Mother Earth Living

So Many Herbs, so Little Space

My bronze fennel is waving its green-gold hands in the air above my lavender bed. A surf of pastel yarrow surges at its feet. Across the way, in my Xeriscape bed, penstemons, gaura, false indigo, and poppy mallow bask complacently in the sun’s wide glare. Behind them looms ‘Comte de Chambord’, a Portland-China rose introduced in 1860 that hugely resents the dry, alkaline site into which I have placed it. Several times a year, it lobs a few dense rose-pink tennis balls of blossom. They never quite open, thanks to the thrips, so I open them by hand to release their astonishing scent. Nearby, my tall orange pot marigolds crane their necks like partygoers leaning over a balustrade to watch a spectacle in the street.

This is my cottage garden, a more or less rustic garden in which edibles, ornamentals, and a maximum of toads are arranged, with affection but no show of wealth, near my dwelling.

Herbs–aromatic, culinary, or medicinal plants not ordinarily grown as food staples–have a definite place in cottage gardens, not only for their usefulness but also for their history as cultivated plants. For a picture of the earliest known cottage gardens, turn to Thomas Tusser’s One Hundred Good Points of Husbandry. In this practical farming manual in bad verse, first published in England in 1557, Tusser recommends plants for the farmer’s wife to grow in her personal garden. Several are mentioned repeatedly: roses, sweet violets, fennel, and mints. The roses would have been Rosa alba, R. canina, R. damascena, R. gallica, and/or R. rubiginosa (eglantine); tea roses had not yet been imported from the East, and the hybrid perpetuals had not yet been developed. In the same century, relying on Tusser’s guide, Mary Barton, a Kentish farmer’s wife, was starting her own cottage garden. Records show that it included borage, chamomile, chervil, chives, coriander, cumin, dill, eyebright, fennel, flax, foxgloves, hops, marjoram, mints, parsley, pennyroyal, poppies, pot marigold, primroses, purslane, roses, rue, sage, savory, thyme, and violets, as well as vegetables, fruit trees, and bramble fruits. All the plants were useful in medicine, cosmetics, or cooking. Although they were most likely chosen for their utility rather than their looks, many obviously were also pretty, something garden historians seem to forget.

Cottage Gardens in the New World

Many European cottage garden plants crossed the Atlantic with the earliest European invaders of the New World or were imported soon afterward. By 1672, according to John ­Josselyn in his New England’s Rarities ­Discovered, one might find asparagus, carnations, hollyhocks, honesty, and roses growing alongside white-flowered comfrey, coriander, dill, elecampane, “featherfew” (feverfew, Tanacetum parthenium), santolina, pennyroyal, smallage (Apium graveolens, the wild precursor to celery), and spearmint. Ten years later, European colonists in South Carolina were growing carnations, lilies, roses, and the then fabulously fashionable tulips. In the North American Southwest, the Spanish cultivated their apricots, grapevines, lemons, lilacs, limes, oranges, peaches, plums, and roses. In the Deep South, African slaves tended edibles and medicinals they had known at home: bananas, millet, okra, rice, sorghum, yams, pomegranates, wormseed (epazote, Chenopodium ambrosioides), and chinaberry (Melia azederach).

The cottage garden remained basically a subsistence garden until the Industrial Revolution of the 1700s began replacing the muscle power of humans and domestic animals with that of machines. As country people flooded the cities seeking work in the new factories, a nostalgia for the country ways they had left behind arose in the new urbanites and their descendants. Books and periodicals on country life and home gardening proliferated on both sides of the Atlantic. Societies were formed to search out and cultivate old flowers that had become scarce. All these activities set the stage for the revival of cottage gardening, with a heavy emphasis on planting herbs, in the early twentieth century. This interest was marked by the publication of Lady Rosalind Northcote’s Book of Herbs in 1902 and Louise Beebe Wilder’s treasure trove of cottage gardening lore, The Fragrant Path, in 1932. Cottage gardening had come to stay.

Chaos and Borders

The fun of cottage gardening is that you can grow anything you like as long as you really like it; there is no place in the cottage garden for duty plants. The kinds of plants that end up in cottage gardens tend to fill all the available space very quickly, spilling into paths or over fences; you really need strictly maintained edging to contain and provide contrast with the vegetal exuberance.

Of course, there will come a time when the chaos in your little paradise gets so out of hand that tendrils start knocking at the doors and windows. This usually happens to me by the end of August or the beginning of September. And because into every cottage garden a little rein must fall, I go around my plantings with a very sharp pair of pruners and snip off all browning, mildewing, or dead leaves, branches, and flowers. I reserve severe pruning of the perennials and shrubs for the early spring, because I don’t want to force new growth prematurely only to have Jack Frost blacken it.

If any of my small plants looks dead, I gingerly tug at it; if it comes out ­easily, I throw it out, but if it resists significantly, I leave it in; many things that look dead will sprout from the roots the next spring. I do not hesitate to throw out or give away plants I have not enjoyed. If a plant was poorly sited, I prepare a more appropriate site for it and move it immediately or mark it with a stake for transplanting in the spring. Then I rake up and compost every bit of plant debris. Back indoors, exultant from a good day or week or month’s work, I promptly send away for more nursery catalogs so I can start the whole cycle again next year.

In the pinks

The backbone of my cottage garden comprises plants that have been considered medicinal or culinary herbs for centuries. None is particularly rare: cottage gardens are by and large gardens of the ordinary. When I moved in ten years ago, the first herb I planted in my loamless clay Santa Fe yard was lavender. Today, the bushes are monsters, feeding bees and potpourris for miles around. I grow mostly Lavandula angustifolia ‘Munstead’ and ‘Hidcote’ (though I have my eye on long-blooming ‘Sharon Roberts’), but if I lived in Zone 8, I would jump for L. dentata ‘Candicans’, whose lovely toothed silver foliage is as sweetly scented as the flowers of ‘Munstead’.

I next planted pinks (offspring of Dianthus plumarius). They are not only attractive in flower (many are deliciously clove scented), but their green, gray-green, or blue-green foliage remains decorative (as does that of lavender) long after their blossoms have withered. ‘Danielle Marie’, my favorite, is a spectacular double salmon-coral. ‘Rose de Mai’, a long bloomer introduced to commerce in the nineteenth century, bears ­strongly perfumed double creamy mauve ­flowers from May to July. ‘Ursula Le Grove’, which dates from the eighteenth century, bears single pure white blossoms marked and centered dark maroon; the fragrance will knock your socks off.

The longest-blooming garden pinks are the Allwood hybrids (Dianthus Yallwoodii), crosses of the carnation D. caryophyllu and D. plumarius. They are nicely scented, stand about 12 inches tall when in bloom, are great for cutting, make satisfying blue-green bushlets, and are hardy in Zones 5 through 9 (in the colder parts of Zone 5, protect them from winter winds with loosely piled evergreen boughs).

Oranges and golds

I find bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpurascens’) so endearing that I let it seed itself here and there throughout my garden, a risky business because once it gets its taproot down, it is difficult to eradicate. In spring, it sends up puffs of dark smoke that ­expand by midsummer into cool brown clouds, inexpressibly comforting to the glare-weary gaze and beautiful against other Mediterranean herbs, which tend toward the silver and gray-green. The umbels, yellowish brown to start with, mature to rich old gold. The fully ­double, quilled, Crayola orange blossoms of the Radio strain of Calendula ­officinalis look great against those clouds of smoke.

I could not do without yarrows. My front yard, a seldom watered Xeriscape, is dominated by five big clumps of a tall, brilliant yellow-flowered yarrow that may be Achillea filipendulina ‘Coronation Gold’–I am not certain because I didn’t plant them; three of the clumps were here whens I moved in, and two more have appeared since. They bloom for months in the summer, and if I deadhead them, they bloom a second time lower down before frost. In my backyard, which is threaded with mulched soaker hoses, I grow lavender and pale yellow selections from the Achillea seed strain Summer Pastels. They need more water than their larger cousins do in front but not much more, and the blossoms (though they fade in potpourri) are marvelous for cutting.

The Mexicans

I had never heard of agastaches before I moved to Santa Fe. They are burdened with the common name of Mexican hyssop though they neither look nor smell like the common herb hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis). Agastache cana (Zones 5 through 10) grows 2 to 3 feet tall on slender stems and has thin gray-green leaves that smell like a combination of bubblegum and camphor, and dusty dark pink to rose-purple flower spikes. Built along the same lines, A. barberi and its cultivars ‘Firebird’ and ‘Tutti-Frutti’ are all hardy to Zone 6, the first blooming at 2 feet tall in light rose-magenta, the second at 2 to 6 feet in a gorgeous copper-orange, and the third at the same height in raspberry. They look splendid together and make unusual, long-lasting potpourri but need good drainage.

The frost-tender Mexican sages are legion; I have just begun to explore them. My gentian sage (Salvia patens) opens its late-summer flowers in a half barrel. Its roughly triangular, toothed, somewhat hairy green leaves adorn a lush, somewhat sage-scented, semisprawling bush about 3 feet tall by 2 feet wide. The inflorescences are hoplike bracted spikes that unfurl, revealing a series of buds that enlarge and open, lowest first, into narrow, two-lipped, 2-inch-long blossoms of a startling, intense indigo-violet. These are much bigger than those of garden sage, and they last a long time in the vase, eventually dropping one by one like exhausted nightjars. I very much wish to try the sky-blue-flowered cultivar ‘Cambridge Blue’, too. S. patens is hardy only in Zones 8 through 10, but its large, tuberous root may be dug up in the fall and stored in sand in the cellar until spring. Seeds started indoors in spring will bloom in late summer of the same year.

A world so full

I am running out of space again, here as in my garden, and there are so many plants I haven’t even mentioned: my antique hyacinths, my penstemons, my patch of dame’s rocket, the peach tree the birds planted, the gooseberry bush that never bears, my flowering tobacco (Nicotiana alata), my mulleins, my wallflowers. I haven’t touted my sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana), the best of all tisane herbs, or my utterly pest- and disease-free Rosa alba ‘Semiplena’, the ancient semidouble form of the White Rose of York. (Mine is as big as a Volkswagen after only four years, densely blue-green, smothered with pure white, gold-bossed, sweetly scented spring blossoms and big red winter hips.) And what about my Hall’s honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica ‘Halliana’), whose gold-and-white blossoms perfume my arbor and the drainpipe beside my bedroom window?

The trouble is, there are so many treasures from which cottagers may stock their gardens. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, “The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Rand B. Lee is founder and president of the North American Cottage Garden Society and the North American Dianthus ­Society. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his blind husky-mix, Moon Pie.


Canyon Creek Nursery, 3527 Dry Creek Rd., Oroville, CA 95965; (530) 533-2166; catalog $2.

Flower Scent Gardens, 14820 Moine Rd., Doylestown, OH 44230-9744; (330) 658-5946; catalog $2.

Forestfarm, 990 Tetherow Rd., Williams, OR 97544-9599; (541) 846-7269; catalog $4.

Goodwin Creek Gardens, PO Box 83, Williams, OR 97544-0083; (541) 846-7357; catalog $1.

Joy Creek Nursery, 20300 N.W. Watson Rd., Scappoose, OR 97056; (503) 543-7474; catalog $2.

The Roseraie at Bayfields, PO Box R, Waldoboro, ME 04572-0919; (207) 832-6330; catalog free with 55-cent stamp.

Well-Sweep Herb Farm, 205 Mt. Bethel Rd., Port Murray, NJ 07865; (908) 852-5390; catalog $2.

  • Published on Dec 1, 1999
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