Notes from Regional Herb Gardeners
CAPE BRETON ISLAND, Nova Scotia—Fall is a relatively languid season here. The barn is stuffed with hay to feed the animals over the winter, and the shed is stacked with dry wood to keep us warm. Nothing to do now but loll around and eat tomatoes, the red, juicy, vine-ripened tomatoes that Jigs raises each summer. They are higher in his estimation than even poppies, but it’s a close race. All summer, I keep reminding him to pull the poppy stalks before the seeds are released in the vegetable garden. It’s tough going for the string beans and corn with all those poppies around. Enough have been left to sow themselves silly, so now, on our way to the barn every morning, we stop to admire the zillion poppy seedlings, the dew caught in their canopy of tiny gray-green leaves.
As soon as morning chores are over, I set to creating the mother of all breakfasts. After a preliminary course of bacon and eggs, the stage is set for the main course: sliced tomatoes, several spoonfuls of fresh cottage cheese, topped by a dollop or two of homemade mayonnaise. The ritual is not complete until I add the parsley and my herb salt. I pick the parsley every day from one of the raised vegetable beds, cutting a good handful of several sprays. We grow ‘Bravour’, our favorite cultivar and surely one of the most handsome of garden plants. It is bright green and tightly curled with an intense parsley flavor that can only be described as fresh and green. It is also extraordinarily vigorous because as soon as I cut it, it grows right back. I’ve already harvested the whole planting once, spreading it out to dry upstairs on Jigs’s magic drying racks (a series of twelve screens in two tiers), where it dries without yellowing, retaining its deep green color.
Back in the kitchen, I rinse the handful of ‘Bravou’, give it a shake, trim the stems a bit, then lay the bunch on a plate with kitchen scissors nearby so that we can each snip as much as we want over the heap of tomatoes. I’ve never seen anyone but Jigs eat parsley with such relish, stems and all. The idea of serving a tiny sprig as a disposable embellishment—typical restaurant fare—seems almost sacrilegious, especially if the parsley is ‘Bravour’.
I mustn’t forget chives. A fat bunch, whose whole purpose in life is to contribute its plentiful leaves and its second flush of flowers to fall breakfasts, is planted just outside the kitchen door. If I have time, I add some spicy nasturtium flowers to the parsley plate, too. How beautiful they all look together—curly mounds of bright green parsley, long green chives leaves with a little pile of the picked-apart mauve florets, and among them the vivid orange, red, and yellow spurred nasturtium trumpets.
All this fall bounty is the result of delayed growth. Most plants are in a holding pattern until August, when they suddenly take off with a sudden spurt of growth before frost. We don’t complain, though, for it is the most wonderful of all seasons. In northern Vermont, we anticipated frost any time after September first. But here, where there is virtually no spring and a short summer, the fall is gloriously long. We’ll be enjoying fall breakfasts into late November and early December if the snow holds off. (The parsley and chives are remarkably hardy, and the tomatoes, stored in the greenhouse, usually last at least until the New Year or later.)
This is also the only season when I approximate “strolling through the garden”. Now, I can walk alongside the harvest bed, picking off colorful flower heads for potpourri and calendulas for my herb salt, harvesting seeds, and just seeing what’s around to save from frost.
I was astonished the other day to discover what sweet Annie has been up to since I planted it in June. I cannot believe what I see before me—a filmy
6-foot tree, all tiny golden flowers and feathery green leaves. The fragrance is heavenly, citrusy with a camphorous overtone. Sweet Annie’s beauty as a background or accent plant must be one of the gardening world’s best-kept secrets. It not only grew into a striking plant, but it provided support for a nearby scarlet runner bean that had strayed from its pole and twined itself around sweet Annie’s main stem. Who could have imagined such a felicitous combination?
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