Back in Thyme: Wooden Arbors and Garden Designs

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Nancy Smith’s arbor in its preliminary stage as a bare structure.
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Once covered with vines and roses, Nancy Smith’s arbor graces the garden as a defining focal point.

We needed a garden gate. I knew it instinctively when I looked at our wooden arbors. Made of Osage orange posts and thus far unadorned with plants, they defined the garden space in a new, architectural way, and suggested other possibilities. Vine-covered pergolas and rose-clad wooden arbors look lovely in old garden books, but it’s hard to get a feel for their presence from the pictures.

When our wooden arbors were new, I could look out my kitchen windows and see them standing in the old barnyard-turned-garden. Real horses browsed there for 100 years, and I remember thinking to myself that if this arbor was a horse, it surely would be a draft animal — big of heart, heavy of flesh, eager to work and in need of a good gate. In short, a real presence.

Although my husband, Richard, and I live on his 1875 family homestead, we didn’t start building our heirloom garden until 1996. Old ornamental plantings adorn the yard, but no formal garden previously existed. The arbor, now covered with grape vines and roses, was one of our first steps in garden building. Making it helped me understand the importance of structure in a garden. It helps define the space, especially in a rural area, as a formally planted place. In an heirloom garden, it can help impart an old-time ambience.

Herbs play a similar role here in the garden we’ve come to call “Back in Thyme.” Of all garden plants, they are the most recognizable today as historic. In a sense, they are a gateway themselves into gardening’s past. History plays as important and revealing a role in gardening as it does in any other aspect of our lives. We can garden without ever learning garden history, but knowing a bit imparts a sense of enlightenment and adventure to our efforts and helps us reach across time to our own grandmothers and grandfathers, who very well may have grown the same plants.

In this new column, I hope you’ll enjoy reading as I share the stories of some of the horticultural oldies that are still working hard for us in our garden plots. Many already may be old friends to you, but it’s always such a delight to learn something new about an old friend. Others may not be so familiar; all will be available in commerce, so you can try them for yourselves.

Here at Back in Thyme, herbs are the heart of our garden “community,” both literally and figuratively. Every summer evening is filled with the peppery fragrance of the thyme mingling with blooms that come and go in their season. A center bed in the flower garden is devoted exclusively to the beautiful and fragrant herbs — everything from comfrey and artemisia to lovage and oregano grow there, along with various thymes.

But the herbs are so easy to care for and so effective as segues between clumps of perennials or as carpets beneath old-fashioned shrubs, that they cannot be confined to just the center bed. And when they go from the garden to the house, they’re as likely to appear on the dinner table as they are in bouquets.

Their early trails across the country, from the Puritans to the pioneers, are easy to follow in old letters, catalogs and garden magazines. The Kansas Seed House, just as one tiny example, had offices in Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado; its 1880 catalog, preserved at the state historical society, offered anise, caraway, coriander, dill, sage, sweet marjoram, sweet thyme and savory.

For the curious, the tendrils of history curl ever outward. For curious gardeners, it can help to get a handle on the idea of heirloom gardening by seeing an old-fashioned planted place. Sometimes, they are truly historic; others are re-creations. At Back in Thyme these days, soft mounds of mother of thyme soften the entranceway and clumps of nepeta billow around stands of Iris pallida under that first beast of an arbor. And we do have a gate, clad in Dr. W. Van Fleet roses, but it’s parked permanently open, in a friendly sort of way. That arbor, with all those grapevines and roses on it, isn’t going anywhere. Not anywhere at all.

Nancy Smith  share her gardening stories in each issue of The Herb Companion.

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