NEWBERG, Oregon—This is the time of year when I order my soil amendments. My clay soil and high water table require lots of organic matter to improve aeration and drainage. I usually get either mushroom compost or chicken manure, whichever is less expensive, and stockpile it over the winter. Winter rains flush out lingering fertilizer salts from the mushroom compost or “cook off” the potentially hot chicken manure before I put it on the garden. With all the organic matter I’ve added to the garden, when I dig up a shovelful, I find only a few inches of really good friable soil (my worm zone) above the resident heavy clay.
This year, I hope to try some “mint straw”, the composted “greens” left after cooking up fresh mint to distill the oil. Nichols Garden Nursery in nearby Albany has used it very successfully for the past few years, applying about 6 inches over their propagation beds and display gardens in the fall. Since it has been heated, the straw is free of rust disease, insects, and viable weed seeds. It is extremely light and easy to work with and has a pleasant minty odor. By next spring, the mint straw will have further decomposed to make a mulch from which even the toughest weeds can be pulled with ease.
This summer, I added a golden hop plant (Humulus lupulus ‘Aureus’) to my garden. I first encountered the plant at Hardwick Hall in England, in a large, perfectly flat, walled herb garden. Golden hops and green hops trained into alternating 8-foot-high columns added a stunning vertical element as well as foliage contrast to the overall garden design. In my own garden, I am less formal and lazier and allow my plants to just meander where they will, but I keep my eye on the hopvine; I have some rather defenseless herbs in my garden that would be easy prey to its rampant growth. Fortunately, it dies back to the ground and lies dormant all winter, and I can forget all about it until next spring. However, after a long day’s work in the garden, I occasionally enjoy the hops at the local microbrewery—for purely medicinal reasons, of course.
A new plant I brought back from this year’s International Herb Association conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, is rose-scented bee balm (Monarda fistulosa ¥ tetraploid). The foliage, with its high geraniol content, truly smells like a rose-scented geranium. Equally attractive are the plant’s deep purple flowers and resistance to powdery mildew. I can’t wait for its flower show in spring. Winterhardiness here should be no problem as it was developed in Canada. (Incidentally, because it is a tetraploid, the plant will come true from seed as long as there are no other tetraploid monardas in the area for it to cross with). This plant is already available in the mail-order trade (I saw it listed in Companion Plants’ catalog), so keep an eye out for it.
This is also a great time of year to further my addiction to bookstores. Yes, I confess I have an insatiable appetite for herb books. My living room is lined with them. I trip over them and stack them on any available table in great myriads that I swear have an order and meaning. I make New Year’s resolutions to list my collection if only to avoid the occasional scenario in which I come home with herb book in hand excited as a child with a new toy—to be dashed to the quick as I am shown the same volume already on my bookshelf. Now I usually stick to looking at the newly published herb books—I can’t have purchased them yet—and have to chuckle at seeing yet another batch of books titled The Complete Book of . . . . Wouldn’t you think that somebody would finally complete the “complete” herb book?
As I stand in the cashier’s line with my new herb book in hand, I’m suddenly struck with the horrible thought: “What if this is a reprint?!” I quickly thumb through it to check the publication date.