NEWBERG, Oregon — As the rain pounds at the window, I find myself looking out and trying to picture a completely new herb garden. We recently moved into a new house with no plants whatever in the backyard other than a large, untended lawn. I feel as though I were an artist with a blank canvas before me and a palette of various herbs from my nursery to draw from. Living here in western Oregon, I enjoy a maritime climate similar to the Mediterranean area where most of my herbs originate. Because winter temperatures seldom drop below 15°F, winter cold-hardiness is less a factor than good drainage. Over the past few months, I have worked lots of organic material into the clay soil to improve the drainage. Now I’m in the planning stage, wondering how to include all of my favorite herbs—and because I’m a collector, there are myriads!
Unfortunately, the neighborhood is ridden with cats, and their daily presence in my backyard may dictate the exclusion of two of my favorite Teucrium species: T. marum (cat thyme) and T. subspinosum. These are small “evergray” cousins to the familiar evergreen germander (T. chamaedrys) that is used so much in hedges and knot gardens. These two, however, may surpass catnip (Nepeta cataria) in attracting cats, even the temperamental local Siamese. I am surprised cats even tackle T. subspinosum, whose tight ball of stiff branches looks much like a sea urchin, but they must do so, because my little plants are often completely squashed and broken in the morning. I don’t like the idea of caging my plants for protection, so I’ll probably have to leave them flourishing at the nursery, which remains dog territory.
There is nothing like the week of sun and warmth that always occurs sometime in February and makes me want to get out and start planting. But I’ve finally learned to restrain this urge. With the lingering threat of heavy frosts and cold, damp soil, the garden is far from the promise of spring. I just enjoy the stroll through the garden and applaud those faithful plants that bloom so early despite all costs: the hellebores (Helleborus spp.), various bulb species, and the fragrant purple, pink, or white flowers of the sweet violets (Viola odorata). Then, when those familiar cold rains do return, I am back in the house, adding to my list of desired plants, checking their cultural requirements, and sketching the beginnings of a garden design. In my travels, I have found that many private herb gardens have a common characteristic: the garden path is too narrow. Instead of feeling like a donkey being led down some twisting track, let me at least enjoy a path wide enough to go hand in hand with my guide. Therefore, I’ll begin the design of my herb garden with paths wide enough to allow garden tours or, at the very least, to maneuver my wheelbarrow around.
Andy Van Hevelingen and his family (and cats) own the Van Hevelingen Herb Nursery in Newberg, Oregon.