Round Robin: Continuing Education

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NEWBERG, Oregon—One of the joys of herb gardening is the opportunity to learn something new almost daily. Certain things, however, I never seem to master. The weather, for instance, determines the life or death of the herb garden, but it’s still a mystery to me why a tender perennial herb survives while a supposedly hardy herb dies after an unusually wet or cold season, or why, after years of incorporating what seems like tons of organic mulch into the soil for aeration and better drainage, only cracked clay prevails at the end of each summer.

Because I collect and grow many lavender species and varieties, I read with interest Len Price’s article on lavender oil in the May 1996 issue of Lavender Bag. Price, an English aromatherapist, discusses the differences in quality between lavender oil derived from Lavandula angustifolia varieties and the lavandins (L. x intermedia), which are a cross between L. angustifolia and L. latifolia. Since the French lavender industry developed lavandins for higher oil content, I had assumed that their oil was also of better quality than that of other lavenders, but in fact, tests have shown that L. angustifolia varieties produce the best oil. Today, however, the amount of L. angustifolia oil produced is declining due to higher growing costs compared to those of the easy-to-grow lavandins. Price suggests that of all the lavandins, L. x intermedia ‘Super’ produces an oil that most closely matches that of L. angustifolia. I’ll keep that in mind when I buy my next bottle of lavender oil.

Another reappraisal also became necessary at home when my five-year-old son, Thomas, taught me a few things about the business of herbs. After working for two years in my greenhouse, one day he up and quit. This pint-sized rival took some pots and opened his own nursery, a stone’s throw away. I watched with amusement as he experimented with potting up weeds. Annual bluegrass was a favorite until it went to seed and turned brown. Then he discovered feverfew. As it is an abundant seeder, he found he had plenty of seedlings to pot up. I saw him everywhere—under the benches, in the shade house, around the barn—looking for seedlings. I showed him the three types that I grow: the single daisy, famous as a remedy for migraine headaches; the double-flowered variety, popular for dried flower arrangements; and the golden-leaved variety, which is good for foliage contrast. Soon, his nursery consisted entirely of feverfew plants. When I managed to sell one of his flats to a local garden center, Thomas was so thrilled that he transplanted his little starts into increasingly larger pots with prospects of greater profit. I told him that no one would want large pots because they would be too heavy to lift, but I had to question my marketing skills when the very next customer bought one. When she asked the price of a blooming feverfew in a large pot, Thomas deliberated and then announced, “Seventy dollars!” I told him to reconsider. Two dollars would be enough, he decided, after giving it some thought.

Thomas now is looking for other herbs to add to his inventory. I think I’ll recommend lemon balm. In my youth, when I was just as excited by discovering and growing herbs, I raided the compost pile of my herb mentor, Emma Wakefield, for lemon balm plants to complete a large, horseshoe-shaped hedge. The design has long since vanished, but after nearly thirty years, I have an overabundance of lemon balm in and around the garden. At this point, I would probably pay Thomas to weed them out. Just think, he could pot them up, sell them, and double his profit!