NOTES FROM REGIONAL HERB GARDENERS

By Staff
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ODE TO A GARDEN CLASSIC

Jo Ann Gardner

WESTPORT, New York — Margaret E. Brownlow wrote the now-classic
Herbs & The Fragrant Garden. It was published in 1957 by the
Herb Farm in Kent, England, with which she had been associated
since at least the 1930s. My husband Jigs discovered the book on an
English booklist shortly after its publication. He was interested
in growing herbs but knew very little about them and at the time
there wasn’t much information available in our part of the world
(seeds had to be ordered from Thompson & Morgan in England, not
New Jersey!). Clothbound and illustrated with the author’s own
colored line drawings, the book was invaluable, and remains so for
me today. In it is everything an herb lover would want to know,
from herb lore and history to practical information on garden
design, growing, harvesting and using herbs. There is, besides, the
author’s great interest in fragrance, which in the English climate
could be enjoyed year-round outdoors.

In an early chapter she lists the fragrant plants that bloom
from January to the following December — including not only herbs,
but scented bulbs, perennials, shrubs and vines. “It is entirely
appropriate,” she wrote, “that scented plants and the herb garden
should be considered together.” Later, in the portrait section, she
grouped aromatic shrubs together and gave detailed information on
each plant’s special scent, its place in the garden and tips for
propagation. This perspective broadens “the herb garden” to include
a variety of plants of differing habits, colors and forms.

Who but Margaret Brownlow would consider flowering raspberry’s
place in the herb garden? I am a devotee of this rangy native shrub
(Rubus odoratus). Our first summer in the Adirondacks I discovered
that although our property was virtually devoid of flowering
plants, a single blooming flowering raspberry lured hummingbirds to
our woodsy backyard.

The author tells us she wrote the book because she was tired of
answering questions about an herb’s identity or use. It became
impossible to answer every query on the subject, so she set about
filling the vacuum that existed then for contemporary works on
herbs. Brownlow’s experiences at the Herb Farm (a commercial
venture where herbs were planted and harvested on a relatively
large scale) gave her precise knowledge based on her own
experiences working in the field.

With my garden now asleep, I can afford to smile at the
difference between Brownlow’s unsentimental approach to harvesting
lavender by the sack and my inability to cut a single stalk from
one low mound of ‘Hidcote’. I was so taken with the beauty of the
thrusting straight stems of purple flowers showing off against a
wayward black-eyed Susan. It is fascinating to read her advice for
drying half of a ton of fresh herbs, a process not for the
faint-hearted.

The individual plant portraits which follow the early chapters
range widely, from the classics — artemisias, lavenders, salvias —
to the wild and arcane — from jewelweed and sapphire to skullcap
and skirret. I can’t think of another herb authority from the
period who gathered together such an eclectic bouquet of herbs and
scented plants.

Brownlow’s unusual combination of hard-headedness about
slow-combustion coke-burning stoves and a fancy for any plant that
smells nice or any herb out of the mainstream turned me into a fan.
That and the assorted verses of poetry sprinkled throughout, the
author’s charming free-flowing illustrations and the blue cloth
covers with the book’s title embossed in gold made me an admirer
for life.

I was taken with the beauty of thrusting straight stems
of purple lavender showing off against a wayward black-eyed
Susan.

DRAWING OUT THE BEST AMENDMENTS

Andrew Van Hevelingen

NEWBERG, Oregon — Over the years I’ve tried various soil
amendments to improve my indigenous clay soil and poor drainage.
When I first started this process, cow or horse manure was popular
for vegetable growing. But I didn’t want all the weed seeds that
came with the cow, so I initially tried chicken manure. I had read
it has not only had the highest organic nitrogen fertilizer rate,
but also possibly residual anti-bacterial properties, and it’s
virtually weed-free. It worked great but it was so stinky and drew
so many flies that I had to cover my pile with a thick topsoil
layer. This was a fresh pile and it seemed to get mucky. I had to
rototill it all together for easier application and to minimize any
direct fertilizer burning of plants. I used it before I did any
planting in the garden.

Mushroom compost was next and was superb. Light and fluffy, it
was as easy to spread as mulch. (I did let it sit over the winter
to allow the rains to leach out any chemicals that the mushroom
growers might have used to control flies.) I found that my sage
plants didn’t grow in it very well, but other herbs seemed to do
well. Unfortunately, the company moved and mushroom compost became
unavailable in this area.

I next tried local peppermint straw, which is the byproduct of
mint distillation. It is essentially steamed mint plants — like
overcooked chards. Black, with a texture that is a mixture of
fluffy straw with occasional compressed layers, it made a good,
attractive mulch and was a great medium for seed germination of
some perennials, such as hellebores. I liked the compost, but a
friend put it too thickly (nearly 6 inches when an inch or two
should’ve been plenty) on her vegetable garden and damaged the
plants.

As I live in acidic soil conditions, I try to lower the soil pH
by using calcium and magnesium in pellet form. This is much easier
to spread throughout the garden than the same product in powder
form and has little or no dust. All these applications take a
season or more to see results so the garden is always in an
experimental flux.

My latest trial is with new organic soil amendments that include
specific mycorrhizae and soil microbes beneficial to the soil
structure. Not only is this Earth friendly, but the endo- and
ecto-mycorrhizae and microbes continue to increase and expand
throughout the root zones, enhancing the plant’s growth by
providing nutrients as well as a more friable soil in which to
grow. (Note: They are host specific so find out first whether the
product will have any effect on the herb you are growing.) I have
also used seaweed extracts, which provide natural plant growth
regulators. Seaweed extract may even deter sap-sucking insects like
aphids from attacking the plants. Someday, I hope to achieve a soil
texture so loamy and loose I can just reach down and pull out that
dandelion, tap root and all.

A SOUTHERN SPRING GARDEN

Geri Laufer

ATLANTA, Georgia — The greatest contrast between my Southern
garden and those in other parts of the country occurs at the cusp
of the seasons, when one season gives way to another. Winter’s hold
on Atlanta is not very strong, and spring comes very early.
Rosemary, oregano, parsley, lavender, salad burnet, feverfew,
lamb’s-ears, thyme, sweet woodruff and pinks generally ignore the
weather and stay evergreen throughout the winter. Who would blame
me for pushing back our short winter even further? I choose the
earliest narcissus and plant them in the hottest, sunniest spot to
encourage their earliest possible blooming. ‘Rijnveld’s Early
Sensation’ trumpet daffodils come up through the creeping thyme
(Thymus praecox ‘Minus’) planted by the mailbox to bloom in early
January, and they don’t seem to mind a cold snap or the occasional
coating of ice.

For the intrepid, the spring gardening season gets under way on
Valentine’s Day. February 14 is the designated day to plant English
and sweet peas in Atlanta, in previously tilled soil, preferably
against a fence. Onion sets are on sale, too, and are easy to slip
into the ground in patches or rows. I typically reserve the first
weekend in March to go nursery hopping. Perennial herbs are just
rousing from dormancy and can be transplanted then without missing
a beat. The early spring planting season has an added benefit of
mail-order catalogs. Southern gardeners can request shipping ahead
of their northern counterparts, thus getting the best selection of
this year’s crops.

My friends Jerry and Gerald garden in all seasons. They have a
wonderful garden that has been on several garden tours, and
although it is just a typical city lot, it has been transformed and
filled with paths, arbors, found objects and wonderful
ornaments.

Some of the herbs and flowers in bloom in their garden on
Valentine’s Day include Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata), Japanese
apricot (Prunus mume), parsley, flowering cabbage, colorful kale, a
few cyclamen, quinces in several colors and oodles of pansies.
Several deliciously fragrant plants are planted together to scent
the air. These include: Edgeworthia chrysantha, also known as paper
bush, beloved Daphne odora whose enchanting fragrance fills the
winter garden, Mahonia japonica flowering profusely with yellow
fountains of flowers that smell of lily-of-the-valley, and the
piercingly sweet wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox). The rusty red
witch hazel called Hamamelis ¥intermedia ‘Copper Beauty’, also
known as ‘Jelena’, is backlit by the setting sun as it illuminates
the strap-shaped petals.

Plenty of daffodils, winter honeysuckle, winter jasmine and
chartruese Euphorbia, also known as spurge, are in bloom, and
although the snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) are taking a rest from
their autumn blooms, they will continue shortly.

Winter in Atlanta is not hard to take.

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