer we walked and the more early spring herbs I handed her, the less responsive he became. I began to feel resentful of his attitude, feeling that he was showing no support for his wife’s interests at all.

After the tour, we went into the herb shop at the edge of the garden. The woman continued to display her enthusiasm, which I enjoyed. “Honey, smell this seasoning.” she said. “Shouldn’t we get some of each of these? They’re from right here, from this garden!”

The man only looked annoyed. By now, I was having to work to hide my frustration. Why didn’t he just stay in the car and let his wife enjoy herself? I thought.

The woman made her selections to purchase. She was generous in her praise of my peaceful spot of earth. As they walked away from the herb shop porch and up the path to their car, the man turned in midstride.

“I know I haven’t seemed very interested,” he said. “It’s just that there’s more here than I can begin to absorb. You obviously really enjoy your work. I have a job I detest. I only wish that someone had told me thirty years ago that it was all right to work at something I loved as you do. I really envy your life!”

With that he turned, got in his car and drove away. I had so completely misjudged his reactions. With new perspective, I went back to dividing and multiplying the yarrows.

Jim Long is an herbalist who lives and works at Long Creek Herb Farm, a modest but amazingly productive piece of land tucked away in the Ozarks above Oak Grove, Arkansas, miles from a paved road. We all envy his life.