Round Robin: Plant Greed

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LANSING, New York—How is it that you have time to sit down and read a magazine? I, for one, hardly have time for meals. But perhaps you had a kinder autumn last year than we did. First, we had a very long, hot, dry summer. It remained so warm through September and October that my gardening friends and I couldn’t bring ourselves to cut back the perennials: they were so green and were so obviously enjoying getting a bit of rain now and then that we felt it would be too brutal to chop them down. I did finally cut the iris, daylilies, and some of the other plants back, but just as I was setting to work seriously weeding and cutting, winter came. While many of the shrubs and trees still had all their leaves, a terrific wind- and snowstorm hit, breaking many branches, including those on my precious buffalo berry. “Oh, it’s only the first of November,” I said, with authority. “We’ll have lots of warm weather yet.” So much for my reputation as a weather wizard; it was a cold, snowy winter from then on. (Oddly, many trees never shed their leaves.) Jobs that should have been done last fall, including cleanup, have to be done now. If only I had a crew.

Back in the house, I hover over my seed flats, yelping joyfully as little hillocks erupt, announcing that germination has taken place. It never stops being a thrill. As usual, I planned to cut way back on seed planting, but then the catalogs began to arrive, and my bare-bones list got longer—and longer. Now it’s time to start scrubbing little pots to hold the purple angelica, the purple basil, and all the others that I couldn’t resist.

Plant greed is a hard thing to conquer. It’s especially hard to resist the catalogs and lists from all the new perennial nurseries being launched by young people who really seem to care about plants, not just money. They are making an effort to identify their offerings correctly and to tell the truth about their appearance and performance. They don’t tell you a flower is blue when it’s actually mauve or lavender, nor do they say it “blooms all summer” when, like most perennials, it flowers for only two or three weeks. They don’t tell you it’s easy when it’s difficult or that it will do well in the border when it’s a stoloniferous brute that will spread 5 feet in all directions, relentlessly swallowing up its neighbors. This new development in plant merchandising goes a long way toward counteracting the feeling many of us have these days that virtue and honesty are lost causes. That alone makes me want to buy lots of plants from these young people, but add to it the interesting plants they’re introducing every year and it’s clear that my efforts to cut back on new acquisitions are doomed.

Now I have a question for Herb Companion readers: What is the botanical name of that furry white culinary sage that is used around the Mediterranean instead of Salvia officinalis? Its flavor is sweeter and more delicate. If I could find the plant, I’d make a Mediterranean slope for it for the summer and take it indoors for the winter. Nothing would be too much trouble.