NEWBERG, Oregon—The weather has settled into its dreary winter mode of endless rainy days. It’s no wonder that the Pacific Northwest has burgeoning coffee shop and herb tea industries, good for warming both body and spirit and for confronting the depressing weather. With cup in hand, I take up the many notes I’ve scribbled throughout the year—my garden diary of sorts—and proceed to review the herb gardening year.
This year, I again succumbed to the lure of raising sweet bay (Laurus nobilis) from seed. I had tried several years ago and watched helplessly as all the seed rotted in the flat. That seed undoubtedly was not fresh, and freshness is a prerequisite for germination. This year, two companies were offering seed, and so I decided to order from them both, thinking to double my chances for germination. Each packet arrived with the seed in airtight bags in a premoistened vermiculite medium, with directions for sowing. Both contained seed that was already cracked or split—evidence of successful stratification—and some seed even had a radicle (main root) beginning to emerge. I noted a marked difference in the size and quality of the seed from the two companies, but I experienced very good to fair germination (success!) from each packet.
The highlights of my gardening year are always new herbs or varieties that performed well. With the great number of choices in mail-order catalogs, it is most satisfying to quit agonizing, choose a plant, and then have it grow well in my garden. For my ever-expanding collections of agastaches (anise hyssops), I procured Agastache barberi and found it to be a delight. Its deep rich pink flower spikes throughout the summer on 2- to 3-foot upright stalks are especially attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies. I experimented with drying the flowers and was most pleased with their high quality and color. They would make a fine addition to dried everlasting bouquets. This species appears to be more winter hardy than than other cultivars I know of. A friend grows it in Colorado under far harsher conditions than occur here in Oregon.
Many herb gardeners are familiar with the clean white flowers of winter savory (Satureja montana). I grew seed under the name of S. m. spicata, a savory which produced charming and even larger flowers of a purplish pink color. I’ll test its hardiness this winter before I give it a prominent space in my garden.
I also added Nepeta clarkei to my catnip collection. It is a native of the Himalayas and reportedly hardy to –13°F. The many flowers are deep blue with a white patch accenting the lower lip. The plant bloomed from July through September and contrasted well with the silver foliage of Artemisia nutans in the background. In reading more about its culture, however, I found a warning that slugs have a particular liking for it in winter.
For those of you who have trouble overwintering rosemary outdoors, I recommend Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Hill Hardy’, a fairly new cultivar reputed to be even hardier than R. o. ‘Arp’, from whose seedlings I believe it was selected. The foliage also appears just a little greener, which I prefer to the grayish tones of Arp.
I hope I’ve enticed you to try some or all of the herbs I’ve mentioned. In fact, just writing about new varieties makes me want to go and check the mailbox to see what new catalogs may have arrived to whet my appetite. Dreaming of next year’s garden is a sure means of escaping the present season’s rotten weather.