Perpetual Patches: The Reliable, Reappearing Garden

| June/July 2007

You may be working too hard in your garden. Our advice? Relax and let nature do some of the work for you. Many of our favorite herbs reseed back into the garden year after year. It is convenient and natural to let them cast seed and germinate according to their biological clocks, which become more finely tuned to our specific climates with every new generation. It is unnecessary, as well as more work, to harvest the seed, store it indoors and then remember to replant in proper timing every year. If left alone, these plants perpetuate themselves completely on their own, without our interference. Our selections for perpetual patches are also successful because they don’t seem to be food that deer or rabbits are very fond of and, because they reseed prolifically, they produce plenty for everyone. The downside for some gardeners is that your garden will look as though it’s gone to seed during certain times of the year.

Herbs that reseed wildly and prolifically are Mother Nature’s version of efficient gardening. Learn how to manage these happy growers in your garden.

Perpetual herbs cast their seed around the garden at random, sometimes right in the middle of the garden paths; other times they might encroach the space of happily situated perennial plants. Every now and then, they plant themselves as they please in perfect spots we never considered, and we are content to leave them right where they want to grow. These volunteers pop up in huge numbers and require thinning. Some transplant well, others don’t. The thinnings and volunteers may be put to use as gourmet micro-greens, baby greens, green manure, simple medicines, mulch or compost ingredients. For their many benefits and uses, we are glad to have these perpetual patches of herbs naturalized in our gardens.

Knowing and Managing Perpetual Patches of Herbs

Arugula (Eruca sativa) is a member of the mustard family and the leaves have a spicy, nutty flavor, that sometimes are very pungent at the end of the season. The small, cream-colored flowers with purple veining are fragrant and edible. The leaves and flowers will definitely add zing to a salad, but the flavor is milder when it is cooked. Wild, rustic arugula (Diplotaxis tenuifolia) is sometimes sold, and we have also grown a variety called ‘Sylvetta’, a plant with yellow flowers and smaller leaves than common arugula. Arugula reseeds freely, and we pick it out by the roots when it grows out into paths and when the harlequin beetles begin to chew small holes in the leaves. Arugula persists in the garden virtually all year, although it dies back in freezing weather. Volunteer seedlings transplant easily.

Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) is best sown from midsummer to early spring planted right in the garden where it is to grow, as it does not transplant well. Young plants appear in March and bolt to seed by May in our USDA Hardiness Zone 6b and 7 gardens. The mild licorice-flavored leaves are good in salads and French cooking, especially in fines herbes blends and ravigote (a white sauce made with stock and seasoned with chopped chervil, chives, tarragon, shallots and capers). The flavor is reminiscent of a subtle cross between flat-leaf Italian parsley and tarragon. The leaves are really best used fresh, as they retain little of their sprightly flavor when dried. When used in cooking, fresh leaves are added just before serving.

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