Round Robin: Herb Garden Makeover

Notes from Regional Herb Gardeners


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NEWBERG, Oregon—I am facing a midlife garden crisis. It happens every five to six years when I realize that the formal herb garden is out of control. The original angelica plant is long gone and has left a jungle of seedlings that now covers up valuable neighbors. The centers of bee balms, ­various mints, and French tarragon are now dead zones with activity only at their perimeters. The brick path hosts numerous pennyroyal seedlings and an underground expressway for the running mints. Weeds abound, especially the persistent ones such as dandelions and blackberries, whose seeds passing birds always seem to drop in the middle of a once-­immaculate mat of creeping thyme. It is time. I have decided on an herbal makeover. I am talking major surgery.

The encroaching pink yarrow is going to get a severe liposuction to bring it back within bounds. The costmary that has now formed an impenetrable bed of matted roots around and under a Hidcote lavender is long overdue for a radical tummy tuck. No longer will the variegated lemon balm—which does not come true from seed—have double chins of green lemon balm because I allowed it to go to seed. Anorexic chive plants will go on a nourishing diet of rich composted organic matter. The center beds that highlighted the more unusual herbs will be getting an entire face-lift. Discipline and restraint will be the order of the day!

I realize that I’m not getting any younger, and dragging the hose around to water plants is a daily reminder to rid myself of the old and plant what is new. Over the past year or two, I’ve accumulated a lot of new herb plants that are begging to get out of their rootbound containers and be allowed to live a normal garden life. There’s an unfounded rumor among my greenhouse plants that I am a sadist. It’s true that I have kept some salvias that now tower 5 to 6 feet tall in one-gallon containers for years but only for lack of time to look up their cultural needs before properly planting them out.

Forewarned is forearmed, the saying goes. I learned this lesson when I began to grow the native California tree lupine (Lupinus arboreus). I first saw this yellow-flowered lupine in a Seattle garden, where it grew 3 to 4 feet high. I managed to get a few seeds and eventually ended up with a 1-gallon stock plant. It wilted daily. I decided to end its misery and attempted to find a place for it in the border. I did not know that it had rooted through the drain holes into the gravel. When I tried to lift the pot, it wouldn’t budge. I yanked on it furiously, and it still didn’t budge. I feigned defeat, then suddenly whipped out my clippers and cut the offending roots where they emerged from the drain holes. This incident took place during our record drought a couple of years ago, and the plant immediately wilted, but somehow it persisted in the border. Last year, it grew to giant size with multiple trunks as big as my wrist. It was completely covered with yellow lupine flowers that faded to a delicious apricot shade. The effect was stunning and then—as the seedpods began to form—frightening! With sharpened loppers, I attacked the plant, filling three wheelbarrows full of seed-laden branches. As I marched triumphantly back from the compost pile, I noticed a trail of fallen seeds; the bouncing of the wheelbarrow had caused the mature pods to split open, projecting hundreds of seeds into the air. And yes, some of them germinated. In fact, all I have to do now to find the compost pile is to follow their trail.