Round Robin: Herb Garden Relaxation

Notes from regional herb gardeners

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NEWBERG, Oregon—This is the time to relax and to enjoy the herb garden. It doesn’t get any better than this. All the previous months’ garden labors now come to fruition in a climax of color. Old heritage roses, thymes, sages, monardas, oreganos and lavenders all are in bloom. For those interested in lavenders, I’d like to recommend an enchanting little book entitled The Scented Lavender Book by Lois Vickers (Bulfinch Press). At first, I thought it might be just another quick publication on the popularity of lavender, but then I found that it was sponsored by Norfolk Lavender Ltd., the lavender company which supplies all of England with oil and lavender gifts. The book is easily read in one pleasant sitting and is very informative about the names of lavender varieties, their uses and their origins; a page comparing the flower heads of many of the popular varieties is especially useful for identification.

This is the best time of year either to show your garden to your friends and modestly boast to them of your gardening accomplishments or to escape your own herb garden to visit someone else’s. Whichever course you choose, you’ll come out ahead. You may learn from another gardener’s success how to grow a certain herb that has been troublesome to you, or you may discover an entirely new herb or plant association that might work well in your own garden design.

We herb growers in the Pacific Northwest have another sort of treat in store for us in Bellevue, Washington (outside Seattle), on July 9, 10, and 11: Herbs ’93, the annual conference sponsored by the International Herb Growers and Marketers Association. Having attended two of this organization’s previous conferences in other parts of the country, I can attest that there will be something of herbal note for everyone interested in any of the many facets of herbs. I wouldn’t miss it, especially as it may be a long time before IHGMA holds another conference in this part of the country. And because we can grow practically any herb we choose here in the Willamette Valley, it’s tempting to brag a bit to those poor folks who live in the rest of the nation!

Before leaving for the conference, I have a few routine maintenance chores to do. I deadhead the thymes immediately after flowering to direct the plants’ energy toward producing new growth, not toward seed development. Moonlight thyme (Thymus leucotrichus) is such a prolific bloomer that it tends to exhaust itself if the seed heads are not promptly removed. This species and the other upright thymes, which include most of the culinary types, can easily be trimmed with a pair of clippers. The prostrate or creeping forms are not so easy. In some, the task borders on the Herculean, not to say back-breaking. A hand-held rechargeable electric clipper makes the job a lot easier, though. I feel like a barber skimming the tops of the plants, taking a little bit off in 5-inch swaths. Using the electric clipper takes little effort and hardly any time. I follow up the clipping by sweeping the dead flower heads off the thyme mat with a plastic rake. I also use the clippers for shaping germander and hyssop hedges and cutting off santolina or lavender flowers that I never found the time to harvest.

The annual sweet basil is another story. As the daytime temperatures increase, basil stops producing foliage and turns its efforts toward producing seed. To counter this tendency, I pinch out the flowering tips of the plant every other day, hoping to promote branching and more foliage. It’s a pity that the tomatoes aren’t even close to being ripe, as a few sprigs of fresh home-grown basil with oil and vinegar on sliced home-grown tomatoes are heaven.

Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is another culinary annual that’s very popular here for use in salsa and other Mexican food and in Chinese dishes. This herb does well early in the growing season when the weather is cool, but after the warm weather arrives the foliage turns a sickly yellow, and the plants go to seed and die. No amount of pinching will help, and pinching may actually hasten the plants’ demise. The only successful way to grow cilantro in summer is to make successive sowings about a week apart. I try to find the coolest spot in the garden to plant it in, perhaps in the vegetable garden where it can be shaded by a taller vegetable.

Many annual herbs reseed themselves about my garden. This year, a mixture of pink-, white-, and blue-flowered love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena ‘Persian Jewels’) popped up next to the coarse-textured Salvia glutinosa and some silver horehounds (Marrubium sp.) and created a brief but memorable color display. It is these small and delightful experiences that make gardening with herbs even more enjoyable.

Andy Van Hevelingen operates Van Hevelingen Herb Nursery in Newberg, Oregon.