Down to Earth: Dividing the Yarrows

Herbalist Jim Long explains how a Texas couple makes him realize his luck.

| February/March 1995

Many times, I have turned unannounced visitors away with ­regret, but this couple had come so far that I didn’t want to disappoint them.

Early spring, when perennial herbs are just coming out of dormancy, is the ideal time to divide and renew them. Yarrow, mint, oreg­ano, thyme, comfrey, lamb’s-ears, mo­narda, echinacea, and lemon balm are among the many herbs that benefit from being divided every three to four years. Dividing herbs gives me the opportunity to remove them from their growing beds and spend some time improving the soil. In late February and early March, when temperatures fluctuate between 10° and 60°F, I till the soil deeply, working in compost and sphagnum peat. I don’t divide lavender or sage, but even these herbs benefit from being lifted so that the beds may be tilled. I renew each herb bed every few years.

One warm and pleasant late winter day, I was dividing my yarrow, humming as I lifted each plant with a potato fork, cut the root-bound clumps into several divisions with an old, sharp butcher knife, and quickly replanted them into a newly tilled raised bed. I anticipated ending up with several times as many plants as when I started. I was interrupted at my task by the arrival of visitors.

They were an older couple from Fort Worth, Texas, who said they’d driven to the Ozarks just to visit my garden. I explained that my garden and shop are open only one day a week from May to October except for groups and advance reservations. Many times, I have turned unannounced visitors away with regret, but this couple had come so far that I didn’t want to disappoint them. I reluctantly stopped my work and agreed to give them a tour of my winter garden.

We walked along the gravel pathways and talked. As we strolled, I picked sprigs of rosemary and lemon thyme, as well as snippets from the newly emerging mints. Handing each one to the woman, I would say, “Smell and taste this.”

She tried each tiny sprig, exclaiming over how fresh and welcome it was in the still-winter air. “Here, honey,” she would say as she handed the sprigs to her husband. “Taste how good this is!”

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