Round Robin: Gardening Tips

Notes from regional herb gardeners.

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Geography lessons

Denver, Colorado—I love the mad rush of spring planting. It’s exhilarating and exhausting. I would garden twenty-four hours a day if I could. A miner’s helmet would make a really dandy present for an obsessive-compulsive gardener like me. I have been known to run extension cords out and plant by spotlight, but neighbors find this disturbing. My night planting must look like some weird cult ritual.

At least I keep my clothes on. In days past, some farmers used to sit down naked in their fields in spring. If they felt comfortable, it was time to plant. If they got too cold and wet, they knew that seed would rot. We’ve made some technological advances since those days.

Even though I’ve been making plans all winter on paper, only so much can be planned. The spontaneity of spring planting is intoxicating. I’m juggling hundreds of facts in my head, preparing for height and spread of new plants as well as weighing the aesthetic consequences of situating plants. The biggest consideration is what conditions a new plant needs. Do I give it full sun or a degree of shade? Can it fry, or does it need plenty of water? Does it need humus-enriched soil, or would it do better in unamended soil? It’s much easier if I’ve done my homework.

I learned that from Sister Josephine in fourth grade. I owe much of my gardening success to her because she made me love geography. It’s an immense help to know where a plant comes from. I set out the Mexican plants late (they stunt in cool weather) and give them plenty of sun and water. The Mediterranean plants bake in lean, well-drained soil. Most English natives need some protection from the blistering Colorado sun. The more I know about a plant’s native habitat, the better my chances of making it at home in my garden.

Not long ago, I saw a story in the news about how American students’ skills in geography compared to those in other countries. A small but alarming percentage of American kids could not identify the United States on a world map. They had even more trouble with Portugal and Greece. It’s too bad that they didn’t have Sister Josephine. Her freshly mimeographed maps had a magical sweet fragrance (which modern copiers lack), and I’d label and color the countries carefully because neatness did count. I especially liked doing topographic studies with blue for mountains, green for plains, and yellow for deserts. I had no idea that geography would come in so handy.

Most of us could use a refresher course in geography. Our plants come to our gardens from around the world, but it seems that some of us were daydreaming during geography. After I gave a talk in Virginia last October, a woman, discouraged by the state of her garden, said to me, “You grow so many interesting plants. You must not have cold winters like we do.” I didn’t know quite what to say. According to the USDA plant hardiness map, which is based on average minimum temperatures, Denver is in Zone 5. Most of Virginia is in Zone 7. I tried to explain that it’s not the severity of winter that makes or breaks a garden; it’s growing plants that will prosper under your conditions and taking extra steps to ensure that plants from radically different climates will have a chance.

I’m sure I’ll never be able to match the quality of Virginia-grown basil, since that tropical Asian plant thrives in warm, humid conditions. Arid Colorado counts its low humidity as one of its chief assets—ideal for me, but not for tropical plants—so I plant my basil near the feet of tomatoes, water them well, and make the best of it. But I can grow thyme, oregano, and lavender like nobody’s business, all of them flourishing in the intense sunshine a mile above sea level. I take no particular credit for their growth—it’s a matter of geography.
—Rob Proctor

A tidy new garden

Wolftown, Virginia—Something had to be done: my 3-foot strip of garden on the western edge of the yard was a shamble of weeds. I could find the herbs if I looked hard enough, but pasture weeds just beyond the chestnut rail fence had invaded my once lovely cottage garden. Crabgrass, fox­tail, deeply rooted horsenettle, tenacious K1 fescue, and other pasture banes laughed at my puny efforts to keep them at bay. With the idea of reducing our con­tribution to the landfill while working on the weed problem, I’d spent hours stuffing newspapers into large grocery bags, then placing them end to end down the 150-foot outside length of the garden. The newspaper bundles had helped, and I used them as shields when I sprayed Roundup on the pasture side for another 6-inch weed-free strip. I won a battle or two, but in the end they won the war. Also, the chestnut rail fence, a lingering sixty-year-old remnant of the vast chestnut trees that once grew in our woods, was disintegrating.

It was embarrassing. For the past year or two, I’ve fended off, with flimsy ­excuses, requests to see my herb garden. Oh, lots of herbs were there, both the perennials—thymes, lavenders, ­rosemaries, chives, sages, purple coneflower, valerian, foxglove, dianthus—and annuals (as well as the tender perennials that I grow as annuals), among them the various basils, calendula, pineapple sage, and scented geraniums. Many of them reseeded in happy abandon.

That’s the word—abandon. The garden looked abandoned. Something definitely had to be done, something dramatic, something muscular, but whose muscles? My husband already chops fallen hardwood giants into firewood, clears fence lines, mows, hauls, repairs. The job required not just any dirt digger, but someone with a knowledge of herbs and a sense of design. I found garden magician Jeff May in Madison, Virginia. He replaced the chestnut with cedar fencing, using the old logs to edge the front border. He enlarged the depth of the garden to 5 feet, making it a more important landscape element. He made the old straight border more pleasing by adding curves here and there, with one exciting 10-foot bump that holds particular promise for groupings of herbs. He added a few large rocks, made interesting use of some turned-up stumps, and dumped truckloads of topsoil and mulch to lift the garden for better viewing. To control the weeds, he laid down fabric weed barrier.

Ay, there’s the rub. With the weed barrier in place, I can no longer depend on the annual herbs to reproduce on their own for me to transplant where I want them. I’ll have to buy those plants or grow them from seed. Nor will my many daffodils spread underground to delight me with pockets of yellow sunshine. If I make extra holes in the fabric to plant more bulbs, I invite the opportunistic weeds to find those holes.

Everything has its price, but now, and at least for a few years hence, I can once again invite people to come and admire my herb garden.
—Portia Meares

Woodland colors

Lansing, New York—Remember Gertrude Jekyll’s account of sitting in her woodland garden happily dividing primulas? She ends by saying, “But oh, the midges!” She was lucky they weren’t blackflies. It seems almost too cruel that after we sturdy souls slug bravely through long hard winters, spring—our reward—is accompanied by little black flying fiends that attack eyes, ears, and any other exposed parts. They even crawl under shirts and socks, where they bite and leave great itching lumps behind.

But you want to hear about plants, not pests. One morning, as I make the rounds, I see that all the Verbena bipinnatifida bounced clear out of the ground during the winter. The artemisias in the holding beds (Silver King and Silver Queen), on the other hand, have taken advantage of winter and sneaked out miles of roots and stolons, burrowing under and coming up in the middle of their neighbors, modest individuals such as Lysimachia ephemerum and alpine asters that are too polite to fight back.

Did you ever play red light when you were a child? The one who’s it stands at a distance from the other players, who are lined up with their toes on a long line drawn in the dirt. As long as it faces them, they can’t move, but when he turns away, they run toward him as fast as they can until he whips around yelling, “Red light!” Anyone he catches moving has to go back to the starting line. I often think that Silver King—I almost said, “and other weeds”—acts like a kid playing red light, gaining ground whenever I turn my back. If only I could make them go back to the starting point by yelling at them! There are these Vandals and Goths, and then there are the delicate creatures that one must hover over and encourage—often in vain—to struggle on.

In the woods garden, a lot is going on already. Scilla siberica is making pools of color. The quality of the blue and green of these plants is intense and somehow extraordinarily clean. Bloodroot comes up looking like Turkish dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves—little fat packages of pinkish-tan—only later to turn suddenly into white pinwheels. Then, just as suddenly, they fling their white frills to the wind and concentrate on making handsome round, lobed leaves. There are so many colonies of bloodroot now in the woods garden that I’m giving away or composting quantities of their red tuberous roots. The double-flowered plants are also spreading, so I’m able to share them with friends. Nothing in the world is as white as double bloodroots: they seem to give off light from within rather than simply reflecting it.

Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica) is raising heavy, dark clusters of buds. It’s a most dramatic plant—you can almost see it move, and when it surfaces, the colors are rich, somber, and dark. Then it turns into a graceful plant with pink buds and sky-blue frilly bells, the colors of little girls’ party dresses. Its leaves are the pale bluish green of oats before they ripen.

I see a trillium poking through the pine-needle mulch, its leaves wrapped around its head. I wish that the trilliums would multiply as fast as bloodroot, but they are more restrained and apparently don’t intend to make themselves cheap.

Hosta is working its way up, and erythroniums (dog-tooth violets) will open tomorrow. Mayapples have made a colony under the maple-leaf viburnum; before they open their umbrellas, they look like people going to a meeting. I see some merrybells but no Jack-in-the-pulpits—oh, wait, there’s a fat, round, brown-red point emerging. No, six of them. I’m always delighted when something I brought up from our real woods settles into my miniature woods as if it were at home. When Jack-in-the-pulpits first come up, they resemble dragons’ teeth, then cartridges, then rockets. Out of each rocket comes a bud that turns into a lidded container with someone inside. It’s no wonder they appeal so much to children as well as to grown people.

Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) is coming up all intermingled with Canada mayflowers. Does it like them? Should I pull out the mayflowers or let them be? Do they hurt or help one another? So many decisions.

Now, as I write, a few weeks later, the sun is going down, but a big black-and-yellow bee is working its way thoroughly and noisily into every blossom of Pulmonaria angustifolia ‘Azurea’. The scents are intense. The woods phlox is glowing and perfuming the air. There’s the sweet odor of lilac, wisteria, lily-of-the-valley, and apple blossoms. . . . Why was I grumbling about blackflies?
—Elisabeth Sheldon

Wee ones

Newberg, Oregon—With so much herbal bounty beginning to unfold as temperatures warm, I must remember to keep watch on certain herbs now awakening in the garden. I don’t want to miss the opportunity to propagate more of my favorite oreganos and agastaches from softwood cuttings. I find the cuttings are best taken from basal growth about 3 to 4 inches long. This is the time—just before the shoots elongate—when I select the thick and sturdy stems for cutting material. They are easy to work with and root in no time in a quick-draining rooting medium. I want to propagate the showy oreganos such as Origanum ‘Kent Beauty’ and O. ‘Barbara Tingey’ and my agastache cultivars that don’t grow true from seed. Last year, I added two species, Agastache rupestris and A. pringlei, to my collection. I obtained seed for both and managed to start a couple of plants each. I was lucky at that because the percentage of germination was very low for both and the seed was expensive. Now each is displaying a rich crop of basal growth, and I want many more. The wait was worthwhile. A. rupestris has fine, almost straplike foliage with a blue-gray cast, followed by beautiful, burnt red tubular flowers. A. pringlei grew to 21/2 feet tall and was covered with light purple flowers in whorls—much like pennyroyal—in 12-inch or longer spikes. Last fall, I cut a large bouquet of them for fresh flowers. I promptly forgot about adding water to the vase and made the pleasant discovery that these flowers dry exceedingly well. The foliage scent was different from the minty aroma of most agastaches: a very pleasant bitter lemon—so much so that I tried a cup of tea made from it. It had a delicate lemon mint flavor and was quite refreshing.

I sipped agastache tea as I looked over the latest county extension bulletin. I often find nuggets of practical information in these bulletins. For instance, I learned that commercial greenhouse growers of geraniums who routinely used a liquid fertilizer on rooted cuttings at half the recommended rates found less yellowing of leaves and leaf drop. Anyone who has tried his hand at rooting scented geraniums—especially the cultivar Mabel Grey—has certainly experienced leaf drop. A 4-inch stick with two leaves at the top is not a pretty sight. I also read of studies demonstrating that fertilizer uptake by potted plants was best when the fertilizers were used as a topdressing rather than directly incorporated into the soil mix.

Recently, I embarked on a new herbal adventure. I find that I am an herb garden designer for children! I volunteered at my children’s preschool to design and plant an herb garden there. It will be an ongoing affair for at least two years, and the garden will be planted in stages. I have to try to accommodate all my many clients—thirteen three- and four-year-olds and seventeen five-year-olds—and they all have a say in it.

I am trying to appeal to their senses and to make the stages a progression of their development in awareness. The first stage was visual: I planted an outline of a turtle last fall. I used dwarf gray santolina as a hedge, and to suggest the turtle’s shell, I made a hummock of soil and planted a fragrant evergreen mat of mongolian thyme, which spreads quickly and is wear-resistant (I want the children to be able to sit on the turtle’s back). The garden also has to be in bloom at a time when the children would be able to see it during the school year, which for many plants means two bloom periods.

Just after planting, most parents walked right on by without noticing, but I think the children could see there was some animal thing lurking about even if they couldn’t tell that it was a turtle. Now that the santolina has filled in to make a solid hedge, they are better able to discern its shape.

The next stages were smell and touch. I used all the herbs I could think of that I have seen in gardens designed for the blind, including lamb’s-ear, pineapple sage, scented geraniums (especially the downy-leaved peppermint variety), lemon verbena, and various basils. As the garden grows, the children can learn about rubbing the scented leaves, pressing flowers, and making potpourri, herbal butters and jellies, catnip mice, and lavender wands. I hope that this garden instills as much wonder and excitement for the children as it does for us older folks. Wouldn’t it be nice if it kindled herb gardening enjoyment for years to come?
—Andy Van Hevelingen