Regional herb gardeners share their stories on garden decorations, herb catalogs and seasonal planting success.
DENVER, COLORADO—I appreciate garden ornaments most in the autumn and winter. There’s not much else to look at, and I spend less time outside, so I don’t get so tired of it. My idea of good garden decorations is one that is nearly invisible and comes as a surprise, intertwined into the fabric of the garden. Some ornaments stick out like a sore thumb, more like garden graffiti than decoration.
It might be argued that a really beautiful garden doesn’t need any decoration. The plants themselves are the point, right? That’s for the really beautiful garden, but in mine, I pull every trick in the book. Besides, the ornaments we display tell something about us. Some, such as classic, imported ruins and statues, advertise that we can afford them. Others show the kind of “feeling” we’re after in our garden, whether the plants live up to the mood or not.
The material of which an ornament is made also says something. Plastic is gauche, we’ve been told, and we shouldn’t be caught dead with a spinning sunflower or oversized orange butterfly in our gardens. I’d be the first to dispute this, except that I can’t remember seeing anything truly beautiful made of plastic. Either it doesn’t lend itself to the creation of beautiful objects, or people who work with plastic aren’t much concerned with aesthetics.
I prefer more “organic” ornaments. I gave a bee skep to a friend; I’m waiting to see if yellow jackets take up residence first before I try one. “Oh, yes,” is the statement the skep will make, “we keep bees, and this is herb honey from oregano and agastache flowers, and we serve it on homemade bread from our stoneground flour baked in our outdoor brick oven.” It will show that our food is morally superior.
Birdcages are rather trendy, and I admit to having three. I’ve never had a bird (unless you count a parakeet named Izzy that I kept for a friend while she was on vacation; it caught cold in my drafty old house and died shortly after she returned), but cages fascinate me. My favorite is an old rusty one on a stand that I got at a garage sale. It blows over a couple of times every summer, smashing potted begonias and fuchsias on the patio, but otherwise it complements their old-fashioned, albeit battered, charm.
Bronze sundials are almost irresistible. I’ve never actually checked the time on mine, but it wouldn’t be very accurate anyway since it’s just vaguely pointed south. My friend Pat Herkal pointed out that grasshoppers like to sit on sundials. Sure enough, mine is a magnet for them. I’m one of those brutal bug crushers who can do it with his bare hands, so I go by and grab a few while they’re napping. I like to display my prowess to visitors, who inevitably exclaim, “Oh, gross!”
Then there’s concrete. I especially love old, moldy, disintegrating concrete, but it takes a long time for it to get that way in Colorado. People keep giving me new concrete statues, perhaps as a hint that my garden “needs” something. These are not it. I lived with a rather hideous cement frog for almost two years, until I forced it on a visitor who made the mistake of calling it cute. “I couldn’t possibly . . . ” she kept mumbling as I walked her to the car and made sure she got inside with it, watching that she didn’t heave it out as she drove away.
The May Day present from hell appeared on my porch this year. “Hi,” the note announced. “My name is Sally, and I need a home.” Wrapped in a pink blanket and tucked in a matching basket, Sally the concrete squirrel was cast to hang conveniently on the wall or fence—wherever one would hang a squirrel. Sally spent most of the summer in the laundry room, while I contemplated whether she might be a flying squirrel, and just how far I could throw her.
Then there was the wooden slug that appeared mysteriously on my office bookshelf one day. I thought the gastropods’ day of revenge had finally come, so realistic was this 5-inch beast. I took it to a dinner party the next weekend and left it in the bathtub, just slithering out of the drain. I don’t think plastic vomit could have been as effective. I’m sure I’ll be invited back in a few years.
NEWBERG, OREGON—I am deluged with herb catalogs! Each day brings either another mail-order magazine for Christmas shopping or a new garden catalog promising wonderful seed, plants, or ornaments. The former ones are stacked in the corner, while the plant catalogs get my undivided attention in a cozy armchair away from toddlers and especially my wife. (She has a nasty habit of reading the catalogs first and spoiling the surprise of new varieties by telling me all about them; or worse yet, she forgets to tell me the catalog has even arrived until I unwittingly discover it under a stack of mail.)
Ironically, outside it is pouring down rain as I read of some catalog’s new drought-tolerant plants, but I need only to remember the past hot summer and water rationing to recall the drought stress upon my garden. (It will be interesting this spring to see if this drought stress has any effect on cold hardiness.) Although, in truth, most of my herbs were outstanding! The mild winter and above-normal temperatures extended our growing season, resulting in huge plants with an abundance of flowers and longer flowering periods. I suspect it was much like the Mediterranean climate, where most of my herbs originate and thrive. Of course, some bee balms, pineapple sages, and most of the mints did not appreciate the warmer temperatures and wilted punctually in the late afternoon. My hose and I spent daily “quality time” together. We almost bonded, but for the hose’s tendency to kink when I was about 10 or more feet away, a most frustrating experience which severed any potential amiable relationship whatsoever.
Regarding my latest herbal acquisitions, I heartily endorse two origanums—O. rotundifolium and a hybrid called O. ‘Kent Beauty’. These are not as easy to grow as the more familiar culinary oreganos, for they require almost rock garden status, full sun and excellent drainage, but the results are spectacular with showy, hoplike flowers—actually huge bracts—which are soft green (or tinged a beautiful pink in the case of the hybrid), all spilling outward from the center of the plant. The added bonus is that they dry very well, keeping their color. Their only shortcoming is their relative short length of 8 to 10 inches. Another Origanum of note was O. ‘Herrenhausen’, with incredibly dark violet buds and flowers which also keep their color when dried. Arranged in an everlasting bouquet, the dark purple is enhanced by the greenish-gray of Artemisia afra. I am surprised more florists don’t use it, as it dries so easily and usually gets up to 6 or 7 feet in a season. One other pleasant surprise was Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’, a nonflowering sage from Germany with very large, coarse silver leaves. This would make a wonderful foliage contrast with pink or purple flowers or fine-textured evergreen plants.
When Christmas is around the corner, I always like to take the time to make clove pomanders. I go to my local herb store and buy about 1/4 to 1/2 pound of whole cloves. By now, the small, smooth-skinned tangerines are readily available and at a good price. (Nothing against navel oranges, except they are too big and too thick-skinned to work well.) I also choose fruits with attached stem so I can tie a ribbon to it to hang. Then, with the largest needle I can find, I prick the peel slightly and push in a clove. I separate the cloves into two piles: those with an attached head and those without. With this choice, I can make more pronounced geometric patterns.
Placing pomanders on newspapers in a well-ventilated location and turning them over daily will insure even drying and eliminate any moist spots that may cause rot or mold later. Usually, with the heat on in the house, they are dry within a week or so. They shrink, and the peel begins to look leathery. I tried coating them once with orris root to further preserve or “fix” the scent, but found that it rather gummed up the pattern. Besides, pomanders without orris powder were still fragrant after nine years. Which reminds me, I’m sorry to say, that pomanders originally were made with apples and were used in the winter to mask the scent of decaying bodies placed in the attic until spring, when the ground could be dug. Do you think this has anything to do with skeletons in the closets?
—Andy Van Hevelingen
Seasonal Planting Success
WOLFTOWN, VIRGINIA—One of the wonderful things about writing this column is the letters and phone calls I get from readers who say nice things that make my day. Even when I don’t write or phone back, please know that I appreciate every one.
Recently, Susan Luck wrote from Charlottesville (about 25 miles south of us) that she recognized the farm I talk about as the one her mother’s family, the Wilhoites, owned for 100 years. Her mother grew up here, and it’s still called the Old Wilhoite Place by local people. Her great-great grandfather, Benjamin Wilhoite, bought the land in 1857, and great grandfather David Wilhoite built the current main house.
She also solved a mystery. The old house on the front of the property that we rent out is L-shaped. We discovered long ago, when we climbed a ladder to crawl through a window that seemed an anomaly, that one leg of the L was an old log cabin . The unused upper room was obviously once a loft. The adze-crafted log rafters showed that this part of the house was older than the rest. The room below is now a kitchen. Great-great granddaughter Susan says this leg of the L was undoubtedly slave quarters dating from the 1840s. She added details about her great grandfather’s involvement in the Virginia Regiment during the Civil War.
Because I moved frequently during my childhood and traveled the world with my military husband until he retired, our roots never had time to put down. So this is a wonderful story that helps us feel rooted here.
Susan had also shared the rosebush story I told in one issue with her mother and aunts. They reminisced that it was probably one of the many wild rambling roses planted on an old fence line. I’ve read that Shakespeare’s eglantine or sweetbrier rose, which is clearly an import from England, did indeed go wild. And this rose is definitely a sweetbrier, identifiable by the wonderful, distinctive smell of its leaves and the strange bushy growths along the stems.
Update on the Cow Wallow. Several of the plants I moved there are thriving: Oswego tea (Monarda didyma), Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum), stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). The cut-down fox grape, Vitis labrusca, is looking for something to climb on. The sweet birch, Betula lenta, which I moved from the pond area, is showing new growth. But the black haw (Viburnum prunifolium), after looking very happy for several weeks, shriveled and bit the dust. Something had gnawed the bark, which explains its demise; I can try again next spring.
Which brings me to the latest discovery there. On two occasions, out of the corner of my eye, I saw two flashes of dark brown at the creek’s edge running north. Both were gone before I could take a good look, but I knew what they were not. I looked in my animal books when I got back home, and decided I’d seen mink. My husband said it couldn’t be, until he conferred with the good ole boys at the Co-op where he flips a coin for a cup of coffee every day. They allowed as how they used to trap mink as boys, and it was entirely possible. That’s another one for my “life list”.
Other season “wins” are a successful transplanting of two pawpaw trees (Asimina triloba), and acquiring of a ginkgo sprout which, when it reaches a healthy size, I’ll put out where we’ve planted white pines and some specialty chestnut hybrid trees to create a copse of trees that will eventually shield our view from the electric power substation that went up to the east of us this spring. In addition, 25 new Chinese chestnuts are happily leafing out in what we call the meadow. Our wet and cool spring and summer has encouraged lush growth.
The only sad note is that the bluebirds had a hard time this year. The rat snakes found all eight nesting houses, and they gobble up all the eggs as fast as they’re laid. However, I got good advice from two people at the Fort Worth International Herb Growers conference. Jim Long said he slathers Tanglefoot for about 15 inches on the posts starting 12 inches from the bottom. He says snakes hate the sticky stuff and will go elsewhere for their meals. Connie Moore, in a talk on herbal insecticides for pets, said that cats intensely dislike rue and that planting some at the foot of the bluebird houses will protect the birds from cats. I’m trying both suggestions. I’ll keep you posted.