Notes from Regional Herb Gardeners
Denver, Colorado—I have no social life during planting season. I turn down dinner and party invitations. There’s no time for movies or the theater, even if I had the energy to make myself look presentable in public.
With no time for newspapers or television, world events pass me by. Mao Tse-tung must have died during April or May because I somehow missed it. I didn’t learn of his demise until years later. I learned the truth while playing a home version of Jeopardy with friends. “What do you mean he’s not the leader of China? It’s not like he’s dead!” I challenged. I kissed several thousand mythical dollars and the lead in the game good-bye.
But I don’t care if I lose at board games or am unable to discuss current events at the parties I don’t attend anyway. This is my most important time in the garden. Gardening—planting, weeding, and transplanting—tops my list of priorities.
My first step is damage control. Even in the mildest of winters, something dies. This past dry winter, it was sages, lavenders, and upright thymes (the ground-hugging thymes seem better able to cope with desiccation by winter winds). These shrubby herbs become more vulnerable to winterkill the older and woodier they get. Most last about five years unless a wet winter further reduces their survival rate. If lavender plants were toasters, we’d call their departure “planned obsolescence.”
Some people take plant deaths much too hard, as if a pet canary had died. I don’t get too upset when I lose a plant. I view it as an opportunity to experiment. I’m slightly irate if the dead plant was an expensive purchase, and I grieve a bit if it was a plant I grew from seed, pampered through its first season, and held high expectations for its future. I can’t count how many perennials I’ve started but never seen flower.
If every plant in my garden grew without a hitch, it would deprive me of one of my most basic needs: the urge to dig dirt. Replacing a dead plant is an annual act of renewal for both my garden and my soul. I love the feel of fresh spring earth, moist and crumbly, so I don’t usually wear gardening gloves. Men can get away with callused hands and dirty nails more easily than women can, and I’m not planning to go anywhere elegant at the moment.
The smell of fresh earth ranks right up there with orange blossoms and baking bread. It surprised me, however, that someone would bottle that wonderful scent. In my speaker’s packet at a recent engagement in Lincoln, Nebraska, was a bottle of cologne called Dirt, whose label extols the virtues of “simple, subtle singular scents” for “each day, everywhere.”
Having smelled like dirt for most of my life, I was dubious whether the cologne could live up to my expectations. And would a product manufactured in Pennsylvania smell like the dirt of the Great Plains, or would it have an East Coast attitude? I’m happy to report that Dirt smells like dirt—perhaps a little sweeter than my own garden soil—and so I’m thrilled to think that later in the summer when I’m doing more maintenance and less digging, I can still smell like dirt. And next winter, when the earth is frozen solid, I still can smell as fresh as a newly plowed field.
I think city people should wear Dirt. Trapped in their offices all day, the closest they get to nature is to brush by a potted palm next to the elevator. Job stress and road rage would diminish if they smelled like dirt. They might feel driven to return home from work and grab a trowel. The urge to dig, plant, and grow something is a powerful, ancient one. In fact, it’s as old as dirt.
Atlanta, Georgia— I’m often asked to speak about herbs, and for the most part, I’m glad to do it. Sometimes garden clubs are purely social, and members don’t really care about double digging or garden design. All they really want is chitchat and a few minutes of flower arranging. But every now and then I find myself at a meeting of real dirt gardeners, and we have a wonderful time discussing how best to get rid of pine voles or when to fertilize hellebores for peak performance.
Twenty years ago, fresh out of graduate school with a shiny new horticulture decree from Rutgers University, I moved to Atlanta with my husband. Hired as a horticulture agent for the Georgia Cooperative Extension Service, I was something of an anomaly—most female extension agents were in home economics at the time. When a routine invitation to speak to the Old Goats Club of Marietta came into the office, I was scheduled to go.
Marietta is a city northwest of Atlanta with red clay soil and a big cotton crop. The Old Goats Club consisted of retired gents with two-acre gardens who had been farming all their lives, and their families and grandpaps before them. I should have been tipped off by the club’s name, but off I went.
When I expounded on the latest research reported by the extension service, the Old Goats were unimpressed. When I discussed new cultivars, they let me know they liked their tried-and-true varieties better. “Honey,” one told me, “I already don’t farm as good as I know how.” Having a little sport with this greenhorn Yankee female, they asked about my experience with black-eyed peas and how I preferred to grow okra. I was embarrassed and tongue-tied and knew I was losing the day.
In desperation, I began to talk about my beloved herbs. The Old Goats could relate to food and knew sage and dill as familiar seasonings, and most of them had a big old bush or two of rosemary near the house. Here was some common ground! But it was when I mentioned that ground parsley seed was once reputed to be a cure for baldness that I began to captivate them. We parted friends.
Lansing, New York—Spring is a marathon in the garden. Now is when I wish I’d spent the past few months doing aerobics instead of relaxing in a cozy chair reading books, even if many of them were garden books. If I’d jumped around more, my muscles wouldn’t be complaining as much as they are now. Even with all the running, I never finish everything on my to-do list: “1. Move silver tansy into sunnier spot. 2. Divide Culver’s root. 3. Attack sweet woodruff seriously.” That’s only the beginning.
I’m looking forward this spring to two new catmints. I saw Nepeta ¥faassenii ‘Walker’s Low’ for the first time last summer at a friend’s house. I took a cutting from his plant, which was growing lustily in an old barnyard nourished by aged manure. The catalogs say this is 10 1/2 inches tall, with grayish green leaves and lavender-blue flowers, but in my friend’s garden, it was about 2 feet tall and had violet-blue, quite dark blossoms. Perhaps I’ll give it some cow manure so it will feel at home.
My other new one this year is ‘Dawn to Dusk,’ said to bear pink blossoms with dark purple calyxes. I love nepetas and would like to have a few of every kind listed in the catalogs. I’m glad to see more appearing all the time.
I’ve decided not to use the splendid wine-colored Korean angelica (Angelica gigas) in the back of the border anymore as I simply can’t give it the amount of water it considers adequate. Last spring, I planted five big healthy ones, raised the year before from seed, in an important part of the border, where they were to be glorious all through the late summer and autumn. But then we had a serious drought. I kept dousing the border with water, satisfying everything but the angelicas, which dwindled, yellowed, and dropped their beautiful jagged leaves. After I finally pulled them up and composted them, visitors raised their eyebrows at the resulting desert and asked, “What did you have over there?” Embarrassing. This year, I’ll cram that spot with roses, anchusas, and perhaps a silver willow.
Last winter, a young nurseryman friend who specializes in unusual annuals and perennials invited me to have lunch in one of his greenhouses and see his new plants. An especially irresistible one is a variegated lamb’s-ears, Stachys byzantina ‘Striped Phantom.’ The same friend introduced me to a tender salvia last spring that gave me more pleasure than anything else in the garden: Salvia ‘Trinidad Pink’ produced masses of small flowers of the most luscious rosy pink all summer and right through autumn. Keep your eye out for it.
Newberg, Oregon— I used to pride myself on being immune to the allergic effects of rue. I do all the propagation of rue (Ruta graveolens) because just brushing against the leaves sensitizes my wife’s skin to ultraviolet light, and subsequent exposure to the light reddens the sensitized areas like a sunburn. The last time Melissa had a run-in with rue, the marks on her forearms lasted for two years, and she looked as if she’d lost a catfight.
I always wear latex gloves when stripping the leaves off the cuttings. I’m also careful not to rub my eyes or nose, and I wash my hands immediately after handling the plants. I have never been affected, even by the most pungent variety, ‘Prostrate,’ a blue-foliaged cultivar that gets only 2 to 3 inches tall as it spreads outward.
Last fall, however, I was given a plant of Syrian rue (R. syriaca). Its foliage is so finely dissected that at first glance it looks like an artemisia, perhaps Artemisia splendens or the silver southernwood (A. abrotanum). One day as I walked by it, I decided to take some cuttings in case it wasn’t winter-hardy. There wasn’t much sunlight that day, and it was only two cuttings, so I didn’t need gloves, I thought. And I waited until lunchtime to wash my hands.
About a week later as I was brushing my teeth, I noticed some red spots in the webbing between my thumb and index finger. They really didn’t itch or hurt, and if it hadn’t been for the reddening, I wouldn’t have even noticed them. After a few days, the red spots turned dark brown, and I realized I’d been branded by the rue. When I told my wife my story, all she said was, “That was stupid.”
I still think rue is a valuable, beautiful foliage plant in the herb garden. It is especially ornamental in the winter garden. As the temperature drops, its steely blue color intensifies. The best-known cultivar is ‘Jackman’s Blue,’ but ‘Blue Beauty’ and ‘Blue Mound’ are gaining converts in my region.
I am happy to report that my rue blotches faded in about a month. A few weeks later, my wife was in the greenhouse looking at some new stock plants. While looking for its label, she fingered a plant that she thought was an artemisia but discovered it was the Syrian rue! She went to wash her hands immediately, and I didn’t say a word.
—Andy Van Hevelingen
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