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
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,
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
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
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.