Round Robin: Early Green

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ATLANTA, Georgia–Spring comes early to Atlanta: the weeping willow beyond the creek greens up in February. Some years, when sunny 65°F weather arrives soon after Valentine’s Day and summer is postponed by a cool, rainy May, spring stretches to four glorious months.

A number of woody herbs, such as thyme, germander, winter savory, lavender, and rosemary, are clothed in leaves and sometimes even flowers. What a sight to see my gnarled old rosemary shrub in a veil of pale blue flowers at the end of winter! Their blue seems to be reflected in a pool of blue pansies at the base of the rosemary, which blooms from October through May.

A handful of herbaceous perennial herbs are evergreen, and a welcome sight. The fountain of gray-green leaflets of salad burnet, each glistening with dewdrops sparkling in the sun; the brave bright green of parsley that withstands winter’s cold rains; and the scrabble of bedstraw and its more decorous relative, sweet woodruff: all blend foliage colors and fragrances in the February garden.

Valentine’s Day is the traditional date to plant sweet peas in the herb garden, along with seeds of Shirley poppy, larkspur, and nigella to brighten up the herbs. A pinch of poppy seeds artfully scattered behind the horseradish or among the artemisia provides a natural, carefree effect with minimal work, as no soil preparation is required.

The annual parade of spring bulbs and flowering shrubs ornaments the herb garden in February and March with bright colors and sweet scents. Daffodils, crocuses, anemones, grape hyacinths, and species tulips blanket the ground below blossoming pears and peaches, star magnolias, flowering almonds, and Burkwood viburnums.

My weeds are flourishing. Gill-over-the-ground (Glechoma hederacea), also known as ground ivy, alehoof, runaway robin, or field balm, and chickweed (Stellaria sp.), also called starwort or stitchwort, are both in exuberant growth. Gill-over-the-ground is so pretty that if it didn’t creep quite so vigorously, it would probably be a high-priced ornamental available only from specialty nurseries. (I once noticed a variegated form for sale.) As it is, I yank it out with abandon. Some nights, I shut my eyes to see again the vivid sea of green chickweed eddying around the base of the armillary sphere and threatening to drown emerging herbs and bulbs beneath its waves. This year, I tried making a soup of freshly picked spring greens–chickweed, sorrel, nettles, and spinach–in chicken stock with onions, sweet marjoram, salt, and pepper. I attempted to eat the chickweed into oblivion but couldn’t do it. I also composted a lot, but it seems to run one step ahead of my efforts. Fortunately, it will disappear when the hot weather arrives.

Atlanta gardening really revs up in March. By the first of the month, I can begin to transplant hardy herbs in gallon containers that I’ve bought locally. That’s also my requested shipping date for perennial herbs ordered from mail-order nurseries. I order only what I know will be weatherproof, hardened-off plants, not tender, coddled greenhouse specimens. Comfrey and bleeding hearts don’t miss a beat when moved this early. Young transplants of biennial foxgloves, hollyhocks, sweet Williams, and wallflowers, if not transplanted last fall, should go in now to ensure the growth of vigorous root systems that produce tall, thick flower stalks. A shovelful of compost, a dusting of pulverized dolomitic lime, and perhaps a sprinkle of triple superphosphate forked into the ground where spent annuals were removed or where the herb garden is being expanded provides an excellent basis for good growth before the warming sun bakes the soil hot and dry.

By mid-March, the herbs in the silver-and-gray border have started to emerge from their mulch: artemisias, lamb’s-ears, silver veronica, and silver sage. The silver leaf hairs are glossy and fresh and look like jewels when laden with dew. Low-growing English daisies and sweet violets bloom with my grandmother’s Johnny-jump-ups.

I like to think of myself as a “more-ganic” gardener. This may seem heresy to followers of the pure organic method, but I find that I’m more organic than not. The “not” refers to weed control strategies aimed at the kudzu that invades my garden from the five acres next door. This time of year, it also involves a little granular fertilizer.

Instead of putting on a full year’s recommended dose of 12-12-12 or 12-6-6 all at once, I apply a third of the total three times a year. In Atlanta, an application around the periphery of the clumps on the first of March gives newly emerging perennials a boost. I still remember with chagrin the year that I just broadcast the fertilizer, imprudently flinging it about wherever it might land. Granules that fell down in the rosettes of foxgloves and into the crowns of feverfew and lamb’s-ears burned them up. It wasn’t easy facing the realization that I had killed them myself. Be careful using granular fertilizer on Lenten roses! Some of mine died outright, and others took two years to recover. Now I feed them only compost, mulch, and blood and bonemeal.

A second application during the first part of May stimulates good growth during the transition from spring to summer. By this time, all the herbaceous garden plants are fully grown, and it’s a real challenge to avoid getting fertilizer on any of the leaves. I move the plants aside with one hand and put the material directly in the mulch. Afterward, I water in the granules thoroughly, rinsing the plants of any dust that may have blown over.

A third and final application in early July allows the garden to finish the summer with strong and vigorous growth. I sometimes omit this last application, but the plants, languishing in 100°F heat, don’t seem to mind. I don’t fertilize after July so as to enable the new growth to harden off before cool weather.

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