Notes from Regional Herb Gardeners

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Pat Herkal

RIVERTON, Wyoming–Years ago, I fell in love with roses, and this time of year they are the stars of my garden! These glorious flowers deserve lovely companion plants. Medieval monks mixed plantings of herbs and roses, and this combination of colors and textures still seems the best way to enhance roses’ sumptuous blossoms. Herbs not only work visually with roses, but their cultural needs also match. Both prefer a full day of sun and well-drained soil. While some herbs do well in dry, lean soil, most appreciate the loam that roses prefer.

Many herbs have silver, spiky leaves that contrast with the heavy foliage and flowers of rosebushes. Artemisias, clary sage, and catnip weave themselves in and around my bushes. Their pungent odors contribute to the heady scent of the garden. I struggle unsuccessfully to over-winter lavenders here, but they are ideal partners in milder climates. Lacy rue’s fine blue leaves are another appealing combination. Dark red ‘Cuthbert Grant’ pops out of the middle of artemisia ‘Valerie Finnis’. The combination is stunningly beautiful! I do have to work to keep Valerie from invading all her neighbors, but she is worth the extra labor.

When I first started planting roses, I used lamb’s-ears, catnip, and lady’s-mantle to soften the borders of my gardens. They have self-seeded in and around the roses and are more visually appealing since casually redistributing themselves. Silky lamb’s-ears provide a startling contrast to prickly shrub roses. Children and adults are drawn to its downy leaves. My cats become intoxicated rolling around on the young catnip (Nepeta cataria). Its prolific self-seeding must be a technique developed to survive the cats’ frequent attentions. The first clumps to appear soon become almost obscured by a thick mat of cat hair. As the catnip grows taller, its appeal diminishes, although the cats can’t resist an occasional frolicking roll any time during the summer. The catnip responds to the hard pruning it then requires by putting out more growth and another bloom cycle. Few yellow roses are hardy in Zone 4, so I’m very proud of my Rosa rugosa ‘Agnes’. She is one of the first roses to bloom in my garden with a heavy flush of peachy yellow semi-double blossoms. She’s lovely underplanted with silver and blue catnip.

White-flowered feverfew grows around the French rose ‘Cardinal de Richelieu’ (R. gallica). The daisy-like flowers contrast starkly with its rich, velvety smoky-purple flowers. Pink, blue, and purple cranesbills (Geranium spp.) marry well with all the roses and are also dependable self-seeders. I especially like how they look around a large R. ¥alba ‘Semiplena’ that has draped itself over the side of the porch. The dense cranesbills hide the rose’s leggy, bare base and are lovely with its pure white blossoms.

Tall valerian (Valeriana officinalis) has moved itself freely throughout the gardens. Its white blossoms and sweet scent are a welcome addition around the roses. It has larger flower heads than many herbs, adding texture among spikier herb blooms. Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) is planted around the base of a shade-tolerant ‘Therese Bugnet’. It is a good ground cover with small white star flowers. Tiny but prolific pinks (Dianthus deltoids) surround small-blossomed ‘The Fairy’. They both make up for size by exuberantly covering themselves with long-lasting flowers. Other larger varieties of dianthus pop up throughout the gardens. Their fringed edges, multicolored eyes, and spicy scent put them at the top of my list of favorite herb perennials. Speedwells (Veronica officinalis) form pleasing mats under and around the roses. A formal edging of chives lends order to the cheerful chaos.

Weather or Not

Elisabeth Sheldon

LANSING, New York–June is certainly the best month of the twelve for us here in the Northeast. The disconcerting vagaries of spring are over and the weather has settled down to balmy temperatures, blue skies, a sun that is not yet too hot, and, thank goodness, the black flies have gone. Besides, the garden is looking its best. One would like to invite everyone he or she knows to come and admire it, except that one doesn’t want to stop gardening to clean house and cook, always obligatory when visitors have been summoned.

But, speaking of weather, wasn’t it a weird winter? Here we scarcely had a winter at all–no severe cold, no frost on the windows–I felt at times as if I were back in Virginia. In years past, upper New York state has endured -20°F, and once, I remember, -30°F. Pipes froze, the wind seemed to tear through this old farmhouse, and the only place we could really get warm was next to the kitchen woodstove or in bed. If it weren’t for worries about global warming, we could simply enjoy the non-wintry winters, but, as it is, it seems somehow spooky.

I am now looking at a section of my long border and thinking how clever I was to tuck those wine-red perillas and basils in amongst the perennials and shrubs, where they repeat and carry along the theme already established by the crimson pygmy barberries (Berberis thunbergii), the burgundy-leaved coralbells (Heuchera sp.) and the ‘Husker Red’ penstemon (Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’). (Don’t you wish penstemons’ foliage would stay dark red all summer?). I love the shiny ruffled leaves of the basils and the smoky ribbed foliage of the perillas (Perilla frutescens), so wonderful behind the airy pink blossoms of my much-cherished ‘Nearly Wild’ rose. Actually, wine-red plants seem to enrich and enhance the colors of any plant they associate with–purplish-blue veronicas, pale yellow poppies, even plants with small bright red flowers such as the annual Salvia coccinea.

The great fault of perilla, in addition to its losing most of its red coloration after flowering, is its frantic determination to cover the earth. When it begins to make seed, you simply must rush into the border, pluck it up by the roots, and carry it away to the compost heap. Don’t worry about leaving gaps in the border, for by then everything will be overflowing its space and the perilla won’t be missed.

While I was adding a bit of oregano to my pasta sauce the other day, I began to ponder how confusing and jumbled the Origanum genus is. Sweet marjoram used to be named Majorana hortensis but was caught up in the muddle when taxonomists renamed it O. majorana.

The little containers sold in grocery stores as “oregano” generally contain leaves of several different species that grow around the Mediterranean, but the plant that used to be sold in many American nurseries as “oregano” is a different individual. O. vulgare has pink blossoms with red calyces that are very nice in dried bouquets, but the leaves are not very useful in the kitchen.

I found that out years ago when I was selling herbs and perennials. I was at a loss as to where to find seeds of a better oregano (seed companies offer them now, but didn’t then), so I planted some seed from a plastic bag of oregano that I had bought in a local Greek delicatessen. That summer I had a row of white-flowering plants that I believe to have been O. vulgare subsp. hirtum, whose pungent leaves were a great addition to the cuisine. Oddly enough, a Greek woman came to the garden, wanting herbs. When she saw the oregano, she gasped as if she’d found a long-lost relative, “At last! I thought I would never find it in this country.” She went off with a big clump of it, delighted with her find, while I was delighted to have reunited her with an old friend.

Scented Geranium Ebb to Lavender Flow

Andy Van Hevelingen

NEWBERG, Oregon–I have always had a collection of scented geraniums (Pelargonium spp.), but my interest in them ebbs and flows over the years. This year is an “ebb” year. I have reduced my collection to a mere handful, mostly of the more traditional rose- and lemon-scented types. I usually take my softwood cuttings either in the spring or fall with good results; though, one of my favorites–the lemon-scented ‘Mabel Grey’ can be quite persnickety to propagate. I read somewhere that scented geranium cuttings should be taken when days are longer for best results. As the summer solstice is fast approaching, I thought I would give it a try.

This is the month of lavender, the time when my English lavenders begin to bloom in earnest. I am particularly interested in the English cultivar Lavandula angustifolia ‘Miss Katherine’, which was just made commercially available this year. It is reputed to be the best pink-flowered type of all the L. angustifolias on the market. How could I resist its catalog description, “with flowers of a soft lilac pink and brushed with lively red-violet tints”?

I am also taken with a L. stoechas cultivar called ‘Curly Top’. I like the unusual way its sterile purple bracts, or “rabbit ears”, are twisted or curled. At first, my wife thought the flowers were defective, but when the plant came into full bloom, the effect of a myriad of twisted bracts was quite delightful. The bracts seemed to catch the sunlight from all angles causing an attractive backlighting effect throughout the day. Another lovely cultivar just released this year is L. stoechas ‘Ivory Crown’. It has cream- or ivory-colored bracts contrasting with deep purple flowers.

For people considering planting an acre or two of lavender, there is a good pamphlet published by the New Zealand Crop and Food Research Department. It is titled “Lavender: A Grower’s Guide for Commercial Production” by J. McGimpsey and N. G. Porter. (Order it online from the under the list of books.) It is quite informative and serves as a good primer on the subject of commercial lavender growing.

About a year ago, we purchased a Cairn terrier (picture Toto in The Wizard of Oz but change the color from black to wheaten and add five pounds). She had been abused for the first couple of years of her life, so we expected some behavioral problems down the line, but we had no idea she would take so to the herbs! Not only does she perch herself on the hill rows of my lavender field and stand guard, but we have discovered she has acquired a taste for herbs. She nibbles on the leaves of bay, mint, lavender, and any perennial verbenas that come her way. Her grazing in the herb beds has much improved her dog breath!

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