Gardening Tips from All Over

Notes from Regional Herb Gardeners


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Bees and Balms

Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia--Because all the bee balms are in bloom now, I carry my ancient 6-inch wooden ruler around to measure their flowers. I’ve noticed that those with the shortest tubes attract bees while those with longer ones attract hummingbirds, and I’d like to know which types to recommend to customers who want hummingbirds in their gardens.

Once you watch the bees and hummingbirds at work, you’ll see why it’s important to know the flower’s length from base to opening. Those bee balms with inch-long florets are ideal for bees, which can easily reach the nectar at the flower’s base. A slightly longer tube may effectively bar bees from entering the flower but is the ideal design for hummingbirds’ long beaks.

According to my admittedly unscientific observations, the best hummingbird bee balm by far is the red Monarda didyma, whose shaggy flowers have the longest tube of any of my bee balms. Bees flock to the short-tubed mauve wild bergamot, M. fistulosa. Hybrid forms have flowers of varying lengths; pinks are shorter, purples longer.

Whether they attract bees or hummingbirds, I love all the bee balms. During this season, I revel in their flowers, tinted bracts, and wonderful scents, from warm and spicy to cool and minty. If I’m not measuring their flowers, I’m trying to figure out how many colors I have. The sin of possessiveness is strong when it comes to shades of bee balm. How else can I explain why I pick and carry blossoms from one planting to another and compare colors?

Bee balm watching in late summer is a mixed blessing, and I feel a tug of war within my gardening soul. On the one hand, each day I see my colorful landscape. On the other hand, this fruitful scene before me soon will be transformed by cold rains and successive frosts. I know what I have to do, yet I feel almost powerless to do it: I must pick the flowers in their freshest hues for potpourri and dry the young leaves for flavoring and teas. Yet I’m so beguiled by their full-flowering, robust, mounding forms that day by day goes by—I measure, I count colors, but I don’t pick.

I’ve tried to resolve this problem by setting aside plantings just for harvest—bee balms are easy to divide—but as I’ve discovered over many years, each new planting becomes an important detail in the landscape. So how can one disturb it? That’s another dilemma for the gardener whose gardens satisfy the need for both beauty and useful plants.

Planting, observing, and harvesting define my life. My harvest basket overflows now with bunches of marjoram, soft sage leaves, and deep yellow and orange calendulas. As I admire their varied forms and colors in the basket, I’m reminded of where I began more than twenty years ago. Now the gardens have grown into a landscape with a life of its own, a landscape that grows out of my life and expresses my needs.

Bee balms in full flower are details in the grand scheme, and I shouldn’t feel guilty enjoying them. I will harvest them, too, in good time.
—Jo Ann Gardner

Finding Permanence

Newberg, Oregon--A more resilient gardener would tackle the weeds in the herb garden on the hot summer days, but like most other native Oregonians, I wilt in heat. I'm m ore content to work early in the morning, have a break in the afternoon, and work again until dinnertime. My afternoon respite is to sit and sip iced tea while reminiscing about weeding in April when the ground was easy to work. Then I could pull up entire dandelion and dock plants, roots and all. Now I face rock-hard ground and weeds that break off at ground level, leaving the root intact to grow.

This year, I afforded myself the luxury of a teak bench for the garden. Although it won’t replace my chamomile bench, which is both historically “correct” and herbally romantic, I’m looking forward to the teak bench’s graceful aging, which will bring an air of permanence to the garden.

Another way to establish permanence in the herb garden is to plant some herbal trees. So often we think of using only annuals and herbaceous perennials. At this time of year, it’s nice to have some trees for shade.

I’m blessed with three such trees. The oldest is the classic bay tree (Laurus nobilis) given to me thirty years ago by my mentor, Emma Wakefield. This evergreen, currently about 20 feet tall, provides good shade throughout the year and has weathered many a winter. It even completely top-killed once, but the next spring it sent up numerous suckers. Last winter, the winds knocked down a few suckers and the original stump is beginning to decay, so I may lose them all eventually.

Fellow herb lover Adgie Hulse gave me my sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum) about twenty-five years ago. This tree was an experiment and a growing challenge: Could this herbal tree native to the southeastern United States grow in the Far West? Now about 40 feet tall, it provides light shade in the summer and good yellow color before leaf drop in autumn. I enjoy it most for the five different shapes of its leaves and the nostalgic scent of old-fashioned root beer when I accidentally bruise the bark or nick a root while weeding.

Recently I purchased a medlar tree (Mespilus germanica). I’d not known that medlars existed until I saw one planted at the University of Washington’s medicinal garden about ten years ago, and I’ve searched for one ever since. It has the shape and habit of a dwarf apple tree and large, apple-like pinkish white flowers.

To my surprise, it produced a lone fruit the second year while still in a three-gallon container. The fruit looked like a brown Ping-Pong ball with a dented end, as if someone had stepped on it. I harvested it in late October, placed it eye down, and waited for bletting—a much more endearing term than “slow or partial rotting process”—to occur.

Around Thanksgiving, I decided it was ready to eat. When I quartered the fruit, the inside had the consistency of apple butter and looked thoroughly spoiled. On a dare, my mother-in-law tasted it first. When she didn’t immediately convulse or have uncontrollable gastric fits, I tried it, too. It tasted like a plum without any acidity or bite to it—not at all unpleasant.

Medlar fruit is still used in France as the main ingredient of a much prized preserve. Charlemagne knew what he was doing when he listed it among his 800 must-have plants.
—Andy Van Hevelingen

A Scented Room

Lansing, New York—I’m thinking of making a garden of only fragrant plants—not a new idea, but new for me. I plan to enclose it, for three reasons: so it will be a special, set-aside place, so the wind will not easily blow away the precious scents, and so the sun will bring out all the aromas, turning it into a giant living potpourri.

This garden also should be nice to look at, so I’m considering the size, shape, and color of the plants and their flowers, but all must have pungent or sweet-smelling leaves or blossoms.

I’m already imagining tall lilies and bee balms in the back (and if I had room, I’d have lilacs and mock ­orange, too) along with roses, autumn clematis, and honeysuckle clambering over the fence. I’m making a long list of fragrant plants for the middle and foreground, but I don’t know how many I’ll be able to cram into this small 20-by-30-foot space. Certainly I’ll have lots of dianthuses.

I can put some plants into containers. One container plant that gave me joy all last summer is a small heliotrope with clusters of tiny white flowers that fill the air with incredible sweetness: Heliotropium arborescens ‘Alba’. This year, the young nurseryman who sold it to me is also offering a jasmine-scented heirloom climbing white petunia, said to do well in containers.

Most of the mints will have to be in pots lest they take over the whole garden. The few mints that need not be confined are the deliciously scented calamints, creeping Corsican mint, and my favorite mountain mint, Pycnanthemum muticum, whose smooth green leaves become hoary in late summer and whose scent clears the head and braces the spirits.

I must certainly include nepetas,in particular ‘Souvenir d’André Chaudron’ (‘Blue Beauty’) because of its lovely flowers and the strange, wild aroma of its leaves. Lavender I must have, especially ‘Hidcote’, as well as thymes and silver santolinas. (The green santolinas smell of olive oil, which is fine in the kitchen but not the fragrance garden.) I’ll probably give perilla a place, too.

Which roses, I wonder, are the sweetest? If there’s room, I’ll include the single white shrub rose ‘Darlow’s Enigma’ as well as ‘Stanwell Perpetual’, a 3- to 4-foot shrub bearing semi-­double white blooms with a perfect rose scent. The fairly new floribunda ‘Angel Face’, which reaches only 2 to 3 feet, has small semidouble, almost lavender flowers with an enchanting fragrance that are as appealing as a little girl in an Easter frock.

I mustn’t forget ambrosia (Chenopo­dium botrys), an annual whose plumes of tiny chartreuse flowers smell sweet in the garden and, when dried into golden plumes, perfume the house in winter. Sweet Annie (Artemisia annua) makes a froth of tiny yellow blossoms but grows three times as tall as 11/2-foot ambrosia. I remember seeing it lining the path to one of the buildings at Caprilands Herb Farm in Coventry, Connecticut, some years ago. I thought it an unusual choice for an edging plant, being neither neat nor elegant, but it did provide a cloud of heavenly fragrance that wafted through the ­building.

I’d like to find a short white, sweetly scented nicotiana. So many of the good old flowers have had the scent bred out of them—inadvertently, no doubt, while the breeders were aiming for fancier blossoms. A pity. Perhaps they should leave well enough alone.
—Elisabeth Sheldon

Variegated Madness

Denver, Colorado—It has been creeping up on me over the years, like crow’s-feet and love handles. At first I was in denial, but it’s time to face facts: I’ve succumbed to variegated madness. Show me a leaf that’s spotted, streaked, striped, speckled, or mottled, and I fall under its spell. No part of the garden is safe from my madness.

I used to pay little attention to variegation. A few striped spider plants hung in the bathroom window, and a couple of hostas with white stripes on their green leaves grew in a shady spot. My gardening world was essentially green and peaceful. Where did I begin my descent down this slippery garden path?

I blame scented and fancy-leaf pelargoniums. White-edged ‘Atomic Snowflake’ turned into a handsome patio specimen. So did tricolor ‘Italian Skies’, a relic from Victorian days with cream, green, and reddish-brown bands displayed across its leaves. ‘Chocolate Mint’ won my affection with the brown centers on its fuzzy green leaves, and the variegated form of nutmeg­-scented pelargoniums has become a recent favorite.

To collectors, each new sport with an eye-catching pattern gives them another reason to keep on collecting. The thrill is in tracking down something new and rare or something old and rare that’s been rescued from the brink of extinction. As a willing participant in this game, I can testify the hunt is sometimes more rewarding than the prize.

Some of these pelargonium rarities can go extinct as far as I’m concerned, and the same goes for some other variegated herbs and perennials, even if 99 out of a 100 thrill me to pieces. The yellow spots on the woolly gray leaves of Mentha longifolia ‘Variegata’ don’t please me much, and it’s a stoloniferous runner with limitless ambition. As for the variegated Shasta daisy ‘Barbara Bush’, I think the former first lady deserves something better than this irregularly striped mess.

Not everyone likes variegated leaves. “Looks like herbicide damage to me,” said my friend the garden ­designer Tom Peace as he surveyed my variegated honesty (Lunaria annua). I suppose some variegation could be mistaken for the effects of the drifting spray of a weed killer, in which case it also hit my rue, horseradish, nasturtiums, oregano, thyme, and even my lamb’s-ears (in a sport called ‘Striped Phantom’ with irregular cream or pale yellow streaks on the otherwise gray foliage).

Truth be told, some of Tom’s gardens include striped miscanthus, variegated obedient plant (Physostegia ­virginiana ‘Variegata’)—which even I think is gaudy—and lots of Pulmonaria ‘Roy Davidson’, a gorgeous lungwort with early spring blue flowers and long, narrow leaves heavily spotted with silver. “Garden designer, heal thyself!” is what I would probably say—if I said things like that.

Some variegated plants are notoriously wimpy. With less green area to conduct the important business of photosynthesis, the plants are ­sometimes less vigorous than their green counterparts. In my garden, these include strawberries, Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla), grapes, and oregano.

On the other hand, many var­iegated plants don’t appear affected in the least by the loss of a little ­photosynthesis. Variegated bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria) and gardener’s­-garters (Phalaris arundinacea) are just as intent on world domination as the others. Nor does a little white margin or stripe slow down nasturtiums, Cuban oregano, licorice plant, Japanese rush, meadowsweet, or Japanese hop.

I’m quite happy in my little variegated world. I don’t think it’s a serious affliction; I still can function in the real world, at least as well as I could before I discovered variegation. What’s starting to worry me, however, is my more recent obsession with golden-leaved plants. They look so exciting paired with the variegated ones. There are golden oregano, and feverfew, and thyme, and hops, and . . .

The hunt is on.
—Rob Proctor