Notes from Regional Herb Gardeners
LANSING, NEW YORK—April on the shores of Lake Cayuga is an unpredictable, sometimes even treacherous month. Either it’s blowing and snowing or the primroses are melting as they emerge into bright sun that has sent temperatures into the eighties. Nevertheless, this is the time of year when the sight of the UPS truck turning into the driveway invariably means boxes of new plants for me—more fun than Christmas!
I always ask to have plants delivered in early April so that I can pot them up and give them a chance to recuperate from their trip and pull themselves together before being subjected to the rigors of life in the garden. Hardening off is a gradual process. On a mild day, I set the plants out on a shady porch next to the house, taking them in at night. Over the next eight to ten days, I get them used to the sun and wind, and then if they look sturdy enough, I set them into the garden.
Does this procedure of mine seem exaggeratedly maternal? Perhaps it would have been so ten or fifteen years ago, but times have changed and so has the plant business. When I ran my own little nursery here some years ago, I ordered some of my plants from other growers. During the first years, I received splendid plants dug from the fields in spring. True, if the digging conditions in Michigan, Ohio, or wherever weren’t right, my orders would be delivered late, but I could live with that. Then the growers switched to digging many of their plants in the fall and keeping them in cold storage for shipment in spring. Plants began to arrive on time, but they often looked like candidates for the intensive care unit.
Not all mail-order plants have been held in cold storage, of course. Some of them come from greenhouses, often in the plastic pots they were grown in. These are usually in much better shape than those that come bare root from storage. But I repot and slowly harden off even these potted plants because they have led a sheltered life and need time to adjust. This is especially true of those that come in tiny six-packs, their roots all coiled round and round. I untangle them carefully and tuck the plants into larger pots, giving them room to stretch out into real soil and compost. If they are very small and slow to take hold, I move them into holding beds for the first summer and into the border only the following year. In the holding beds, they have more room to grow strong and tough—qualities necessary for survival in my border, where competition is fierce and no holds are barred. I do my best to referee, but I don’t always manage to protect the weaklings.
But back to mail-order plants. The packing method is crucial to the way they arrive, but not all nurseries seem to realize this. One expensive northwestern vendor of alpines sends his precious little gems bare root, swathed in what appears to be wet facial tissue, then in cellophane wrap. The result is that one receives wads of pale mush that one can only assume used to be plants. I won’t even allow myself to look at his enticing catalog anymore for fear of succumbing yet again to temptation, only to be disappointed.
Many growers wrap paper firmly around the root ball and secure it with an elastic band, then jam all the plants into a box shoulder to shoulder, heads up, and cover them with those horrid styrofoam peanuts. The styrofoam protects the plants, but it’s the devil to deal with when you remove the plants from the carton.
I get young shrubs and trees from a wonderful nursery whose personnel have developed packing to a fine art. Inside the large carton, each bush or small tree has its own individual carton in which it is held upright so securely that not a leaf is bent during shipment. It takes me half an hour to work my way in and release all my plants, but I don’t mind the time. I wish that nursery would give all the other ones packing lessons.
In the intervals between the arrival of UPS trucks, I’m happily repotting my indoor herbs for their move to the new little terrace garden by the back porch. The south side of our otherwise respectable-looking Victorian house has always looked decidedly disreputable. Lots of weeds and a ratty old cold frame kept company with an ancient wisteria which, lacking guidance, strangled itself and everything else within reach, climbed into the bedroom and parlor around the edges of the screens, and raced around the outside of the house to root and renew itself among the shrubs. A couple of winters ago, I attacked it with mattock and saw, and replaced it with amenable dwarf spireas and lavender—a great relief. Then my oldest daughter laid down a pretty stone walkway while my second daughter built a small stone terrace by the porch steps in a former weed patch. She also tore out the cold frame, which I replaced with shrubs. The porch got new railings, and now we really are quite gentrified. But the best part of all this refurbishing is that I finally have an herb garden that is close to the kitchen, so I no longer have to lope out to the garden while I’m in the midst of cooking. On the terrace stand clay pots, large and small, containing rosemary, Italian parsley, Greek oregano, thyme, chives, sweet marjoram, and mint. And since garlic chives seed themselves into all the crevices around the porch steps, I have an ample supply of the culinary herbs I use most. In addition to these good things, there are pots of jasmine, geraniums, some dear little campanulas, and a huge crenellated lavender called Goodwin Creek Grey (a cultivar of Lavandula ¥ heterophylla) with felty, almost white leaves and large, dark purple flowers. Because I’m not sure whether it’s hardy, I take it in with me for the winter.
DENVER, COLORADO—I had no idea making a silver garden would be so much fun. I started it last spring, and rather than try to emulate the famous white garden at Sissinghurst, I decided to make a garden to please myself.
I wanted my 8-by-60-foot border to be at its best when viewed at twilight, but I’ve since found that it’s enjoyable at all hours of the day, even when the street lamps from the alley shine on it. This spring, I’m evaluating the evening performances of the plants I put in last year.
My intention was to include only plants with silver-gray leaves or white flowers, but I’ve bent that rule a little to allow blue or variegated leaves, as well as some plants that otherwise fit the requirements but flower in the “wrong” color. For example, the silver-mottled leaves of milk thistle (Silybum marianum) are a great asset, but its flowers are lavender. Rules are meant to be broken.
Many herbs fit into the silver-and-white theme. As many of them have fine-textured leaves or flowers, they also serve as a foil for bolder plants. I use two varieties of thyme, one with white flowers and the other with variegated leaves. Horehound fits in perfectly. Lamb’s-ears is a natural, and so is partridge feather (Tanacetum densum ‘Amani’). Its relative T. niveum has won my heart with its tiny white daisies smothering 2-foot mounds of gray foliage. Several artemisias, such as Powis Castle and A. stellerana ‘Silver Brocade’, are shoo-ins for a silver garden. It always delights me to put an old favorite in a new setting. I learn to appreciate its virtues all over again.
Feverfew is another obvious candidate for the silver-white garden. I know many gardeners who think it’s an old weed, but I’ve never lost my affection for it. Who could have the heart to hate a plant that gives so much for so little care? I just deadhead it to prevent inundation by seedlings of “feverplenty”.
I found a spot for garlic, which looks surprisingly distinguished among the white tree peony and lilies. Other alliums, including Allium album and A. senescens, are valuable for their round umbels. White thrift (Armeria maritima) echoes their pompons and grassy leaves at the edge of the border.
It’s interesting to grow white-flowered forms of common plants, such as rose campion, nigella, cleome, veronica, iris, obedient plant, and gas plant. Other white favorites that I’ve grown include valerian, sweet alyssum, boltonia, silene, and chamomile.
It’s the oddballs, however, that really intrigue me, like the sea hollies with their steely look. I grow four of them: Eryngium planum, E. bourgatii, E. giganteum, and E. alpinum. Sea kale (Crambe maritima) and giant sea kale (C. cordifolia), which contrast so dramatically with all the fine-textured plants, are not for the timid. Nor are the breathtaking giant white flowers of angel’s-trumpet (Datura inoxia). Clumps of fine-textured blue fescue and furry-leaved silver clary (Salvia argentea) skirt the base of this plant.
My silver border still has a long way to go. When I first started it, I worried about finding enough different kinds of plants to fill the bed. Now I need to do some serious editing to make room for all the seedlings of new varieties that need to get in the ground. It’s definitely a work in progress. I’ll see the results a few months from now—at twilight.
NEWBERG, OREGON—With my greenhouse propagation bed full of various herb seed trays, I am planning my strategy against pests. Last year, I engaged in a losing battle against mice, who were eating a lot of expensive seed. I assumed I had field mice—you know, the “country” mice who would be relatively slow thinkers and would jump at the chance to eat a nice chunk of cheddar cheese. I even placed it on a little mouse table. Did they spring my mousetrap? No! I was dealing with “streetwise” mice who were so savvy they might have been bred in a laboratory. Not only did they shun the various baits—cheese (two kinds), peanut butter, and bacon fat—but they managed daily to circumvent a virtual labyrinth of nine strategically placed mousetraps to get to my delicious herb seed. I finally had to resort to a higher order along the food chain and bring in Maggie, the family dog, to ferret them out. Unfortunately, it was at some cost to rows of neatly potted plants that were trampled in the ensuing chase. This year, I hope to monitor the greenhouse better and earlier—even if it means letting the dog in for an olfactory inspection more regularly.
Last spring was really wet, and I noticed many more sowbugs than usual. My bug book stated that they are of no concern as they feed primarily on decaying organic matter. Well, let me say that when all the dead matter is gone, they are still hungry and will move on to living, healthy feeder roots. Under flats, I came across great multitudes that scurried away with the disturbance. I noticed they had even carved out short caverns in the drainage holes of one-gallon pots to feed on the root hairs. This year, I hope to keep their numbers down with better sanitation in the greenhouse and the routine use of a slug bait that also kills sowbugs.
Enough talk of pests and pestilence—spring has arrived! Numerous species of crocus and miniature daffodils have pushed their way through my evergreen ground covers of creeping thymes and are in full bloom. I like to use thyme varieties such as Russetings, Moss, Mayfair, and Bressingham that will fill in nicely and yet withstand light foot traffic, although I am not so sure how “light” a foot my two children have when they run gleefully back and forth to smell the emerging flowers. On a quest to sniff some yellow-trumpeted daffodil, they unknowingly crush the thymes, releasing the more subtle herbal scents. I am amazed that at four and two, my children already recognize the fragrant foliage of Corsican mint, Roman chamomile, and lemon verbena. The most endearing moment to me is when they pluck sweet violet flowers, hold them up to their little noses, and inhale deeply. They immediately want to share the experience with me.
I have an herb I’m eager to share, a member of the mint family that has long been listed in the trade but is little grown here in the Pacific Northwest. It’s Cumberland rosemary (Conradina verticillata), a threatened native species of the Cumberland Mountains in Kentucky and eastern Tennessee that grows along sandy riverbanks. Its minty, needlelike foliage very much resembles that of rosemary, but it grows much shorter, about 15 inches tall and as wide. Initially, I thought it would be tender and kept it in the greenhouse, but I have since read that it may be hardy to –20°F. In any case, the pink-lavender flowers that cover the plant at the end of May are reason enough for growing it. This year, I shall plant one outside to test its winter hardiness in this area.
—Andy Van Hevelingen
WOLFTOWN, VIRGINIA—In November 1993, I took a three-week herb trip to New Zealand with twenty-three other herb aficionados and a handful of spouses. When I returned, the December 1993/January 1994 issue of The Herb Companion was waiting for me. Kathleen Halloran’s delightful “Sleep Pillows” article reminded me of an inspiring talk that Dorothy Hall, a retired Australian naturopath, gave at the banquet of the New Zealand Herb Federation’s biennial convention held in Nelson, South Island.
Hall discussed several of Halloran’s snooze herbs as well as a few others, but her presentation, which displayed humor, insight, knowledge, and well-honed medicinal skills, offered a new twist on an old subject. She began by asking the audience what they thought was the cause of most illnesses. Answers ranged from “the environment” to “beer”. When the laughter died down, Hall pointed out that the prime cause of illness was—she paused for effect—other people. The phrase “You make me sick” means just what it says. The solution, she suggested, is greater tolerance for our differences.
In her practice, she had observed how people respond to people-related stress, and in treating them, she learned to link different personality types to specific herbal nervines, or relaxants. As she described various characters, she had us nodding in agreement.
A chamomile person, said Hall, is one who lives every day twice—the first time while actually living it, the second time when regurgitating every stressful moment on arriving home. The appropriate treatment for this person is, of course, a cup of chamomile tea.
A valerian person comes home from work with every muscle tightly knotted. The spouse who asks, “How did it go today?” gets a grumble and a glare in reply. A cup of valerian tea can help this person relax, maybe doze off, then wake refreshed and more pleasant.
The hops person also lives every day twice, but the first time is in advance, said Hall. Every moment is planned, every exigency accounted for, every contingency covered. When the day doesn’t unfold as planned, this type of person will arrive home completely unhinged. Hops will be his or her cup of tea.
A skullcap person might be skinny from forgetting to eat and drinking black coffee all day. The adrenaline overload from such a diet may cause shaking or quivering, but a cup of skullcap tea can be soothing.
Finally, Hall described the St.-John’s-wort person: the one who is forever leaping up to close or open a window, putting on a sweater and then taking it off a few minutes later, and feeling hot and cold by turn. The St.-John’s-wort personality is sensually alert and feels life intensely. For such a person, Hall suggests rubbing St.-John’s-wort oil on the pulses and the back of the neck.
I heard the whispers as the audience identified with these vignettes: “That’s me.” “I work with someone just like that.”
I use herbs for relaxants when I need them. On the seventeen-hour nonstop flight across the Pacific to New Zealand (only eleven hours home, thanks to favorable trade winds), I took valerian capsules to enable me to catch some sleep. We were squeezed together as though in a cattle car, but I slept and awoke rested and clearheaded. Each night during the three-week journey through the North and South Islands, I brewed a cup of chamomile tea to calm my nerves excited by the day’s wonderful experiences.
Herbal nervines and sedatives vary in their properties and actions, but they can be effective and safe when used appropriately. I rely on the expertise of herbalists I respect.
My trip to New Zealand was filled with herbal wonders. I came back renewed in spirit and eager to talk about what I learned.
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