Garden Profile: A Working Garden

| August/September 1994

Imposing turn-of-the-century row houses in the Haight district of San Francisco stand shoulder to shoulder, belly up to the street. Cable cars rumble past with a friendly clang. Big-city ambience wraps and shapes this neighborhood, and from the street there’s no clue that the ­facade of one of these homes hides a lush backyard view. When Jeanne Rose steps into her quiet, intimate herb garden, she is transported to another world, far from the urban bustle.

Rose, a well-known herbalist, teacher, and author and a longtime resident of the Bay area, walks out of her third-floor kitchen onto a porch that overlooks the long, narrow garden enclosed on all sides by hedges and fences. Tall buildings rise along the skyline to remind her of her beloved city, but the garden feels like a secluded, even secret place. She descends steps from the porch to enter the garden under a cascade of wisteria, a spectacle of bloom when we visited in early spring. We sat on a bench in the cool shadows of the wisteria to breathe the fragrance and take in the view; it’s one of Rose’s favorite late-afternoon resting spots.

The backyard, a mature garden that Rose first shaped nearly twenty-five years ago from a plot of weeds and junk, reflects her lifelong involvement in growing and using herbs for aromatherapy, medicine, cosmetics, cooking, teaching, and distillation. With a dozen books to her credit, some of them considered classics, she is one of the best-known herbalists in the United States. She conducts correspondence courses in herbal studies and aromatherapy out of her home, thus blending her personal and professional lives in both her home and her garden. “This is a working garden,” she says. “Everything is usable here. I don’t really even consider myself a gardener. These are the tools for my work.”

The garden’s usefulness doesn’t lessen the enjoyment Rose gets from it. She changes plants or rearranges the layout every few years, but the main structure settled into place long ago. Herbal trees and shrubs, coaxed to massive size in this mild climate, frame the plantings. Rose points to a large, gnarled lemon verbena tree along one side and explains that it began in a pot in 1967 when she lived in an apartment a block away. When she moved into her house in 1970, she brought all her potted herbs with her, planted them in the ground, and now has a half-dozen still growing, including the mature lemon verbena.

As might be expected of someone with her name, roses spill out from all sides—ten or twelve different varieties including some climbers that reach towering heights. Eglantine, musk, damask, apothecary, and moss roses compete for space; when they are in flower, they eclipse nearly everything else in this exuberant garden.

Midway up the right side of the garden, a peppermint geranium snakes perhaps 15 feet up a wintersweet tree. Lilac, honeysuckle, magnolia, witch hazel, ginger, and ginkgo command a presence along the left edge, each with its season of flower. A fuchsia has attached itself charmingly to a sweet gum, or liquidambar, tree, and a huge eucalyptus from a neighbor’s yard leans chummily into Rose’s space. A great stalk of mullein stands sentry near the front of the garden. Scattered throughout, large clumps of wormwood and other artemisias, rosemary, lavender, and rose-scented geraniums hold their ground. A stately angelica, considered a biennial in harsher climates, has bloomed and produced seed three years in a row on the same stalks.

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