NEWBERG, Oregon—What exactly is a normal year? Every New Year’s Eve, our weatherman sounds like a broken record with his succinct summation: “It was a normal weather year with average rainfall.” His statistics may indicate an average year, but my garden told a different story. This year’s weather has been more like a roller-coaster ride. In February, an upsurge of warm weather (60° to 70°F) caused a lot of plants to break dormancy. The next week, the temperature plunged back into the teens. Two weeks later, the pattern was repeated. Not until summer was the extent of the damage to bark and buds evident.
A very high water table plagues my garden. This year, that perennial problem was compounded: it rained buckets for two to three weeks. In knee-high rubber boots and rain gear, I engineered great aqueducts that even the Romans would have envied to divert the water through and around my greenhouses.
Surprisingly, I lost few plants; even the tender French lavender (Lavandula dentata) and the yellow-flowered lavender (L. viridis) came through unscathed. My greatest losses were in the rosemary trial garden, a large area where I test three- to six-year-old rosemary cultivars for winterhardiness, growth habit, and overall gardenworthiness. The only survivors were Arp, Herb Cottage, Logee’s Blue, and the variegated Golden Rain. The rest of the stock didn’t actually die but were set back so much that I ripped them out with my tractor. To my surprise, the large rosemary plants had rather shallow root balls that pancaked outward like those of rhododendrons. I found the rosemary wood to be very hard and close-grained. Any branch thicker than two fingers was impossible to cut with loppers and was chain-saw material.
Although I was sad to lose these plants, I was overjoyed at the prospect of having a vast empty space to work with. I spread fresh chicken manure—made that very morning, the driver assured me—to which I added bark dust to alleviate the smell. I was “Lord of the Flies”, and I didn’t see much of my neighbors for a while. The next day, I rototilled the new planting bed, then added mint straw. Its pleasant minty scent masked the remaining chicken-manure vapors, and it was light and easy to work with. The manure and mint straw give the soil not only organic matter but also a boost of nitrogen and potassium.
The weather wasn’t the only surprise this year. Early in the spring, while making up potting soil in the barn, I heard loud thumping noises from the hayloft. I climbed the precarious ladder and peered up through the cracks of the trapdoor to discover two large baby barn owls learning to fly from beam to beam. I was happy to see that my expensive nesting box had finally paid dividends. I also saw the return of my two barn swallows, George and Georgette, to another nest, and it was no time at all before they were feeding four babies.
This year, I broadened my choice of predator insects to release in the greenhouse. They included a mixture of three different mites, each efficient at a specific range of temperature and humidity, to take care of fluctuations during the summer. I used green lacewings for aphid control. I always forget how tenacious lacewings are until I feel a nibbling on my arm and see an adult trying either to seduce me or to reduce me into something smaller that it can eat. One mail-order source for beneficial pests won my heart and my children’s by adding a handful of Tootsie Rolls with the packing material.
New plants for my herb garden this year included the new Salvia greggii ‘San Isidora Moon’, with pale rose flowers, and ‘Sierra San Antonio’, a bicolor of pale yellow and champagne. I like their warm, subtle colors and the contrast with the bright green foliage. I have only one each, which doesn’t do them justice, but I plan to add to their numbers for a more dramatic display. A new agastache, Agastache macrantha, was a disappointment. I love the genus, but this species took the entire summer to produce minuscule cream-colored flowers on scrawny spikes. Is there such a thing as plant anorexia? Despite its fragrant foliage, this plant has been banished.