Operation Herb Garden

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Illustration by Gayle Ford

Some gardeners liken themselves to painters who create masterpieces of color and form in their gardens. Others see themselves as conductors of an orchestra, striving for harmony with a symphony of plants. As for me, I can’t say that I’ve ever cried, laughed, or been moved to ecstasy after viewing a garden. I am neither painter nor conductor of my garden.

For seventeen years, I have been in the Army Reserve, and old habits die hard. When I step into my garden, I am the general and my plants are my soldiers. I talk to them, but not in soft words of endearment; I bark out orders like a drill sergeant.

A few of my plants have dared to talk back. They quote the U.S. Department of Agriculture zone maps by chapter and verse, daring to tell me that they are not winter-hardy to Zone 5. I scream at these would-be deserters that they will survive the winter and they will flourish. The plants quickly fall back into line and submit to my demands for lush growth.

My first experience with herbs began when a friend gave me a start of mint to cover a bare area near my kitchen door. Three years later, I understood why people described mint as invasive. However, “invasive” is a military term that I understand. In plain view of the rest of my herb plants, I attacked the mint. I launched my first offensive from above with the lawn mower, cutting the tops until only a couple of inches remained. Intelligence sources (a few good books on herbs) informed me that mint would send out runners and continue its invasion, so I followed with an assault from below with the rototiller, digging up as much root as possible. Then the mint and I engaged in hand-to-hand combat. I got on my knees and began picking out roots, stems, or any other remotely mintlike plant material. For four hours, the battle raged. The mint hid under rocks and clung to pieces of sod, but I raked and shoveled the area assiduously, looking for signs of resistance. As the sun set in the west, I declared victory and attempted in vain to stand erect. Indeed, although I had won the war against mint, I had suffered casualties. The chiropractor loves it when I garden.

I knew that after witnessing this brutal combat, the remaining herbs would follow my orders without hesitation. If I said “Grow,” they had darned well better grow, and they all knew it.

The backyard has a sidewalk leading from the kitchen door to the alley. I ­ordered a lavender regiment of ten ­varieties to occupy a position parallel to the sidewalk 15 feet long and 3 feet across, with instruction to bloom continuously throughout the summer. The sergeants in charge were two ‘Hidicotes’, and their regiment was a coalition of multinational forces, including French, Spanish, and English lavenders and a few others. They sent their roots down without delay. They withstood early aerial attacks from spring winds that would have flattened lesser plants. Throughout the summer, they stood at attention, bearing purple and blue blooms, which they then surrendered to craft projects. As a reward for their service in my herbal army, I decorated them with my highest honor–a side-dressing of lime and compost–and pronounced their job well done.

The next phase of Operation Herb Garden involved the thyme battalions. They were my special operations units, with orders to close ranks throughout the garden, fill in any bare spots, and release their pleasing scents whenever I was nearby. They went to work building fortifications by sinking their roots into the soil. Their bravery in the face of danger was tested often that first summer. The dog ran over them, the cats rolled on them, and the kids jerked the stems off to get a smell. Plants less combat hardened would have surrendered and let themselves be uprooted, but my thyme battalions held their ground.

The final phase was a joint operation involving the oregano and eucalyptus squads–a somewhat unusual pair of allies. The eucalyptus trees were to gain as much height as possible to provide surveillance of the entire garden area, and the oreganos were to surround the base of each to shade their roots and form a lush mat. The lemon-scented and blue gums performed only marginally and were eventually demoted, but the silver-dollar trees reached 7 feet tall by summer’s end, and the oreganos achieved their mission with distinction, forming a solid green mat around each one. The Greek oregano had to be reprimanded for encroaching on the territory of a nearby lady’s-bedstraw; trimming and mulching turned it back.

This past winter, I positioned my seed catalogs around me, each one loaded with new ammunition, and studied the map of my grounds, planning how and when to launch the next phase of Operation Herb Garden. The orders should be arriving any day now.

Major Jim Stradling gardens in Monticello, ­Indiana, with his lieutenants, daughter Kathryn and son Tyler, and the commander-in-chief, his wife, Carol.

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