Garden Profile: A Working Garden

Imposing turn-of-the-century row houses in the Haight district of San Francisco stand shoulder to shoulder, belly up to the street. Cable cars rumble past with a friendly clang. Big-city ambience wraps and shapes this neighborhood, and from the street there’s no clue that the ­facade of one of these homes hides a lush backyard view. When Jeanne Rose steps into her quiet, intimate herb garden, she is transported to another world, far from the urban bustle.

Rose, a well-known herbalist, teacher, and author and a longtime resident of the Bay area, walks out of her third-floor kitchen onto a porch that overlooks the long, narrow garden enclosed on all sides by hedges and fences. Tall buildings rise along the skyline to remind her of her beloved city, but the garden feels like a secluded, even secret place. She descends steps from the porch to enter the garden under a cascade of wisteria, a spectacle of bloom when we visited in early spring. We sat on a bench in the cool shadows of the wisteria to breathe the fragrance and take in the view; it’s one of Rose’s favorite late-afternoon resting spots.

The backyard, a mature garden that Rose first shaped nearly twenty-five years ago from a plot of weeds and junk, reflects her lifelong involvement in growing and using herbs for aromatherapy, medicine, cosmetics, cooking, teaching, and distillation. With a dozen books to her credit, some of them considered classics, she is one of the best-known herbalists in the United States. She conducts correspondence courses in herbal studies and aromatherapy out of her home, thus blending her personal and professional lives in both her home and her garden. “This is a working garden,” she says. “Everything is usable here. I don’t really even consider myself a gardener. These are the tools for my work.”

The garden’s usefulness doesn’t lessen the enjoyment Rose gets from it. She changes plants or rearranges the layout every few years, but the main structure settled into place long ago. Herbal trees and shrubs, coaxed to massive size in this mild climate, frame the plantings. Rose points to a large, gnarled lemon verbena tree along one side and explains that it began in a pot in 1967 when she lived in an apartment a block away. When she moved into her house in 1970, she brought all her potted herbs with her, planted them in the ground, and now has a half-dozen still growing, including the mature lemon verbena.

As might be expected of someone with her name, roses spill out from all sides–ten or twelve different varieties including some climbers that reach towering heights. Eglantine, musk, damask, apothecary, and moss roses compete for space; when they are in flower, they eclipse nearly everything else in this exuberant garden.

Midway up the right side of the garden, a peppermint geranium snakes perhaps 15 feet up a wintersweet tree. Lilac, honeysuckle, magnolia, witch hazel, ginger, and ginkgo command a presence along the left edge, each with its season of flower. A fuchsia has attached itself charmingly to a sweet gum, or liquidambar, tree, and a huge eucalyptus from a neighbor’s yard leans chummily into Rose’s space. A great stalk of mullein stands sentry near the front of the garden. Scattered throughout, large clumps of wormwood and other artemisias, rosemary, lavender, and rose-scented geraniums hold their ground. A stately angelica, considered a biennial in harsher climates, has bloomed and produced seed three years in a row on the same stalks.

Rose has found ways to use all the available space in her garden. Pots filled with herbs and flowers hang from tree branches, sit on borders or steps, and cover every bare spot on the ground. Hops and other vines grow up the fences and the house in search of light. Rose can smell the night-blooming jasmine from her bed on the fourth floor; the vine has reached about 40 feet in height. Culinary herbs scramble out the top of a row of clay drainage tiles standing on end along one bed near the front of the garden. A shady corner is home to a collection of medicinal ferns. One small plot is what she calls her “meadow”, and its flowers change from year to year; this summer it’s filled with forget-me-nots and calendula. The intensive plantings and the garden’s layers give it depth, density, and texture.

It is a place of constant change. Although the climate lacks the seasonal extremes seen in other parts of the country, Jeanne Rose reads the seasons in the shifting colors of her garden. She consults her garden journal, which she has kept for years, to describe the tableaux of color.

In spring, the garden is a blue-­purple room, beginning with the rosemary and violets bursting into bloom and followed by the flowers of wisteria and lilac. As summer heats up, it gradually takes on warmer hues of red, purple, and pink from the lavenders, honeysuckles, and the first flush of roses. In autumn, the effect shifts to a glaze of gold and bronze accented with white–from the yellow leaves of ginkgo, the abundant white and yellow flowers of some aged gingers, the flat white flower heads of Queen-Anne’s-lace–and finally to brown as the growing season winds down. Because almost all of the plants are deciduous, the garden fades away to nothing in winter. The witch hazel blooms in January, so there’s still life to be found here, but the rest of the garden is bare bones, if only briefly. “I like that,” Rose says. “It gives me seasons.”

Garden Personality

One of the most pleasant and restful aspects of Rose’s garden is its sound effects. Feeders around the yard attract many birds, and a cheerful chirping adds a musical background to the scenery. Wind chimes hanging on the porch produce a constant tinkle. Running water gurgles gently in several water gardens and fountains in barrels and other containers. The sounds enhance the sensory experience of the garden.

Rose has personalized the garden with favorite objects and mementos, sometimes integrating them unobtrusively into the landscape and other times giving them a place of prominence. A small statue of Saint Francis, for whom the city of San Francisco was named, stands along a fence; a piece of driftwood in an interesting shape provides a background; even her son’s old rusted toy trucks find a place here. These found objects make the garden a place of discovery for visitors.

A narrow pathway of brick and stone curves through the garden, then encircles a recently planted bed of about a dozen different lavender species and varieties. At the center of the bed is a large “gazing globe”. A mulch of white rock reflects the sun into the interior of the plants to ward off the powdery mildew to which lavenders are susceptible. Oyster shells laid face up on the surface of the soil serve the same purpose in other areas; the shiny inner shells bounce the light back up to the leaves, and collecting them gives Rose an excuse to eat more oysters.

The lavender bed represents another of Rose’s interests: she wants to persuade California orchardists and winemakers to interplant lavender with their oranges and grapes. A climate in which wine grapes and citrus thrive suits lavenders extremely well. Rose envisions, as an alternative to the monocultures that predominate in much of the California landscape, a large lavender crop grown for its dried flowers and for distillation of its essential oil. Several small farmers and large wineries have shown interest in the idea, she says.

A huge mural in bright colors on the rear wall of the house that is visible from the garden contributes a funky sixties feel to the yard. A narrow alley, about 3 feet wide, separates Rose’s house from the one next door, and on the neighbor’s wall outside all her side windows she had an artist paint a 30-foot-high dragon. From inside the house, each window frames a different view of the beast, and the effect is whimsical. The dragon’s head peeks into the kitchen.

A Search For Sun

Rose’s garden boasts not one, but four sundials, one for each season. They are situated in different places to catch the sun from whichever path it is taking across the sky. The sundials point up one of the challenges of big-city gardening: a paucity of sunlight. In the decades that she has lived in the house, Rose has watched a large building go up behind the yard on the south side, she has seen her neighbor’s hedge to the southwest grow to 20 feet high, and her own trees have reached maturity. The result has been less and less sunlight shining into the yard. (See “Urban Herbal Landscapes” on page 34 for more on the challenges of herb gardening in the city.)

“When you live in the city, you can’t control your environment,” Rose says. “You learn to just control it as much as you can. You have to work within the confines of what people do around you.” Her laissez-faire approach notwithstanding, Rose occasionally suffers “sun-grief” when she contemplates her neighbor’s massive but still growing eucalyptus tree and the 20-foot hedge, which in recent years have cut the amount of sunlight reaching the yard in half.

Most of the yard is now in dappled light to deep shade. Some of the sun-loving plants here received plenty of light when they were first planted years ago, enabling them to reach mature size and then adapt to the diminishing light or stretch higher to find the sun. “Or they die. If they can’t manage, I’m not going to baby them. Every year I plant various things, and whatever grows I allow to grow,” Rose says.

She has little luck with basils and tarragon in the garden, so Rose grows them in a mini-greenhouse on the porch above the near end of the garden. In the summertime, one small spot toward the back of the yard gets full sun, so that’s where the main culinary herb garden goes. In the winter, the sunny spot moves closer to the house, and the culinary garden follows. Planting many herbs in containers also allows Rose to move them around to the sunniest spots as they change throughout the year.

Maintenance of the garden is minimal, Rose says. In fact, because of declining health from the residual effects of a bronchial parasite she picked up in 1985 in Bali, heavy garden work is out of the question for her. Twice a year, she hires a helper to do general cleanup. The garden has been organic since 1970, and the soil is so rich that fertilizer is rarely needed. When she cuts back the comfrey, Rose adds the leaves back into the soil; twice in twenty-four years, she has added bat guano and earthworm castings. Because there’s no lawn, Rose has no mowing to do nor creeping grass rhizomes to cope with. The only weeds are a few plants that tend to get out of control if not checked. To hear Rose talk, one might think that this garden is pure enjoyment.

A Workplace

Jeanne Rose puts the garden to work for her. Utility is what earns most of these plants their place here. The garden yields medicinal treatments for herself and her family, including one college-age son who still lives with her. She makes cough syrups, light sleep aids, and relaxing teas to counteract jet lag from a busy travel schedule. Herbs are Rose’s life’s work, and the garden is her workplace.

The dining room is her “stillroom”. Several steam distillers, including a demonstration brandy still, are set up there; she also has a homemade still that she fashioned from a teapot whose spout leads to a condensing coil. Rose doesn’t produce essential oils–extracting more than a few drops of the oil would require far more plants than she could grow in her backyard–but instead uses the hydrosol, a by-product of distillation that contains oil molecules as well as water-soluble plant components. In the ­essential oil industry, the hydrosol is generally discarded, yet it has gentle therapeutic effects with less potential for irritation than some essential oils. Witch hazel extract and rosewater are examples of hydrosols.

Rose’s large harvests of lavender, lemon verbena, and lemon balm produce hydrosols for cosmetic as well as therapeutic applications. She picks enough lemon balm from her garden to make five to ten liters of hydrosol a year; she spritzes it in her face to refresh her skin in summer, sprays it down her throat to combat infections, and recommends it to soothe sensitive or aging skin. Lavender is used externally for various skin conditions. A spray of lemon verbena hydrosol in the air keeps Rose alert on long driving trips, but she drinks tea made from the leaves for an opposite effect, as a sleep aid that works as well as valerian but tastes better. She finds both lemon balm and rose geranium sprays to be an effective treatment for hot flashes. Her tree wormwood (Artemisia arborescens) gives up a strong and interestingly dark-indigo-colored hydrosol that Rose uses for injuries and severe skin problems.

In addition to the extracts that she makes herself, Rose also buys essential oils for aromatherapy, which is the subject of her latest book. She has an extensive collection of oils, some of them dating back to 1967, when she first began to use essential oils. Rose uncaps a bottle of patchouli oil from the early seventies; its fragrance is not only still strong, but smoother and mellower than that of a bottle purchased recently. Having this stockpile of oils lets Rose compare quality over time, and she does the same with dried herbs and resins, which she stores along one wall in her basement, some jars dusty with age but still exuding a hint of fragrance when opened. She still has some of the first potpourris that she ever made.

Rose has a fascination with the historical aspects of herbalism. The books in her library range from some rare first editions and historical references–Gerard, Dioscorides, Cul­peper, Leyel–to modern textbooks on plant identification and copies of her own books. All of the books she has written, including the first one in 1969, Herbs & Things, are still in print. They document the role Rose herself has played in the evolution of modern herbalism.

From 1972 to 1981, Rose had a home-based herbal cosmetics business, selling products that came largely from her own garden. Much of her knowledge of medicinal herbs was harvested there as well. The rose-hip jelly she puts on a morning muffin, the absinthe or ginkgo liqueur she may sip in the evening all started here. Nearly all aspects of her life are intertwined with herbs and with her garden.

Kathleen Halloran is associate editor of The Herb Companion and a “working gardener” in her own right.

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