Notes from Regional Herb Gardeners
DENVER, Colorado—Romantic poets may write sonnets about sweet, lovely spring, but the season can turn on the gardener like a mad dog.
Most seasoned gardeners in this part of the country know to keep their guard up, but neophytes invariably get caught by the cold snap that nearly always follows a balmy week. I understand the craving for a bit of bright color, but sometimes the entire city seems to go a little nuts about the middle of April, throwing caution to the wind and storming the garden centers. Out go the tomatoes, begonias, basil, and marigolds—not to mention common sense.
Friends call me, begging for permission to set out their tender purchases. It’s not fun to be the one to tell them no, so I say it’s fine to plant perennials if they’ve been properly hardened off and to take a chance on calendula, petunias, and nicotiana. Then I launch my crusade: “You really ought to be planting seeds—beets, borage, lettuce, dill, bachelor’s-buttons, larkspur, carrots, chard, kale. They like to germinate in the cool weather, and they’ll be healthy, stocky plants. The flowers will start blooming in June.”
I can almost hear them nodding, waiting for me to get it out of my system. “Okay, that sounds good,” they’ll counter. “Now what about dahlias, can they go out?” I stab a pencil into my leg.
It’s been known to snow as late as June in Denver, but that’s rare. Even so, living at the foot of a major mountain range makes for unpredictable weather. Warming winds sweep up from the southwest, fooling nearly everyone. Then a cold front drops down from Canada on the wings of the jet stream, slamming cold, wet air against the foothills. These upslope winds often bring in a big, wet snowstorm. We call it an “upslop”.
We get a big spring upslop every few years. It’s depressing to see the fresh young growth sagging under a white blanket that we thought had been safely put away for the season. The perennials and bulbs usually survive just fine, although a few tulips and daffodils get snapped off, and the fruit tree blossoms might come through as long as the mercury doesn’t dip too low. The peas, lettuce, and dill are fine, but those hothouse annuals rarely squeak through. For many, it’s back to the drawing board or the nursery.
I don’t mean to sound smug. Although I’ve learned to set things out late, it’s mainly because I’m behind schedule. I spend most of March and April cleaning up the garden. Cutting back last season’s brittle, winter-bleached growth and hauling it to the compost pile takes time. At this time of year, the pile looks like a scruffy, 10-foot-tall haystack that could conceal a VW bus. I’ll need to run most of it through the shredder to reduce it to a manageable hill.
When cleaning the beds, I use a rake with rubber teeth that doesn’t hurt emerging perennials. It’s like running a big comb over them. I just rake out the big chunks and leaves that didn’t break down, leaving the best, crumbliest crud to finish decomposing. The earthworms will eventually work it into the soil.
ATLANTA, Georgia —My garden is like a museum of friendship. Store-bought plants, even sale plants marked down to half price, can’t compare to “pass-along plants”—plants supplied by friends. If a plant grows strongly enough that the gardener has plenty to share, I know it will thrive in my garden. This has proven true for spreading oreganos, reseeding hostas, a hardy red alstroemeria, various mints, and a ginger lily.
Plants from friends and relatives bring back strong memories. Seeing the offspring of my grandmother’s double feverfew, Johnny-jump-ups, and balsam (touch-me-nots) growing in my garden always reminds me of her green thumb, her gentle laugh, and my feeling of being in a safe haven when in her presence.
When I stroke the lavender or smell the lemon lilies or mountain mint, I recall my friend Diane and our spirited herb debates. If I’m not certain about one fact or another, I concede to Diane because she has a near-perfect memory. (She is a good friend even though she’s always right.)
When we moved to Frog Holler almost six years ago, our Buddhist friend, Jackie, brought us a housewarming gift of juniper to symbolize health and long life. She also gave me a shrub we call hearts-a-bustin’ (Euonymus americanus) and a tree called Grancy Graybeard Billie (Chionanthus virginicus), both of which remind me of nature walks in her woods in Alabama.
Along with the scented geraniums from Calera, the lungwort from Marcia and Jeremy, and the ferns from Margaret and Jorge, I treasure sarcococca from Justine, coreopsis from MaryBeth, a climbing version of ‘The Fairy’ rose from Goody, pink daisy mums from LuAnn, and milk-and-wine lilies from my sister-in-law, Sue.
Plants commemorating happy times and celebrations are wonderful garden mementos. My neighbor rooted a pink rosebud from her wedding bouquet fifty-four years ago and now has a thriving rosebush. Although she saved the petals from the bouquet for a potpourri, how fine it seems to have the growing plant as well.
Giving plants to friends is better than insurance. Years ago, I gave some seeds of my grandmother’s deep purple columbine to my friend Heather. I lost the columbine when I moved some years later, but Heather gave me some of the seeds grown from those I had given her, and the columbine has once again spread around the garden.
Soon after moving to Atlanta, I shared a clump of ‘Panorama’ monarda with Diane, and nineteen years later she returned the favor. Come to think of it, about ten years ago I divided and gave away some old-fashioned white pinks with split calyxes and a fragrance to die for. I must remember to ask the members of my herb group if someone is still growing it. Shared plants forge strong bonds.
CAPE BRETON ISLAND, Nova Scotia—As soon as we’ve finished the morning’s chores (shoveled manure, milked the cows, fed the chickens, given hay to the cows and horses) and dealt with the morning milk, I fire up the woodstove and start cooking breakfast. On Jigs’s eggs, I sprinkle a bit of my herb salt (lovage, chives, parsley, dill, spices, and salt); on mine, I try out the dried, pulverized leaves of one of the oreganos I have collected over the years. Eggs are a bland background to show off strong-flavored herbs such as oreganos.
“How can anyone eat a breakfast that smells like mothballs . . . absolutely wacko bananas!” This is Jigs’s inevitable response to another session of the great oregano trials that take place in our kitchen on winter mornings.
Over the years, I have grown and used a number of herbs called oregano and Greek oregano, all of which claim to possess the wonderfully sharp-spicy flavor that we associate with the word “oregano”. All of them, without exception, have proved to be false oreganos in the matter of flavor, although they do, indeed, belong to the genus Origanum.
I learned long ago from the herb authority Gertrude Foster that “oregano” is a flavor, not an herb. A number of herbs possess an oregano flavor by virtue of the presence of carvacrol in their leaves, among them Spanish thyme (Plectranthus amboinicus) and Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens), but I have always hankered after a true oregano, a hardy type I could grow and harvest for winter use on my homemade pizza.
I began my winter trials years ago with a “true oregano” that turned out to be wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare), a rangy plant that can grow to 3 feet with little pink flowers held by purple bracts—great for bees, nice for wreath making, worthless for flavoring. When I complained to a friend that I couldn’t find a hardy Greek oregano for cooking, she said she had just the one for me and gave me a clump of the same thing. I planted it by the beehive.
I have grown oreganos labeled O. heracleoticum, O. prismaticum, and O. hirtum, each advertised as Greek oregano, each producing identical plants with pink flowers held by purple bracts, showier than wild marjoram, early blooming, long flowering, and especially attractive to bees—but none with the taste I’m looking for.
I used to wonder whether our northern sun is just not strong or steady enough to produce flavorful leaves, but I’ve concluded that the oreganos I’ve tried contain too little carvacrol to produce the typical oregano flavor, no matter where they are grown.
I do hold out hope for one plant that I raised from seed last summer. It has small, nearly heart-shaped green leaves with a tangy taste. I potted a piece of it in the fall to grow on the windowsill, since true Greek oregano is only marginally hardy here. If it bears little white, rather than pink, flowers next season, I’ll know I have the pizza oregano I want.
There’s another oregano I like, the one whose camphorous carvacrol/thymol scent Jigs finds so distracting. It’s O. ramonense, an oregano from Israel’s Negev Desert. The smell of the sun and desert, with a few mothballs thrown in, permeates our kitchen when I crush a few of the dried leaves even though I gathered them several years ago.
Imagine a barren, forbidding landscape of gravelly, dry, cracked soil, of immense limestone and chalk cliffs and deep valleys. Imagine, in this setting, an oregano plant growing between the cracks of smooth-faced rocks. In the Negev Highlands, late February and early March are the best time to pick a supply of herbs for tea or cooking. The new stems, developed from the base of last year’s stems, bear relatively large leaves. Later, smaller branches will develop from these, bearing smaller summer leaves.
I’ve recently read about an oregano that’s supposed to have even better flavor than O. ramonense. The entire world population of O. isthmicum grows on the northwestern flanks of Gebel Halal, a mountain in the Sinai Desert. The plants bear tiny flowers that change from purple to cream and leaves with an especially delicate oregano flavor. I’d love to gather a bit for winter breakfasts, but there may be a limit to my search for oreganos.
—Jo Ann Gardner
NEWBERG, Oregon —Desperate times require desperate measures. The specter of El Niño looms over the Pacific Northwest. It has raised our ocean-water temperature and affected the maritime food chain. Last year, people were catching tuna and even a marlin—the first ever sighted—off our coasts.
Our weather now is downright bizarre—a warm, mild winter with record rainfall. Our plants aren’t dying from winter cold—they are drowning. Because I can’t bear to look at my lavender plants treading water in the field, I have decided to put all my new propagation stock into raised rows, as I did last year with the thymes.
What gave me this idea was the success and subsequent winterhardiness of a single plant of myrtle (Myrtus communis) that I uprooted four years ago when I needed more garden space. I left it at the end of the row, naked and exposed on top of the soil for everyone to see. (I did have others in the greenhouse.) Well, it took root and has flourished there ever since, and so here I am slowly, row by row, replacing my lavenders, which are grateful and thriving.
I’m relatively cozy in the greenhouse despite the dreary weather outside. I am still sowing seed for the coming season in square 200-cell plug trays. I like them because it is easy to track the number of seedlings and see how many seeds really come in a packet of seeds. The trays also allow me to transplant larger seedlings without disturbing the rest.
I’ve been experimenting with coir, a coconut by-product that comes in compressed bricks or bales. My children love to toss these in water and watch them expand; a brick expands to about 1/3 cubic foot, and a bale will fill a wheelbarrow. Coir retains moisture well and is ecologically correct, but I’m not sold on it yet. It seems good for fast-rooting perennials such as verbenas but holds too much moisture for slower-rooting herbs, such as lavenders, that like dry soil. I used 33 percent coir by volume in my propagation mix rather than the recommended 50 percent.
The only ray of sunshine here comes from my sweet violet cultivars, descended from Viola odorata, which are just beginning to bloom. It takes only a flower or two in the greenhouse to catch my attention as I walk down the aisle. Among my favorites is ‘Lianne,’ a compact grower covered with rich purple, highly scented flowers. Fragrant ‘Mrs. David Lloyd George,’ a semidouble, can be used as a cut flower, and its foliage remains a healthy green for the entire season. New to me is ‘Perle Rose’ with a deep pink coral center and white-tipped petals. There’s nothing like a violet flower and its sweet overwhelming fragrance to suggest the promise of spring and warmer, drier weather to come.
—Andy Van Hevelingen
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