Mother Earth Living

Round Robin: Beautiful Biennials

By Geraldine Laufer
April/May 1996
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ATLANTA, Georgia—Gardening here is a month ahead of much of the country: April stands in as our “lusty month of May”, while May is the height of our season, with temperatures in the high 80s and 90s and perennials achieving full growth and magnificence. Although every March my garden seems too big (so much work), by May it has shrunk to just the right size, packed with aromatic herbs and fragrant flowers.

Biennial herbs now in their prime enliven the garden. This year, spires of blush foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea ‘Apricot’) provide a pastel color match for the pale pink of my New Dawn climbing roses, heaped over an arbor. I wonder whether they will reseed like my species foxgloves and if they do, whether the seedlings will retain the pastel color.

Angelica archangelica doesn’t do well here, but I’ve grown the A. gigas with success. The pink-red flower orbs rise to 6 feet, providing a height accent in an otherwise low-growing herb garden. This is a short-lived perennial or biennial in Atlanta but worth growing as a substitute for the better-known A. angelica.

Although I usually comply with the gardening guides that command me to “stairstep plant heights,” last fall I planted biennial hollyhocks at the very front of my border. Now they’re quite a show, towering at 10 feet. I’m partial to the 1950s-style doubles that look like crumpled pink tissues. The single colors are increasingly harder to find in seed catalogs, so I’m saving the “cheeses” from my plants, 1-inch disks composed of perhaps twenty wedge-shaped brown seeds, in hopes that they will yield double pink offspring.

Alas, in Atlanta we must treat delphiniums as biennials, sowing them in the fall. They bloom well the following spring but succumb to the summer heat and rarely repeat. Not growing delphiniums is not an option: how could I enjoy an herb garden of sage greens, silver-leaved lavenders and artemisias, and mauve-flowered thymes without those fabulous blues? Delphinium’s country cousin, larkspur, is smaller but less trouble, providing delicate blue (or white or pink) spikes and reseeding profusely each year.

Brilliant orange and chrome yellow English wallflowers (Erysimum cheiri) provide a shocking contrast in my otherwise soft-colored herb garden. Usually grown as biennials, they may persist as short-lived perennials, but the plants don’t amount to much in later years. I enjoy wallflowers for their months of early bloom and all the more when they peak next to my grandmother’s old-fashioned spicy white pinks. E. ‘Bowles Mauve’ is more in keeping with my color scheme, but it gets so big. One old plant is about 4 feet in diameter.

My favorite cultivar of sweet William (Dianthus barbatus) is Newport Pink, a wonderful, vivid salmon pink with an impact that carries across the herb garden (no wimpy Williams for me, thank you). This cultivar is harder to find than others but worth the effort.

A year ago, I started seeds of dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis). The plants overwintered like coarse lettuce leaves tinged with maroon, and now I’m reaping the bounty. The large spikes of single lilac and purple flowers are especially fragrant in the evening. They enhance shady, moist spots throughout the garden, and I’m hoping they will reseed.

By mid-April, the perennial herbs will have grown tall enough to harvest for the first time. I’ll cut them back to 6 inches, then scratch in a little compost and water them thoroughly. The sage will bloom, and fragrant lavender will flower for the first time this year, to bloom again in October. Then it’s May, and all’s right with the gardening world.


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