Garden Spaces: Create a Spring Tonic Garden

These spring herbs are known for their restorative effects.

| April/May 2011

  • Click on the IMAGE GALLERY, then NEXT, for the planting key.
    Illustration by Gayle Ford
  • Click on the IMAGE GALLERY, then NEXT, for the planting key.
    Illustration by Gayle Ford

• Design Plans: Grow These Plants For a Tonic Garden 

In early spring, we all hunger for green. The vibrant green of new life in the garden draws us outdoors, and I remember from my many years in cold climates how often that felt like emerging from hibernation. The sun’s warmth on my face, the feel of the dirt and that chartreuse green of tiny new shoots all worked like a tonic on my winter-weary spirit.

Today, most of us aren’t tied to the seasons and the land as our ancestors were. We can eat a salad anytime we want, we don’t have to make it through the winters on roots and beef jerky, and we take plenty of vitamins so we don’t get anemic. So why is it that, especially in the early springtime, I crave salads and other green things loaded with vitamins as much as I crave sunshine? Even if these yearnings are just ancestral echoes, you can satisfy them with a traditional Southern rite of spring—the spring tonic.

What is a tonic?

Generally, the term “spring tonic” referred to plants that were traditionally foraged in the wild in the springtime for their invigorating and restorative effects. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a lot of spare foraging time in my life, so I say bring ’em closer. The garden shown here is a seasonal one, designed to provide a steady supply of nutritious greens for those satisfying, fresh spring salads. It is also meant to pay homage to some herbs that are more often seen on weedy roadsides than in garden beds, such as the lowly dandelion.

Banish the word “weed” from your thinking, because you’re in control of this little bed tucked away in the backyard, and weediness is just a state of mind. You can enjoy the bitter bite of young dandelion leaves and the tartness of sorrel, or young leaves of the unfortunately named stinging nettle, without inflicting any negative cultural baggage on yourself. Toss up as many different lettuces and tonic herbs as you can fit in a salad bowl, spritz it with your favorite herbal dressing, and eat your weeds with a clear conscience.

A Single-Season Garden

The perennial rhubarb is included here because it’s always such a welcome sight in early spring, so it anchors the corner of this little garden bed. But many of the other plants, including the lettuces, arugula, spinach and the herbs grown for their greens, will thrive through the cooler months until the summer heat pushes them to flower, set seed and be done for the season.



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