Mother Earth Living

NOTES FROM REGIONAL HERB GARDENERS

ROUND ROBIN

December/January 2004
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ODE TO A GARDEN CLASSIC

Jo Ann Gardner

WESTPORT, New York — Margaret E. Brownlow wrote the now-classic Herbs & The Fragrant Garden. It was published in 1957 by the Herb Farm in Kent, England, with which she had been associated since at least the 1930s. My husband Jigs discovered the book on an English booklist shortly after its publication. He was interested in growing herbs but knew very little about them and at the time there wasn’t much information available in our part of the world (seeds had to be ordered from Thompson & Morgan in England, not New Jersey!). Clothbound and illustrated with the author’s own colored line drawings, the book was invaluable, and remains so for me today. In it is everything an herb lover would want to know, from herb lore and history to practical information on garden design, growing, harvesting and using herbs. There is, besides, the author’s great interest in fragrance, which in the English climate could be enjoyed year-round outdoors.

In an early chapter she lists the fragrant plants that bloom from January to the following December — including not only herbs, but scented bulbs, perennials, shrubs and vines. “It is entirely appropriate,” she wrote, “that scented plants and the herb garden should be considered together.” Later, in the portrait section, she grouped aromatic shrubs together and gave detailed information on each plant’s special scent, its place in the garden and tips for propagation. This perspective broadens “the herb garden” to include a variety of plants of differing habits, colors and forms.

Who but Margaret Brownlow would consider flowering raspberry’s place in the herb garden? I am a devotee of this rangy native shrub (Rubus odoratus). Our first summer in the Adirondacks I discovered that although our property was virtually devoid of flowering plants, a single blooming flowering raspberry lured hummingbirds to our woodsy backyard.

The author tells us she wrote the book because she was tired of answering questions about an herb’s identity or use. It became impossible to answer every query on the subject, so she set about filling the vacuum that existed then for contemporary works on herbs. Brownlow’s experiences at the Herb Farm (a commercial venture where herbs were planted and harvested on a relatively large scale) gave her precise knowledge based on her own experiences working in the field.

With my garden now asleep, I can afford to smile at the difference between Brownlow’s unsentimental approach to harvesting lavender by the sack and my inability to cut a single stalk from one low mound of ‘Hidcote’. I was so taken with the beauty of the thrusting straight stems of purple flowers showing off against a wayward black-eyed Susan. It is fascinating to read her advice for drying half of a ton of fresh herbs, a process not for the faint-hearted.

The individual plant portraits which follow the early chapters range widely, from the classics — artemisias, lavenders, salvias — to the wild and arcane — from jewelweed and sapphire to skullcap and skirret. I can’t think of another herb authority from the period who gathered together such an eclectic bouquet of herbs and scented plants.

Brownlow’s unusual combination of hard-headedness about slow-combustion coke-burning stoves and a fancy for any plant that smells nice or any herb out of the mainstream turned me into a fan. That and the assorted verses of poetry sprinkled throughout, the author’s charming free-flowing illustrations and the blue cloth covers with the book’s title embossed in gold made me an admirer for life.

I was taken with the beauty of thrusting straight stems of purple lavender showing off against a wayward black-eyed Susan.

DRAWING OUT THE BEST AMENDMENTS

Andrew Van Hevelingen

NEWBERG, Oregon — Over the years I’ve tried various soil amendments to improve my indigenous clay soil and poor drainage. When I first started this process, cow or horse manure was popular for vegetable growing. But I didn’t want all the weed seeds that came with the cow, so I initially tried chicken manure. I had read it has not only had the highest organic nitrogen fertilizer rate, but also possibly residual anti-bacterial properties, and it’s virtually weed-free. It worked great but it was so stinky and drew so many flies that I had to cover my pile with a thick topsoil layer. This was a fresh pile and it seemed to get mucky. I had to rototill it all together for easier application and to minimize any direct fertilizer burning of plants. I used it before I did any planting in the garden.

Mushroom compost was next and was superb. Light and fluffy, it was as easy to spread as mulch. (I did let it sit over the winter to allow the rains to leach out any chemicals that the mushroom growers might have used to control flies.) I found that my sage plants didn’t grow in it very well, but other herbs seemed to do well. Unfortunately, the company moved and mushroom compost became unavailable in this area.

I next tried local peppermint straw, which is the byproduct of mint distillation. It is essentially steamed mint plants — like overcooked chards. Black, with a texture that is a mixture of fluffy straw with occasional compressed layers, it made a good, attractive mulch and was a great medium for seed germination of some perennials, such as hellebores. I liked the compost, but a friend put it too thickly (nearly 6 inches when an inch or two should’ve been plenty) on her vegetable garden and damaged the plants.

As I live in acidic soil conditions, I try to lower the soil pH by using calcium and magnesium in pellet form. This is much easier to spread throughout the garden than the same product in powder form and has little or no dust. All these applications take a season or more to see results so the garden is always in an experimental flux.

My latest trial is with new organic soil amendments that include specific mycorrhizae and soil microbes beneficial to the soil structure. Not only is this Earth friendly, but the endo- and ecto-mycorrhizae and microbes continue to increase and expand throughout the root zones, enhancing the plant’s growth by providing nutrients as well as a more friable soil in which to grow. (Note: They are host specific so find out first whether the product will have any effect on the herb you are growing.) I have also used seaweed extracts, which provide natural plant growth regulators. Seaweed extract may even deter sap-sucking insects like aphids from attacking the plants. Someday, I hope to achieve a soil texture so loamy and loose I can just reach down and pull out that dandelion, tap root and all.

A SOUTHERN SPRING GARDEN

Geri Laufer

ATLANTA, Georgia — The greatest contrast between my Southern garden and those in other parts of the country occurs at the cusp of the seasons, when one season gives way to another. Winter’s hold on Atlanta is not very strong, and spring comes very early. Rosemary, oregano, parsley, lavender, salad burnet, feverfew, lamb’s-ears, thyme, sweet woodruff and pinks generally ignore the weather and stay evergreen throughout the winter. Who would blame me for pushing back our short winter even further? I choose the earliest narcissus and plant them in the hottest, sunniest spot to encourage their earliest possible blooming. ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation’ trumpet daffodils come up through the creeping thyme (Thymus praecox ‘Minus’) planted by the mailbox to bloom in early January, and they don’t seem to mind a cold snap or the occasional coating of ice.

For the intrepid, the spring gardening season gets under way on Valentine’s Day. February 14 is the designated day to plant English and sweet peas in Atlanta, in previously tilled soil, preferably against a fence. Onion sets are on sale, too, and are easy to slip into the ground in patches or rows. I typically reserve the first weekend in March to go nursery hopping. Perennial herbs are just rousing from dormancy and can be transplanted then without missing a beat. The early spring planting season has an added benefit of mail-order catalogs. Southern gardeners can request shipping ahead of their northern counterparts, thus getting the best selection of this year’s crops.

My friends Jerry and Gerald garden in all seasons. They have a wonderful garden that has been on several garden tours, and although it is just a typical city lot, it has been transformed and filled with paths, arbors, found objects and wonderful ornaments.

Some of the herbs and flowers in bloom in their garden on Valentine’s Day include Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata), Japanese apricot (Prunus mume), parsley, flowering cabbage, colorful kale, a few cyclamen, quinces in several colors and oodles of pansies. Several deliciously fragrant plants are planted together to scent the air. These include: Edgeworthia chrysantha, also known as paper bush, beloved Daphne odora whose enchanting fragrance fills the winter garden, Mahonia japonica flowering profusely with yellow fountains of flowers that smell of lily-of-the-valley, and the piercingly sweet wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox). The rusty red witch hazel called Hamamelis ¥intermedia ‘Copper Beauty’, also known as ‘Jelena’, is backlit by the setting sun as it illuminates the strap-shaped petals.

Plenty of daffodils, winter honeysuckle, winter jasmine and chartruese Euphorbia, also known as spurge, are in bloom, and although the snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) are taking a rest from their autumn blooms, they will continue shortly.

Winter in Atlanta is not hard to take.


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