Notes From Regional Herb Gardeners

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Summer Memories

Elisabeth Sheldon

LANSING, New York–I’m sitting here, bundled in a heavy shirt and sweater, thinking about last summer’s garden, and making a list of spring jobs: 1) Move tall white phlox and mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) to back of fragrance garden; 2) Order more white lilies and roses; 3) Make serious war on trumpet vine; and the list goes on for two pages. How can I do it all?

Last spring we had so much rain that parts of the garden were under water and there was a small pond on the front lawn. The pond remained for such a long time that I began thinking of getting some ducks or planting cattails. The result of the perpetual rain was that established plants grew inordinately tall and lusty, but newly planted subjects just sat in the mud gasping for breath and not even trying to grow. I suppose they needed oxygen at their roots and weren’t getting it. Lily bulbs planted early in May painfully produced a blossom or so in August on top of one-foot stems–if they came up at all. Very sad.

But oh, the old wetland plants, such as the rodgersia, lythrum, and even bee balm, had a year of glory! In one section of the border many spikes of Lythrum virgatum ‘Morden Pink’ and smoky lavender Monarda ‘Thunder Cloud’ were fronted by that loveliest filipendula, the short (18 to 24 inches) ‘Kakome’, whose lacy pink blossoms go on for many weeks.

Another mass of pink was furnished by what seems to me to be the very prettiest echinacea I’ve ever grown, or seen, for that matter. It was given to me as Echinacea tennesseensis, but I suspect it is actually a cultivar of that species. My plant has small flowers of a good clear pink, whose petals extend straight out instead of drooping mournfully like those of most echinaceas. However, when I gathered its seed and raised its young, they were all different from their mother and all different from one another, all of them with large flowers with purple-pink drooping petals.

Tall sedums and perilla, with their maroon foliage, added a plummy touch to the composition of lavender and pink, while Stachys densiflora, a plant that carries short, stiff, straight-up spikes covered with whorls of rosy blossoms, repeated the pinks of lythrum, filipendula, and echinacea.

In the evening, after looking affectionately at the border, I would often go out to sit in the fragrance garden to breathe in and out. Just before dark the scents were the strongest, especially those of phlox, alyssum, roses, helio-trope, and lemon blossoms. I thought to myself that in spite of losses caused by the damp, it wasn’t such a bad summer after all.

When Good Herbs Go Bad

Pat Herkal

RIVERTON, Wyoming–The summer of 2000 brought months of temperatures over 90 degrees, drought, and gray, hazy skies because of wildfires all over the West. Some of my herbs also went bad.

I have grown rue (Ruta graveolens) both in the rose garden and in my borders for ten years. Known as the herb of grace, rue branches were used as brushes to sprinkle holy water in church ceremonies. It had a reputation for being a powerful defense against witches and was commonly used to ward off spells. Rue was used to protect travelers on long journeys. For ages, rue was used as a strewing herb and made into infusions to ward off contagious diseases and to prevent attacks of fleas and other noxious bugs.

One of the bitter herbs of the Old Testament, rue is also one of the most beautiful herbs. Its blue-green foliage and long-lasting chartreuse flowers contrast nicely with the usual greens of shrubs and perennials. It’s an attractive underplanting for roses and I have often used it in flower arrangements. It is one of my favorite ornamental herbs.

After a long but very satisfying spring weekend spent taming, trimming, and weeding my flower beds, I discovered large water blisters on one knee and discoloration up and down both of my legs about noon on Monday. By the next day, my arms and legs were covered with a bright red, burning, itching rash. There were whole areas of blisters on my legs.

My doctor prescribed both oral and topical medication, but we were stumped about what could have caused such a miserable and unsightly rash. We do not have poison ivy in Wyoming. The rash continued to develop for three days and I wore its scars most of the summer. People would stop a conversation to ask how I had burned myself. During a bout of middle-of-the-night insomnia, I remembered a letter to the editor in an old Herb Companion warning readers about allergic reactions to rue. Research in half a dozen books confirmed my suspicions that working in and around the rue was what had caused my rash. Only a few of the books mentioned its toxic qualities. The volatile oil is distributed in glands over the entire plant and can cause a long-lasting rash similar to poison ivy. It is exacerbated by hot sun. Rue was used medicinally in medieval times, but it can be quite toxic.

I have no plans to remove this lovely plant from my garden, but I will be very cautious in the future when I’m working where it grows. If I had small children, I would not plant it in areas of the garden where they play.

‘Silver King’ artemisia (Artemisia ludoviciana) became a thug this year. I have grown it in the poor soil by the alley for years as a base for wreaths. Extremely poor growing conditions have kept it under control. But this summer it made its move.

It leapt throughout my yard, up and down the alley and across into the neighbor’s yard. A hedge sprang up along the driveway and blocked entrance to the raspberries. Large taproots made it difficult to dig. I persistently dug it out of the fertile beds and cut it back hard to prevent it from setting seed. The neighbors accepted my apology and kept their invasion mowed.

Lauren Springer, author of The Undaunted Gardener (Fulcrum Publishing, 2000), recommends growing ‘Silver King’ in tubs buried in the ground to contain its invading roots. I also read that she has banished it to her dog pen. I may banish it myself entirely next spring.

Despite these trials, the colder days and nights have dulled my memories of the misery of heat, haze, thugs, and rashes. And I continue to be grateful that the summer came with few grasshoppers. Plants growing out of control are much easier to deal with than grasshoppers’ voracious appetites.

Wreath Making

Jo Ann Gardner

CAPE BRETON, Nova Scotia, Canada–Something had to be done with the drying loft.

In the rush of fall harvest, I had filled it to overflowing with an assortment of artemisias for potential wreaths. Compact bunches of ‘Silver Mound’ hung from wooden beans, scattered branches of sweet Annie were stuck in odd corners, long stems of white mugwort were hastily tied with panty hose and hung to dry by the doorway, and ‘Silver King’ artemisia, a lifetime supply, was stuffed into large brown paper bags.

The moment of truth had come, for early winter is the time I tidy the loft in anticipation of the season ahead. Would I, as I have promised myself many times, try my hand at wreath making?

For many years I avoided this activity for lack of confidence, focusing instead on what I know I can do: grow and produce herb flavorings and teas, make herb jellies, vinegars, and potpourri, collect, sort, and package seeds–prosaic but satisfying endeavors for a single pair of down-to-earth hands. My current interest was fueled by the quantity of artemisia I have managed to grow and harvest and by reading about a Elizabethan milkmaid named Joan, who, according to the poet Thomas Campion in Two Books of Ayres, could not only “call by name her cows,” but could make wreaths and tussie-mussies, too. Surely, I, who have called my cows by name for almost forty years, could do what this milkmaid took for granted as essential skills!

The first problem was finding a wreath base. I might have used wormwood if I had prepared it beforehand by cutting and twisting fresh stems into a crown. Or I might have used a traditional wire frame if I had one. But when you live on a self-reliant farm miles from nowhere, where so many needs and desires must be met by what’s on hand, you learn to make do. So I looked around and found several possibilities. I figured any lightweight but rigid material, circular in shape or bendable, would serve. This included wire once used to suspend oyster rafts in the nearby Bras D’ Or Lake (an ill-fated government get-rich scheme), a 7 1/2-inch-wide tin rim from our collection of old horse-drawn farm machinery, and a small 3-inch plastic ring that once belonged to a bucket. A modest beginning.

So in the dark of winter evenings, with the kitchen woodstove stoked, while Jigs reads to me, I am making three wreaths using a simplified approach–no glue gun or anything like that. The portable wreath kit I carry to these nightly sessions consists of:

1. The dried artemisia in a paper bag.
2. The chosen wreath base.
3. A pair of kitchen scissors.
4. A roll of 28-gauge flexible wire.
5. Floral tape.
6. A plastic spray bottle.

First I cover the unsightly base with floral tape (so the dried bunches won’t slip). Next I very lightly spray the foliage with water so it won’t shatter. I detach several 3- to 4-inch leafy stems with flowers (small but decorative and, I think, essential) from the mass, holding them in the shape of a fan, then trim their stems. When I think the fan is full enough, I cut a 12-inch piece of wire, wrap about four inches of it tightly around the base of the fan, then, holding the fan so it’s centered on the base, I use the rest of the wire to attach the fan tightly to the base. When the next fan is attached, it is laid on top of the stems of the first one and so on, until the whole base is thickly covered with artemisia.

For my first wreath, I used the oyster wire, twisted into an 11-inch circle, and ‘Silver King’ to cover it. Although this first effort was thin and uneven, the fault of my inexperience, it was recognizable as a wreath. And as I discovered, the wonderful thing about artemisias is that they are arrestingly beautiful whatever you do to them. I was thrilled with this first attempt because I now had a method–one that could be improved.

For the smaller tin rim I alternated ‘Silver Mound’ with ‘Silver King’, making sure to fully center each spray and to pack them closer together all around the circle. The result was noticeably better. I found that these two silvers work well together, with ‘Silver King’ acting as background for ‘Silver Mound’s’ showier, pompon flowers. Like the first wreath, this one is four inches wider than the base, or 111/2 inches wide.

Now I am working with the sweet Annies, both the familiar one (Artemisia annuua) and the Chinese type, so far unidentified. It produces filmy foliage remarkably similar to sweet Annie, but darker green with smaller, cream-colored flowers. These are effective together, light against dark.

Again any deficiencies of technique are masked by the charm of the dainty, scented sprays themselves. So far, I’ve not embellished my wreaths with highlights and accents because I like them for themselves. While I’ll never be a pro, I have acquired, however roughly, a skill that links me to Joan, her cows, and her wreaths, and I am satisfied.

Taking Stock

Geri Laufer

ATLANTA, Georgia–How do you rate your gardening year? The herb garden has reached its annual wintertime low point, and even containers of herbs grown inside as houseplants aren’t growing much during the short, dark days around the winter solstice. But as I look back over the year that has passed, a few questions help me to evaluate it. So I offer you this quiz as well. Put X’s where your effort has gone in the past year.

1. Did you have herbs and flowers blooming around the yard during the — spring, — summer, and — fall?
2. Did you have enough to — bring into the house, — give to friends for cooking, and — make bouquets and — wreaths?
3. Did you successfully grow and eat any — herbs, — edible flowers, or — Asian vegetables that you’ve never tried before?
4. Are any herbal trees and shrubs around your house — larger or — more beautiful than they were last year at this time?
5. Were your herbs plentiful enough for — seasonings, — salads, — eating fresh all summer, and — preserving for winter?
6. Did you outwit any — plant pests or — diseases in saving your harvest?
7. Did you learn anything about herb gardening from — reading magazines or — books or — from keeping a garden journal?
8. Did you take time to enjoy – working in, — sitting in, and — looking out the window at your garden?
9. Did you notice any new — birds, — beneficial insects, — small animals, — admiring neighbors, or — helpful family members?
10. Did you — lose any weight, –overcome boredom, loneliness, or bad moods, or — find a pleasant escape through herb gardening?

Count your X’s. If you scored twenty-five or more (out of a possible thirty-two) you are an all-around, adventuresome, avid, busy gardener. As the count goes down, simply eliminate the appropriate adjectives.

It’s good to look back over my efforts and make resolutions for next year. In 2001 I resolve to grow more varieties of basil. I resolve to try cilantro next October, planting it when I plant my pansies to see if it likes the cool half of the year better than the warm season. I resolve to share seeds and starts of herbs with even more of my friends and relatives. And I resolve to be both happy and thankful about my garden in whatever state it’s in. Now, what about you?

By The Herb Companion staff

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