Bees and Balms
Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia--Because all the bee balms are in
bloom now, I carry my ancient 6-inch wooden ruler around to measure
their flowers. I’ve noticed that those with the shortest tubes
attract bees while those with longer ones attract hummingbirds, and
I’d like to know which types to recommend to customers who want
hummingbirds in their gardens.
Once you watch the bees and hummingbirds at work, you’ll see why
it’s important to know the flower’s length from base to opening.
Those bee balms with inch-long florets are ideal for bees, which
can easily reach the nectar at the flower’s base. A slightly longer
tube may effectively bar bees from entering the flower but is the
ideal design for hummingbirds’ long beaks.
According to my admittedly unscientific observations, the best
hummingbird bee balm by far is the red Monarda didyma, whose shaggy
flowers have the longest tube of any of my bee balms. Bees flock to
the short-tubed mauve wild bergamot, M. fistulosa. Hybrid forms
have flowers of varying lengths; pinks are shorter, purples
Whether they attract bees or hummingbirds, I love all the bee
balms. During this season, I revel in their flowers, tinted bracts,
and wonderful scents, from warm and spicy to cool and minty. If I’m
not measuring their flowers, I’m trying to figure out how many
colors I have. The sin of possessiveness is strong when it comes to
shades of bee balm. How else can I explain why I pick and carry
blossoms from one planting to another and compare colors?
Bee balm watching in late summer is a mixed blessing, and I feel
a tug of war within my gardening soul. On the one hand, each day I
see my colorful landscape. On the other hand, this fruitful scene
before me soon will be transformed by cold rains and successive
frosts. I know what I have to do, yet I feel almost powerless to do
it: I must pick the flowers in their freshest hues for potpourri
and dry the young leaves for flavoring and teas. Yet I’m so
beguiled by their full-flowering, robust, mounding forms that day
by day goes by—I measure, I count colors, but I don’t pick.
I’ve tried to resolve this problem by setting aside plantings
just for harvest—bee balms are easy to divide—but as I’ve
discovered over many years, each new planting becomes an important
detail in the landscape. So how can one disturb it? That’s another
dilemma for the gardener whose gardens satisfy the need for both
beauty and useful plants.
Planting, observing, and harvesting define my life. My harvest
basket overflows now with bunches of marjoram, soft sage leaves,
and deep yellow and orange calendulas. As I admire their varied
forms and colors in the basket, I’m reminded of where I began more
than twenty years ago. Now the gardens have grown into a landscape
with a life of its own, a landscape that grows out of my life and
expresses my needs.
Bee balms in full flower are details in the grand scheme, and I
shouldn’t feel guilty enjoying them. I will harvest them, too, in
—Jo Ann Gardner
Newberg, Oregon--A more resilient gardener would tackle the weeds in the herb garden on the hot summer days, but like most other native Oregonians, I wilt in heat. I'm m ore content to work early in the morning, have a break in the afternoon, and work again until dinnertime. My afternoon respite is to sit and sip iced tea while reminiscing about weeding in April when the ground was easy to work. Then I could pull up entire dandelion and dock plants, roots and all. Now I face rock-hard ground and weeds that break off at ground level, leaving the root intact to grow.
This year, I afforded myself the luxury of a teak bench for the
garden. Although it won’t replace my chamomile bench, which is both
historically “correct” and herbally romantic, I’m looking forward
to the teak bench’s graceful aging, which will bring an air of
permanence to the garden.
Another way to establish permanence in the herb garden is to
plant some herbal trees. So often we think of using only annuals
and herbaceous perennials. At this time of year, it’s nice to have
some trees for shade.
I’m blessed with three such trees. The oldest is the classic bay
tree (Laurus nobilis) given to me thirty years ago by my mentor,
Emma Wakefield. This evergreen, currently about 20 feet tall,
provides good shade throughout the year and has weathered many a
winter. It even completely top-killed once, but the next spring it
sent up numerous suckers. Last winter, the winds knocked down a few
suckers and the original stump is beginning to decay, so I may lose
them all eventually.
Fellow herb lover Adgie Hulse gave me my sassafras tree
(Sassafras albidum) about twenty-five years ago. This tree was an
experiment and a growing challenge: Could this herbal tree native
to the southeastern United States grow in the Far West? Now about
40 feet tall, it provides light shade in the summer and good yellow
color before leaf drop in autumn. I enjoy it most for the five
different shapes of its leaves and the nostalgic scent of
old-fashioned root beer when I accidentally bruise the bark or nick
a root while weeding.
Recently I purchased a medlar tree (Mespilus germanica). I’d not
known that medlars existed until I saw one planted at the
University of Washington’s medicinal garden about ten years ago,
and I’ve searched for one ever since. It has the shape and habit of
a dwarf apple tree and large, apple-like pinkish white flowers.
To my surprise, it produced a lone fruit the second year while
still in a three-gallon container. The fruit looked like a brown
Ping-Pong ball with a dented end, as if someone had stepped on it.
I harvested it in late October, placed it eye down, and waited for
bletting—a much more endearing term than “slow or partial rotting
Around Thanksgiving, I decided it was ready to eat. When I
quartered the fruit, the inside had the consistency of apple butter
and looked thoroughly spoiled. On a dare, my mother-in-law tasted
it first. When she didn’t immediately convulse or have
uncontrollable gastric fits, I tried it, too. It tasted like a plum
without any acidity or bite to it—not at all unpleasant.
Medlar fruit is still used in France as the main ingredient of a
much prized preserve. Charlemagne knew what he was doing when he
listed it among his 800 must-have plants.
—Andy Van Hevelingen
A Scented Room
Lansing, New York—I’m thinking of making a garden of only
fragrant plants—not a new idea, but new for me. I plan to enclose
it, for three reasons: so it will be a special, set-aside place, so
the wind will not easily blow away the precious scents, and so the
sun will bring out all the aromas, turning it into a giant living
This garden also should be nice to look at, so I’m considering
the size, shape, and color of the plants and their flowers, but all
must have pungent or sweet-smelling leaves or blossoms.
I’m already imagining tall lilies and bee balms in the back (and
if I had room, I’d have lilacs and mock orange, too) along with
roses, autumn clematis, and honeysuckle clambering over the fence.
I’m making a long list of fragrant plants for the middle and
foreground, but I don’t know how many I’ll be able to cram into
this small 20-by-30-foot space. Certainly I’ll have lots of
I can put some plants into containers. One container plant that
gave me joy all last summer is a small heliotrope with clusters of
tiny white flowers that fill the air with incredible sweetness:
Heliotropium arborescens ‘Alba’. This year, the young nurseryman
who sold it to me is also offering a jasmine-scented heirloom
climbing white petunia, said to do well in containers.
Most of the mints will have to be in pots lest they take over
the whole garden. The few mints that need not be confined are the
deliciously scented calamints, creeping Corsican mint, and my
favorite mountain mint, Pycnanthemum muticum, whose smooth green
leaves become hoary in late summer and whose scent clears the head
and braces the spirits.
I must certainly include nepetas,in particular ‘Souvenir d’André
Chaudron’ (‘Blue Beauty’) because of its lovely flowers and the
strange, wild aroma of its leaves. Lavender I must have, especially
‘Hidcote’, as well as thymes and silver santolinas. (The green
santolinas smell of olive oil, which is fine in the kitchen but not
the fragrance garden.) I’ll probably give perilla a place, too.
Which roses, I wonder, are the sweetest? If there’s room, I’ll
include the single white shrub rose ‘Darlow’s Enigma’ as well as
‘Stanwell Perpetual’, a 3- to 4-foot shrub bearing semi-double
white blooms with a perfect rose scent. The fairly new floribunda
‘Angel Face’, which reaches only 2 to 3 feet, has small semidouble,
almost lavender flowers with an enchanting fragrance that are as
appealing as a little girl in an Easter frock.
I mustn’t forget ambrosia (Chenopodium botrys), an annual whose
plumes of tiny chartreuse flowers smell sweet in the garden and,
when dried into golden plumes, perfume the house in winter. Sweet
Annie (Artemisia annua) makes a froth of tiny yellow blossoms but
grows three times as tall as 11/2-foot ambrosia. I remember seeing
it lining the path to one of the buildings at Caprilands Herb Farm
in Coventry, Connecticut, some years ago. I thought it an unusual
choice for an edging plant, being neither neat nor elegant, but it
did provide a cloud of heavenly fragrance that wafted through the
I’d like to find a short white, sweetly scented nicotiana. So
many of the good old flowers have had the scent bred out of
them—inadvertently, no doubt, while the breeders were aiming for
fancier blossoms. A pity. Perhaps they should leave well enough
Denver, Colorado—It has been creeping up on me over the years,
like crow’s-feet and love handles. At first I was in denial, but
it’s time to face facts: I’ve succumbed to variegated madness. Show
me a leaf that’s spotted, streaked, striped, speckled, or mottled,
and I fall under its spell. No part of the garden is safe from my
I used to pay little attention to variegation. A few striped
spider plants hung in the bathroom window, and a couple of hostas
with white stripes on their green leaves grew in a shady spot. My
gardening world was essentially green and peaceful. Where did I
begin my descent down this slippery garden path?
I blame scented and fancy-leaf pelargoniums. White-edged ‘Atomic
Snowflake’ turned into a handsome patio specimen. So did tricolor
‘Italian Skies’, a relic from Victorian days with cream, green, and
reddish-brown bands displayed across its leaves. ‘Chocolate Mint’
won my affection with the brown centers on its fuzzy green leaves,
and the variegated form of nutmeg-scented pelargoniums has become
a recent favorite.
To collectors, each new sport with an eye-catching pattern gives
them another reason to keep on collecting. The thrill is in
tracking down something new and rare or something old and rare
that’s been rescued from the brink of extinction. As a willing
participant in this game, I can testify the hunt is sometimes more
rewarding than the prize.
Some of these pelargonium rarities can go extinct as far as I’m
concerned, and the same goes for some other variegated herbs and
perennials, even if 99 out of a 100 thrill me to pieces. The yellow
spots on the woolly gray leaves of Mentha longifolia ‘Variegata’
don’t please me much, and it’s a stoloniferous runner with
limitless ambition. As for the variegated Shasta daisy ‘Barbara
Bush’, I think the former first lady deserves something better than
this irregularly striped mess.
Not everyone likes variegated leaves. “Looks like herbicide
damage to me,” said my friend the garden designer Tom Peace as he
surveyed my variegated honesty (Lunaria annua). I suppose some
variegation could be mistaken for the effects of the drifting spray
of a weed killer, in which case it also hit my rue, horseradish,
nasturtiums, oregano, thyme, and even my lamb’s-ears (in a sport
called ‘Striped Phantom’ with irregular cream or pale yellow
streaks on the otherwise gray foliage).
Truth be told, some of Tom’s gardens include striped miscanthus,
variegated obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana
‘Variegata’)—which even I think is gaudy—and lots of Pulmonaria
‘Roy Davidson’, a gorgeous lungwort with early spring blue flowers
and long, narrow leaves heavily spotted with silver. “Garden
designer, heal thyself!” is what I would probably say—if I said
things like that.
Some variegated plants are notoriously wimpy. With less green
area to conduct the important business of photosynthesis, the plants
are sometimes less vigorous than their green counterparts. In my
garden, these include strawberries, Siberian bugloss (Brunnera
macrophylla), grapes, and oregano.
On the other hand, many variegated plants don’t appear affected
in the least by the loss of a little photosynthesis. Variegated
bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria) and gardener’s-garters
(Phalaris arundinacea) are just as intent on world domination as
the others. Nor does a little white margin or stripe slow down
nasturtiums, Cuban oregano, licorice plant, Japanese rush,
meadowsweet, or Japanese hop.
I’m quite happy in my little variegated world. I don’t think
it’s a serious affliction; I still can function in the real world,
at least as well as I could before I discovered variegation. What’s
starting to worry me, however, is my more recent obsession with
golden-leaved plants. They look so exciting paired with the
variegated ones. There are golden oregano, and feverfew, and thyme,
and hops, and . . .
The hunt is on.