Round Robin: Looking Back

Notes from Regional Herb Gardeners

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LANSING, New York—It’s as hard not to hover appreciatively over the most recently acquired plant as it is over a new baby, but luckily there’s no danger of arousing sibling ri­valry and a lifelong inferiority complex. Among last summer’s pets was a plant I’d never seen or grown before, double chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile ‘Flore Pleno’). It had been described as being low-growing and most attractive, so I confidently put the little thing in the front of the border, where it took hold and began to move out in all directions. Before I could move it to a holding bed, the plant began to break out in the most captivating fluffy white pompons—not all over the plant but around the edge, like bobbles on a fringe. The only problem was that this chamomile, like its single-flowered sibling, plain C. nobile, surges over its small neighbors without the slightest compunction. I had to prop up the edges, curling up the fringe, to save a poor little Nepeta nervosa and several small dianthus from certain destruction. No doubt, I should have put it in a large bare spot in a raised bed.

I had lots of ordinary chamomile in a raised bed last summer, thinking to harvest the blossoms for a winter’s supply of tea, but the blossoms were scarce and the feathery foliage all too abundant. Was there too much nitrogen in the soil? A pity, for chamomile tea makes a wonderfully soothing after-meal drink, and I spend far too much on it in the grocery store. My son, who lives in Mexico, says that heaps of it are sold in baskets in the market under the name of manzanilla; perhaps he can send me some. Or I can try again to grow my own, next time in leaner soil.

The 1994 catalogs are piling up already. They used to start coming in January, but now they begin to arrive even before Thanksgiving. I like this trend as it gives me a chance to plan changes in the garden, with time to look up everything in reference books instead of relying only on catalog descriptions. When spring is in the air, I’m much more inclined to send off orders for beguiling plants that are quite unsuitable for my situation and climate.

A certain leeway may be allowed, of course, for experience. A gardener should feel free to try a certain number of plants that probably won’t survive on the off-chance that they might. There are always surprises, and sometimes the books and catalogs are wrong in their zone numbers and other data. This is what I tell myself as I make my winter lists of seeds and plants for the coming year.