Denver, Colorado—When I get the chance, I hit the road, but because of the garden, it’s difficult to take off for more than a few days at a time. With almost an acre of garden to tend, not to mention 500 patio containers, it’s an intimidating job for a friend to handle.
My friend Robin took up the challenge when I went on vacation two summers ago, and since then, I often joke that I should just vacate for a week each month and let her take over. I worried that she wouldn’t be able to keep up with the mowing and watering, but after two weeks under her care, the garden looked fabulous and the house was spotless. In the kitchen, she actually removed canisters and crocks when she cleaned the counters—what a concept. I was both embarrassed and grateful.
For good reason, Robin is the most sought after house sitter in my circle of friends, and I haven’t been able to entice her to stay again. Autumn isn’t a bad time to travel, though, since not much can go wrong at the tail end of our growing season, and winter is ideal. For some of the gardeners I wanted to visit last fall, however, the timing wasn’t good.
“You know we’ve just been through a hurricane, don’t you?” asked Sylvia Tippett, owner of Rasland Farm when I called to ask if I might visit the mail-order herb nursery. Hurricane Fran had just blown through North Carolina a few weeks before, but southern hospitality is eternal, and Sylvia invited me to stop by anyway. A hurricane-spawned tornado had skipped through the family farm on a scary night, downing century-old trees as the creek rose in the blackness. The farm’s houses, vehicles, barn, and greenhouse were miraculously spared.
On the rainy day when I arrived at the farm near the small town of Godwin, the summer’s harvest (much of it frantically picked before the hurricane struck) was being fashioned into beautiful wreaths. The barn, refitted to house drying, storing, and work areas, smelled like herbal heaven, with bunches of herbs and everlastings hanging from all the rafters and finished wreaths stored on pegs beneath the stairs.
Jon and Jennifer Tippett gave me a tour of the greenhouse, which housed impressive topiary specimens, some growing in attractive homemade hypertufa containers, and a selection of young herbs, from familiar scented geraniums and mints to many unusual plants. I nibbled on the sugar-sweet leaves of Aztec sweet herb (Phyla scaberrima), and my fingers eventually were laden with so many scents from rubbing the various kinds of leaves that I could not distinguish one from another. Fans kept the air circulating vigorously, a must in this warm, humid climate. Southern growers must take special care, I learned, to keep plants such as scented geraniums healthy in the summer by continuous grooming, repotting, and propagation.
Mediterranean herbs such as thymes and lavenders also need careful monitoring. In the ground, they perform best in raised beds or soil mounded to prevent rotting. On the other hand, more tropical herbs and everlastings, such as many salvias, gomphrena, gotu kola (Centella asiatica), and fo-ti (Polygonum multiflorum), grow like gangbusters. The last two are Asian herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine. The first is said to regenerate brain cells and improve memory, and I’ve forgotten about uses for the other.
Hoja santa (Piper auritum), a 4-foot-tall plant with large, glossy leaves, caught my eye in the growing fields. It is also called root beer plant on account of the pleasant scent of the roots. I’m proud of my small plant growing under lights in the basement that I propagated from a piece of root. The vigorous, attractive ‘African Blue’ basil, with purple-tinted leaves and showy lavender blossoms, puts up with the low humidity of a Colorado summer just as well as it handles the high humidity of the South. It’s definitely the strongest basil I’ve ever grown.
Whenever I travel, I try to understand how a particular climate affects the cultivation of plants that I grow in Colorado. It helps me understand how better to propagate a plant and figure out what bothers it.
I also pick up helpful tips that can’t be found in any book. I learned, for instance, that sweet Annie should be cut when it’s still green for a more pleasing contrast with red pepper berries in a wreath. Since I possess the manual dexterity of a hippo, I admire the people who spend the many hours it takes to form tiny bunches into complete wreaths. It takes a laundry basket full of oregano to make a single wreath, a task that’s way out of my league.
Herb gardeners rank among the most generous of people. I left Rasland Farm with a box of goodies to stuff into my carry-on luggage and memories of a warm reception on a rainy day. I kept thinking about what would happen if a hurricane ripped through my garden. Would I let visitors drop in? Probably not for years—unless I could get Robin to spend a week there first.