Notes from Regional Herb Gardeners
Y2K for Herbies
- Andy Van Hevelingen
NEWBERG, Oregon— It’s hard to believe a new millennium in herb growing is just around the corner. I’m a little worried— it took me the last millennium to get to where I am now.
So what lies ahead for us Y2K herbies? Will our herb gardens cease to function? Will we be inundated with weed glitches in our borders and pathways? I doubt that anything will change much from the past 1,000 years. I’ll still have weeds and slugs in my garden, and there will still be plenty of herbs for me to covet, collect, and fuss over. Herb gardens have a remarkable way of remaining timeless.
The saying “When the world wearies, there is always the garden” is true for me. Although its chores can be burdensome, I don’t like to be away from it for long. I’m always eager to return to my greenhouse bench to pot up or propagate new starts. It is my solace and therapy.
Rosemary, which signifies remembrance in the language of flowers, has been named the International Herb Association’s Herb of the Year for 2000. What better way to go into the future—the twenty-first century—than by remembering the past? Rosemary certainly gets my vote as it always surprises me by blooming at the worst time of the year. In Oregon, many of the hardy upright cultivars typically bloom in late fall through very early spring, seemingly oblivious to storms and cold unless the temperature drops below freezing. At least the prostrate forms have the sense to bloom later in spring.
Several of my acquisitions of the current millennium, which are now either lying dormant or being coddled in a warm greenhouse, are worth pursuing in the next one. For an intense and long-lasting yellow-gold splash of color in the back of the border, try Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Dart’s Gold’, a Dutch selection of the American native shrub ninebark (so called for its bark, which peels as it ages). Here in Oregon, this fairly compact, roundish bush keeps its yellow tint throughout most of the summer. It’s hardy in Zones 2 through 7.
Another colorful plant is the variegated Joe-Pye weed formerly called Eupatorium aromaticum ‘Jocius Variegatum’, which looks as if the leaves had been spray-painted bright gold. Wouldn’t you know it, they recently changed its botanical name to Ageratina aromatica ‘Jocius Variegatum’. Name changing is a habit that I wish botanists would leave behind in the present millennium. I still haven’t gotten used to feverfew’s name change from Chrysanthemum parthenium to Tanacetum parthenium. After all, everyone knows what a chrysanthemum flower looks like, but who would recognize a tanacetum?
I doubt that anything will change much from the past 1,000 years. I’ll still have weeds and slugs in my garden, and there will still be plenty of herbs for me to covet, collect, and fuss over.
- Geraldine Laufer
ATLANTA, Georgia—With pure white blossoms, the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is a welcome part of the December/January garden scene in Atlanta. In England, the sixteenth-century herbalist John Gerard noted, “It floureth about Christmas if the winter be mild and warm.” My Christmas roses typically open about the third week of December. How crisp and fresh the flowers look then! They remain white for about a month, fading to a lovely dusty pink for a couple of weeks longer.
In a moist, sheltered site with partial shade, I’ve planted this low-growing perennial along the woodland paths beneath winter-blooming camellias. The large, outward-facing blossoms cluster on short stalks arising directly from the cold, moist ground. The black-green shining evergreen leaves are beautiful in every season and contrast well with the bright green of parsley.
Gerard called the Christmas rose “Christ herbe,” and once people blessed their cattle with this plant to protect them from evil spells. This seems appropriate to the calendar, as the cow in my Christmas nativity scene always seems to need extra looking after.
Lenten rose (H. orientalis) flowers close on the heels of the Christmas rose, blooming from New Year’s Day through April in my garden. The speckled, freckled, nodding mauve, purple, or white flowers seem to last forever.
Seedlings emerge later in the spring and may be carefully lifted when they have two or three sets of leaves. By transplanting seedlings in this way, I’m carpeting a hillside with Lenten roses. It takes three years from emergence of a seedling to the first flower, and the flower color on each new plant seems to be unique. My friends in the Herb Society of Nashville gave me a few white Lenten roses from the garden of the esteemed late southern author Elizabeth Lawrence. They, too, are increasing, but not fast enough, to my way of thinking.
- Elisabeth Sheldon
LANSING, New York— I sometimes wonder why everyone isn’t as crazy about dianthuses as I am. They are delightful to look at in all their forms, and nearly all of them have a delicious, spicy scent. Furthermore, they are easy to raise from seed, popping up enthusiastically a few days after being planted, and are easy to grow, having no diseases that I know of.
Insects show no interest in dianthuses; their only enemies seem to be mice, voles, and rabbits. Evergreen boughs laid lightly over the plants protect them from rabbits, which don’t seem to realize that all they need do is shove the branches aside. As for voles and mice, a serious hunting cat is the best solution.
As we all do, dianthuses have one fault, a tendency to become bare in the center. The solution is to trim the whole plant back by about a third when it finishes flowering in summer and by two-thirds in early spring. Any bare spot that persists in the middle of the plant will fill in if you sift some gritty soil into it.
I’ve grown many species in the border and on the raised stone beds, where they thrive thanks to the gritty, limy soil, perfect drainage, and full sun. I love their aspect, like bristly little hedgehogs, especially at the beginning of winter, when they look thicker and bluer than at any other time.
I grow some dianthuses from commercial seed, both the low mat formers and the taller plumarius varieties. I had at one time a lacy white one, probably D. sylvestris var. albus, which was scentless but delicately fringed and lovely. That one, along with the heavily fringed ‘Loveliness’, has contributed to the shapes and colors of the plants I get from my garden seed these days. I never know what the flowers will be like—tiny or as large as fifty-cent pieces, white, mauve, pink, red, plain or variously marked. I have some pale pink ones that are embroidered in red in fantastic designs.
Is anyone wondering why a discussion of dianthus appears here? I refer you to my favorite little Golden Guide to Herbs and Spices (Western, 1987), in which you will read:
Petals with the bitter white heel snipped off are steeped in hot water and sugar and boiled down to syrup. They are also added to white vinegar, which is left in the sun for a few days, or are pickled in vinegar with cinnamon and mace and are then mashed to make sauce for lamb. The petals are candied by coating with beaten egg white and sugar.
As for me, I like simply to kneel down and put my face in a cushion of blooming dianthus and breathe in deeply.
- Rob Proctor
DENVER, Colorado—Roses and herbs are meant for each other. Few things are as pretty—to my mind—as colonies of catmints, sages, santolinas, foxgloves, and lavender carpeting the soil beneath arching canes of old-fashioned roses.
Many heirloom shrub roses have come back into favor, and some new hybrids share their best traits while adding new colors, better repeat blooming, and improved hardiness. Among the more valuable smaller shrub roses (sometimes called landscape roses) are the pale pink one called ‘The Fairy’ and the Meidiland series in many colors. A few roses, such as the delightful pure white floribunda ‘Iceberg’, almost creep on the ground. A rose renaissance appears to be well under way.
In my new job at Denver Botanic Gardens, we’re making over the rose garden, replacing the teas with shrubs, landscape roses, and even miniatures that grow well here without much fussing. With 16 acres under cultivation at the gardens (and only one gardener per 2 acres), the roses can’t demand more than their fair share of care. The way we plan to show the roses we select to best advantage will be to “herb it up.” Expect to see all the classic companions—lavender, catmint—as well as heliotrope, trailing and tall verbenas, sweet alyssum, flowering tobacco, Ageratum ‘Cut Wonder’ (a taller, looser, heavier-blooming variety than the standard compact bedding types), and scented geraniums. But don’t expect to see a square inch of bare earth. Drawing up the plans this winter will be be almost as much fun as putting the plants in the ground later on.
We’re lucky to have a number of nurseries in Colorado that deal in shrub roses, but even when I’m out of town, I keep a lookout for unusual roses. I once did a speaking engagement in Charleston, South Carolina, with Helen Dillon of Ireland and Tom Peace of Texas and Colorado, both of whom love old roses. A local gardener told us of several antique varieties growing in an old cemetery in Charleston. Scribbling a map for us, he said he didn’t think there’d be a problem if we took a few cuttings.
Because early flights would make a trip to the cemetery impossible the next morning, we’d have to do it that night.
It was nearly eleven as we passed through an archway opening to a narrow lane. Headstones and palms dripping with Spanish moss were etched with a pale silver sheen as we stumbled around the uneven stone walkways illuminated only by a sliver of moon and fading streetlights.
A red antique rose from a Charleston cemetery now grows in Ireland and Texas (alas, it didn’t prove hardy for me).
We found several overgrown rosebushes and lit matches to try to find flowers to help identify them. With manicure scissors and pocketknives—and a few expletives as thorns grabbed our sleeves and fingers—we took a few cuttings and placed them in plastic bags. Glancing at my watch, I intoned in my best Vincent Price voice, “It’s midnight in the garden of good and evil.” (OK, I know that’s Savannah, but we were in the South, it was midnight, and the circumstances were a little spooky.) As if on cue, someone on the other side of the cemetery struck a match. Another rose rustler at work? We didn’t wait to find out. If headstones had been hurdles, Helen demonstrated Olympic form that night as we sprinted for the narrow lane.
A red antique rose from a Charleston cemetery now grows in Ireland and Texas (alas, it didn’t prove hardy for me). Perhaps my friends recall our midnight adventure each time it blooms. That’s the magic of roses.
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