Mother Earth Living

The Grown-Up Herb Garden

We all reach a time in our lives when we have
to admit to a certain amount of maturity.

Being a grown-up has its advantages, certainly, but also its
responsibilities and cares and its potential for crossing a line
somewhere into aging, getting set in our ways, rootbound, maybe a
little careworn. So, too, our gardens.

A garden bed starts as empty earth, new, fresh, with creative
possibilities that fire up novice and experienced gardeners alike–a
chance to discover, plan, shape, explore and transform. The first
few years, the plants that survive settle in, establish their
zones, reach out to touch their neighbors, as we scurry around to
fill the bare spots with even more of them. Some plants begin to
sprinkle their progeny into the empty spaces, and all of sudden,
there’s a lush and bountiful garden where once there was bare
soil.

For vegetable gardeners, a bed renews itself yearly at the
gardener’s hand, but for perennial gardeners, renewal is ongoing.
We add new plants each year, watching and learning about them,
tinkering with color combinations and bloom times so that with each
passing season, the garden gets easier and more pleasurable. It
begins to sprawl into its own graceful shape and wage its own
battles with bugs and weeds. It becomes a grown-up with a mind of
its own, and the gardener’s reins loosen.

“An older garden is easier to take care of because you’ve had
the time to tune it. You know what’s going to do well and survive
because the plants have already proved themselves,” says Rob
Proctor, who tends an acre in a suburban neighborhood in Denver,
Colorado.

The day may come, however–maybe after five years, maybe ten,
maybe more–when we notice for the first time that, oh my, this is a
mess, who’s in charge here? The once-wonderful shrub in the corner
is so overgrown, it’s stealing air, water, space, and nutrients
from the now-puny herbs for which it was supposed to be a graceful
backdrop. Sweet Annie is not so sweet since its seedlings invaded
the thymes’ crevices in the flagstone pathways. The shadow of the
trees along the property line is threatening to swallow the
sun-loving culinary herb bed whole. Self-seeding has resulted in
some color combinations that we can’t bear to look at, and we
wonder why on earth we planted hyssop and Russian sage, which need
virtually no water, next to Joe-Pye weed, which wants a lot.

The mature garden needs a critical eye. To stand back and view
with cool detachment the work, time, and emotional stake we’ve
invested is difficult. We asked some of The Herb Companion’s
long-time contributors who have maintained herb gardens for a
decade or more–real gardeners with dirty hands who write about
their experiences for these pages–to tell us about problems they’ve
encountered as they and their gardens age.

Get tough

Rob Proctor and David Macke had an herb and flower garden in one
location for ten years; their current garden is six years old. The
process of evaluating plant performance is ongoing and constant,
but occasionally they start over on part of their garden, either to
correct their mistakes or to try something different. When
evaluating a mature garden, a ruthless attitude helps, Rob
says.

“I’m lenient the first few seasons with perennials; then I get
really cold-­hearted. In an older garden, you should be able to
wander around and get a sense of ­harmony and glowing good health.
If anything stands out because of poor performance, you have to
think: it doesn’t belong here, it’s time for that to go–­either
it’s not meant for this climate or it needs something I can’t
provide.” So into the compost pile it goes.

Elisabeth Sheldon, who has been building her garden in Lansing,
New York, for twenty-nine years, agrees. “If you no longer enjoy
eating it or looking at it, if it’s not giving you active pleasure,
get rid of it. There are so many new things coming into the
­nurseries all the time–wonderful plants, sages, calamints,
agastaches, and nepetas–and it’s time to make room for them so you
can keep experimenting. Old gardeners even kind of like it when an
old plant dies because it gives them a new space, a new spot to put
something in.”

All of sudden, there’s a lush and bountiful garden where
once there was bare soil. 

Deal with invaders

Jim Long has maintained half an acre of display herb gardens at
his 27-acre Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas, for
nineteen years. Some plants have caused problems over the
years–problems that he admits creating himself by planting them in
the first place.

When someone brought him a start of ground ivy (Glechoma
hederacea
), an old-time folk remedy but also a rampant weed of
lawns in much of the United States, he planted it beneath his
bedroom window, telling it sternly, “I’m not going to let you get
out of hand.” He built an addition onto the house, right on top of
it, and “I think I made it mad,” he says. It crept out from under
two corners of the house and kept on going–into some of the herb
beds, into the woods, down through the pasture. “It’s way, way out
of control, and I’ve given up on it,” Jim says.

Wild yam is a fast-growing medicinal vine that grows 25 to 30
feet tall. Jim planted it to cover an arbor, but it quickly spread
into the fencerows and the herb beds. Though he pulls out seedlings
daily, he admits, “I’ve come to appreciate it as a ground
cover–it’s nice and tough and hardy–so I’m coming to terms with
it.”

His problems with sweet fennel are galling because Jim helped
make it the Herb of the Year in 1995. “It’s a wonderful plant, but
enough is enough. It reseeds so vigorously that it’s in all my
pathways and the edges of the garden.” He gave it its own bed and
takes the weedeater to any plants that show up outside it. Jim
notes that bronze fennel is much easier to control.

He advises that with an aggressive plant like one of these
three, “Give it a little space and make sure it’s really enclosed
or eliminate it.” The box below includes more tips for dealing with
invasive plants.

Demolish if necessary

Geri Laufer began her current garden in Atlanta, Georgia, six
years ago after tending an herb garden at another house for a
decade. She tells of planting two graceful, fragrant chaste trees
(Vitex agnus-castus) on either side of a grass pathway leading from
one part of her herb garden to another. She expected the shrubs to
grow to 5 or 6 feet.

“They got larger and larger, remarkably quickly. I’d say it took
six years for them to reach 20 feet. We have such a long growing
season here, and when they got that big, they created conditions I
hadn’t foreseen: they threw up a lot of shade where you’re not
thinking you’ll have it.”

She first took cuttings to plant elsewhere in her garden; the
plants were so big that she had to sacrifice them. She started
digging 3 or 4 feet out from the base of each shrub, prying out as
many roots as she could and cutting off the others. Next she
wrestled the shrubs out of the ground with a mattock and dragged
them off to the curb, saving the smallest branches to be chipped
into mulch for the new garden space that removal of the shrubs
opened up.

The vitexes left behind two garden areas of about 40 square feet
each. “It meant a wonderful opportunity to plant lavenders, lemon
verbena, pineapple sages, scented geraniums, which all come back
through the winter here,” Geri says.

“If you plan ahead and choose the right plant for the right
spot, you theoretically never have to do this. But none of the
books I’d checked warned me about how big these would get. Of
course, many gardening books are written for more northern
climates. Here, they grow more quickly, and they’re not knocked
down by the cold weather.”

Not all overgrown plants require such heroic measures. Orris,
monardas, and daylilies are a few herbaceous perennials that
benefit from being dug and divided every few years. Many shrubs can
be rejuvenated by pruning out one-third of the old branches at the
base every year while heading back some of the others. Dividing and
pruning are easier before the plants get overgrown.

Change your mind

Just because a particular kind of garden was a good idea once
doesn’t mean it still is. Sometimes it no longer meets the
gardeners’ needs, and sometimes changes in their lives dictate
changes in the garden.

When Portia Meares moved to Wolftown, Virginia, with her husband
in 1976, she planted a 12-by-12-foot formal herb garden divided
into triangles with tidy germander edges. It was a pretty little
garden, “but I spent most of my time on my knees trying to keep
things under control,” Portia says. “There are too many things that
don’t belong in a formal garden that I wanted to grow–comfrey,
costmary, sage. The rosemary got huge, and nigella seeded itself
all over the place, and I had to spend another year or two trying
to get rid of that.”

After about four years, Portia let her first herb garden go,
pulling out the germanders and leaving the space to lavenders and
santolina, and put in a 100-foot-long border of herbs mixed in with
other ornamental, culinary, and medicinal plants. The new bed,
about 41/2 feet wide in most spots, ­enables her to tuck away the
huge valerian and the coarse larger-leaved elecampane, to have a
special place for monardas, to grow natives such as black cohosh,
hepatica, blue cohosh, trillium, and bloodroot in a shady area, to
give freer rein to plants such as clary sage and horsemint.

“It’s easier to take care of, and I enjoy working in it more,”
Portia says. “I have all the freedom I want, plenty of room for
rotating plants, space for plants to go a little wild until I’m
ready to trim them or pull them up.”

Elisabeth Sheldon has sweeping borders of herbs and flowers in
shades of blues, purples, whites, and pastels. A few years ago, she
erected a tall, solid fence around a 20-by-30-foot plot where she
could plant a “hot garden” that would not disrupt the muted color
scheme of the rest of the garden. First-time visitors laugh when
they open the gate and see the blazing daylilies, red and magenta
monardas, and brilliant orange calendulas.

It’s a marvelous little garden, but this is its last year.
Elisabeth is redoing the garden, not because she has changed her
mind, but because her eyesight is failing and she can’t see the
colors anymore. “Next year I’m going to turn it into a fragrance
garden. I have such bad vision now, I want to be able to just sit
and smell everything.”

Our gardens must fit our lives. We grow together.

Kathleen Halloran is the former editor of The Herb Companion. Her
garden in Laporte, Colorado, usually does whatever it wants.

  • Published on Oct 1, 1998
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