The Grown-Up Herb Garden


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We all reach a time in our lives when we have to admit to a certain amount of maturity.

Being a grown-up has its advantages, certainly, but also its responsibilities and cares and its potential for crossing a line somewhere into aging, getting set in our ways, rootbound, maybe a little careworn. So, too, our gardens.

A garden bed starts as empty earth, new, fresh, with creative possibilities that fire up novice and experienced gardeners alike—a chance to discover, plan, shape, explore and transform. The first few years, the plants that survive settle in, establish their zones, reach out to touch their neighbors, as we scurry around to fill the bare spots with even more of them. Some plants begin to sprinkle their progeny into the empty spaces, and all of sudden, there’s a lush and bountiful garden where once there was bare soil.

For vegetable gardeners, a bed renews itself yearly at the gardener’s hand, but for perennial gardeners, renewal is ongoing. We add new plants each year, watching and learning about them, tinkering with color combinations and bloom times so that with each passing season, the garden gets easier and more pleasurable. It begins to sprawl into its own graceful shape and wage its own battles with bugs and weeds. It becomes a grown-up with a mind of its own, and the gardener’s reins loosen.

“An older garden is easier to take care of because you’ve had the time to tune it. You know what’s going to do well and survive because the plants have already proved themselves,” says Rob Proctor, who tends an acre in a suburban neighborhood in Denver, Colorado.

The day may come, however—maybe after five years, maybe ten, maybe more—when we notice for the first time that, oh my, this is a mess, who’s in charge here? The once-wonderful shrub in the corner is so overgrown, it’s stealing air, water, space, and nutrients from the now-puny herbs for which it was supposed to be a graceful backdrop. Sweet Annie is not so sweet since its seedlings invaded the thymes’ crevices in the flagstone pathways. The shadow of the trees along the property line is threatening to swallow the sun-loving culinary herb bed whole. Self-seeding has resulted in some color combinations that we can’t bear to look at, and we wonder why on earth we planted hyssop and Russian sage, which need virtually no water, next to Joe-Pye weed, which wants a lot.

The mature garden needs a critical eye. To stand back and view with cool detachment the work, time, and emotional stake we’ve invested is difficult. We asked some of The Herb Companion’s long-time contributors who have maintained herb gardens for a decade or more—real gardeners with dirty hands who write about their experiences for these pages—to tell us about problems they’ve encountered as they and their gardens age.

Get tough

Rob Proctor and David Macke had an herb and flower garden in one location for ten years; their current garden is six years old. The process of evaluating plant performance is ongoing and constant, but occasionally they start over on part of their garden, either to correct their mistakes or to try something different. When evaluating a mature garden, a ruthless attitude helps, Rob says.

“I’m lenient the first few seasons with perennials; then I get really cold-­hearted. In an older garden, you should be able to wander around and get a sense of ­harmony and glowing good health. If anything stands out because of poor performance, you have to think: it doesn’t belong here, it’s time for that to go—­either it’s not meant for this climate or it needs something I can’t provide.” So into the compost pile it goes.

Elisabeth Sheldon, who has been building her garden in Lansing, New York, for twenty-nine years, agrees. “If you no longer enjoy eating it or looking at it, if it’s not giving you active pleasure, get rid of it. There are so many new things coming into the ­nurseries all the time—wonderful plants, sages, calamints, agastaches, and nepetas—and it’s time to make room for them so you can keep experimenting. Old gardeners even kind of like it when an old plant dies because it gives them a new space, a new spot to put something in.”

All of sudden, there’s a lush and bountiful garden where once there was bare soil. 

Deal with invaders

Jim Long has maintained half an acre of display herb gardens at his 27-acre Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas, for nineteen years. Some plants have caused problems over the years—problems that he admits creating himself by planting them in the first place.

When someone brought him a start of ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), an old-time folk remedy but also a rampant weed of lawns in much of the United States, he planted it beneath his bedroom window, telling it sternly, “I’m not going to let you get out of hand.” He built an addition onto the house, right on top of it, and “I think I made it mad,” he says. It crept out from under two corners of the house and kept on going—into some of the herb beds, into the woods, down through the pasture. “It’s way, way out of control, and I’ve given up on it,” Jim says.

Wild yam is a fast-growing medicinal vine that grows 25 to 30 feet tall. Jim planted it to cover an arbor, but it quickly spread into the fencerows and the herb beds. Though he pulls out seedlings daily, he admits, “I’ve come to appreciate it as a ground cover—it’s nice and tough and hardy—so I’m coming to terms with it.”

His problems with sweet fennel are galling because Jim helped make it the Herb of the Year in 1995. “It’s a wonderful plant, but enough is enough. It reseeds so vigorously that it’s in all my pathways and the edges of the garden.” He gave it its own bed and takes the weedeater to any plants that show up outside it. Jim notes that bronze fennel is much easier to control.

He advises that with an aggressive plant like one of these three, “Give it a little space and make sure it’s really enclosed or eliminate it.” The box below includes more tips for dealing with invasive plants.

Demolish if necessary

Geri Laufer began her current garden in Atlanta, Georgia, six years ago after tending an herb garden at another house for a decade. She tells of planting two graceful, fragrant chaste trees (Vitex agnus-castus) on either side of a grass pathway leading from one part of her herb garden to another. She expected the shrubs to grow to 5 or 6 feet.

“They got larger and larger, remarkably quickly. I’d say it took six years for them to reach 20 feet. We have such a long growing season here, and when they got that big, they created conditions I hadn’t foreseen: they threw up a lot of shade where you’re not thinking you’ll have it.”

She first took cuttings to plant elsewhere in her garden; the plants were so big that she had to sacrifice them. She started digging 3 or 4 feet out from the base of each shrub, prying out as many roots as she could and cutting off the others. Next she wrestled the shrubs out of the ground with a mattock and dragged them off to the curb, saving the smallest branches to be chipped into mulch for the new garden space that removal of the shrubs opened up.

The vitexes left behind two garden areas of about 40 square feet each. “It meant a wonderful opportunity to plant lavenders, lemon verbena, pineapple sages, scented geraniums, which all come back through the winter here,” Geri says.

“If you plan ahead and choose the right plant for the right spot, you theoretically never have to do this. But none of the books I’d checked warned me about how big these would get. Of course, many gardening books are written for more northern climates. Here, they grow more quickly, and they’re not knocked down by the cold weather.”

Not all overgrown plants require such heroic measures. Orris, monardas, and daylilies are a few herbaceous perennials that benefit from being dug and divided every few years. Many shrubs can be rejuvenated by pruning out one-third of the old branches at the base every year while heading back some of the others. Dividing and pruning are easier before the plants get overgrown.

Change your mind

Just because a particular kind of garden was a good idea once doesn’t mean it still is. Sometimes it no longer meets the gardeners’ needs, and sometimes changes in their lives dictate changes in the garden.

When Portia Meares moved to Wolftown, Virginia, with her husband in 1976, she planted a 12-by-12-foot formal herb garden divided into triangles with tidy germander edges. It was a pretty little garden, “but I spent most of my time on my knees trying to keep things under control,” Portia says. “There are too many things that don’t belong in a formal garden that I wanted to grow—comfrey, costmary, sage. The rosemary got huge, and nigella seeded itself all over the place, and I had to spend another year or two trying to get rid of that.”

After about four years, Portia let her first herb garden go, pulling out the germanders and leaving the space to lavenders and santolina, and put in a 100-foot-long border of herbs mixed in with other ornamental, culinary, and medicinal plants. The new bed, about 41/2 feet wide in most spots, ­enables her to tuck away the huge valerian and the coarse larger-leaved elecampane, to have a special place for monardas, to grow natives such as black cohosh, hepatica, blue cohosh, trillium, and bloodroot in a shady area, to give freer rein to plants such as clary sage and horsemint.

“It’s easier to take care of, and I enjoy working in it more,” Portia says. “I have all the freedom I want, plenty of room for rotating plants, space for plants to go a little wild until I’m ready to trim them or pull them up.”

Elisabeth Sheldon has sweeping borders of herbs and flowers in shades of blues, purples, whites, and pastels. A few years ago, she erected a tall, solid fence around a 20-by-30-foot plot where she could plant a “hot garden” that would not disrupt the muted color scheme of the rest of the garden. First-time visitors laugh when they open the gate and see the blazing daylilies, red and magenta monardas, and brilliant orange calendulas.

It’s a marvelous little garden, but this is its last year. Elisabeth is redoing the garden, not because she has changed her mind, but because her eyesight is failing and she can’t see the colors anymore. “Next year I’m going to turn it into a fragrance garden. I have such bad vision now, I want to be able to just sit and smell everything.”

Our gardens must fit our lives. We grow together.

Kathleen Halloran is the former editor of The Herb Companion. Her garden in Laporte, Colorado, usually does whatever it wants.