Regional Herb Gardeners: Cold Weather Crop Problems and Oregon Water Rationing

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Photo By Fotolia/kazakovmaksim
Regional herb gardeners talk about a dry Oregon summer that leads to water rationing and wilting herbs.

Regional herb gardeners discuss problems related to gardening in their area.

Regional Herb Gardeners: Weather Talk

DENVER, COLORADO—Why do weatherpersons insist on buzzwords and gobbledygook instead of plain English? I suppose longer is better: “thunderstorm activity” sounds more important than “thunderstorms”. And does anybody really care that today’s weather is “due to an upper level disturbance, resulting in clockwise rotation and upslope conditions”? This penchant for wordiness has also engendered massive overuse of “wise” as a suffix. “Temperature-wise, it’ll be mild.” “Precipitation-wise, you’ll need an inch of water on your lawn.”

They and I seldom agree on what a beautiful day really is. One local weatherperson labeled as “dismal” a forecast of 77 degrees and possible afternoon showers. I call that perfect. She was much more enthusiastic about the weekend—sunny and 90 degrees. I consider that prediction just short of hellish. Perhaps she likes to look out the window of her air-conditioned office and see sunshine, but I prefer to be chased indoors by a rainstorm. I’m concerned with my personal comfort, of course, but I also interpret the weather report for the way it affects my plants. Will it freeze tonight? Is it too hot for transplanting? Should I water in the newly planted bulbs, or will the rain do it? Is the humidity too low for the fuchsias?

For weatherpersons, only two kinds of plants are worth mentioning. As cold weather approaches, they transfer their attention from the first—lawn grass—to the second—the tomato. “You’ll need to cover your tomato plants tonight.” Or, conversely: “You won’t need to cover your tomato plants tonight.” Thanks. Now I can sleep soundly and not worry, tomato-wise, about scattered snow shower activity from an advancing Pacific front stalled over the northeast quadrant.

—Rob Proctor

Oregon Weather Season

NEWBERG, OREGON—This past summer has been a unique gardening experience. May was the hottest and driest month in recorded Oregon history, and everything in the garden happened two to three weeks earlier than usual. The herbs shot up overnight: one day we were trying to weed, and the next day we were cutting back the herbs to find the weeds. Everyone commented on how large the plants and flowers were this year. More warm, dry days followed, and the herb garden became one big flurry of bloom. All the lavenders flowered at once, and we had to scramble to keep up with the harvest.

Then, all of a sudden, the garden expired from heat and thirst as Oregon experienced its first water rationing. As a native Oregonian, I found this hard to take: our state is renowned for its rainy days and lush green growth. To see the garden suffering from drought was painful.

The only consolation was the tremendous butterfly invasion. It began with clouds of painted ladies migrating from Mexico that visited us for two to three weeks before continuing northward. Three weeks later, however, their eggs hatched, and fuzzy black caterpillars devastated anything with silver foliage, particularly Arte­misia ‘Silver Brocade’ and A. abrotanum ‘Silver’, and several thymes. After several weeks and manual search-and-destroy patrols, their numbers decreased, and the plants all recovered.

Later, our more familiar yellow swallowtail and Oregon monarch arrived. They appeared to be equally attracted to the hot pink, orange, and purple agastaches (A. coccinea and A. ‘Pink Panther’) and butterfly bush (Buddleia sp.) as to the more muted violet mountain monarda (Monardella odoratissima), lavenders, and creeping thymes. I saw many new kinds of butterflies this year, including the beautiful blue, black, and cream-colored mourning cloak, which I chased all around the greenhouse with my camera in hand.

My more tender South American natives thrived in the heat and humidity, blooming practically non-stop. Two hummingbirds were quick to discover the 2-foot-long bright pink spikes of Agastache mexicana at either end of my 100-foot-long greenhouse. They came in at least twice a day, flying back and forth, creating a chirping ruckus as they fought for first rights to the nectar. If I entered the greenhouse with plants in hand, they would be most upset at this invasion of their privacy, eventually landing on a wire, staring down with mighty indignation before an impulsive and speedy exit. When the greenhouse at last became too hot even for them, the hummingbirds confined themselves to the formal herb garden and some of the potted stock plants yet to be planted out.

One such treasure I happened upon at my local nursery. I love lavenders, and when presented with a new lavender plant, I get really excited. An herb peddler from California had sold the nursery a flat of what he called “creeping lavender”. I have never heard or read of a lavender with a creeping or prostrate habit, but there it was, spilling over its pot much as a prostrate rosemary would. A fellow customer remarked that it was popular several years ago in San Francisco, where it was known as Lavandula repens and was used as a ground cover. Its short spikes of deep purple flowers are similar to those of L. ‘Hidcote’. If any readers know more about this plant, please enlighten me.

The latest trade news is the growing popularity of nepetas. Along with the familiar catnip (Nepeta cataria), catmint (N. faassenii), and such cultivars as ‘Six Hills Giant’ and ‘Dropmore’, some exciting species are now being imported from eastern Europe: N. parnassica, native to Greece, with good silver foliage and long white flower spikes; and mhina, N. yunnanensis, with large blue flowers in loose spikes above the foliage. I recently acquired N. tuberosa, a native of Spain, Portugal, and Sicily, whose 10-inch-long tight flower spikes of minute dark purple flowers are held above somewhat coarse silvery foliage. All do well in full sun and well-drained soils. With two dogs as a formidable deterrent, I cannot say whether these new nepetas attract cats.

—Andy Van Hevelingen

Innocent Autumn Garden Dawdling

LANSING, NEW YORK—It’s that lovely time of year again when gardeners can pad around their precious properties, tucking in plants for the long winter rest, taking time to enjoy the aspects of leaf, flower, and stem with a clear conscience. In spring and summer, when the battle with the weeds is going full tilt, dawdling is inevitably accompanied by pangs of guilt. Autumn allows a person to catch up on dawdling.

There’s a lot to observe, too, since the nippy nights have intensified all the colors; the pink of late roses is pinker and the blue of tardy cranesbills (Geranium spp.) a truer blue. Even the grays—of santolina and lavender, for example—are embellished with a silver-blue sheen they didn’t have during the heat of summer. Look, too, at the Lamium cultivars ‘Beacon Silver’ and ‘White Nancy’; their gleam is almost metallic. And surely the scent of autumn air is the year’s best, laden as it is with the aroma of Queen-Anne’s-lace and sweet autumn clematis—to say nothing of the pleasant musty odor of wet, fallen leaves.

My hot-color garden has been such a joy in this, its second year. It’s enclosed by a high fence so that when you enter, you’re in a secret garden. I glory in the bright yellows of the yarrows (Achillea ‘Coronation Gold’ and ‘Gold Plate’) and various coreopsis such as the double ‘Sun Ray’, the feathery Coreopsis verticillata ‘Zagreb’, and the 6-inch, continuously blooming C. auriculata ‘Nana’. Heleniums are there in yellow and red. There’s real purple in heliotrope and Salvia ‘Victoria’, following the reddish-purple of campanulas and veronicas. Plum or wine-red foliage is provided by perilla, ‘Purple Ruffles’ basil, and the wonderful leaves of Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’. The bishop’s “fierce red flowers”, as Graham Stuart Thomas calls them, are simply a bonus.

Lychnis arkwrightii ‘Vesuvius’ seeded itself from last summer’s plants, producing splashes of wild orange-vermillion in the early part of the season. (I find that self-sown seedlings of all kinds generally are stouter and healthier than those you raise in a flat.) But I won’t list all the plants in this garden; just picture a small, enclosed formal garden exploding with the hottest colors to be found in the flower kingdom, and then add the hummingbirds that visit it appreciatively all summer long. They probably imagine they’re really in Mexico or Argentina.

—Elisabeth Sheldon

IHGMA: Time for Medicine

WOLFTOWN, VIRGINIA—“Make new friends, but keep the old.” That old Girl Scout refrain runs through my head whenever I think back on the 1992 conference of the International Herb Growers and Mar­keters Association (IHGMA) in Fort Worth this past July. It was our seventh annual conference, and each year it’s like an in-gathering of special friends you see just once a year. Herb people make extra-special friends, and the IHGMA keeps adding new members, who quickly become old friends.

This year, the news of the Association—economic and otherwise—was all good. Interest in herbs continues to expand, and although there are pockets of businesses, especially in the hard-hit Northeast, that are still struggling through the recession, herb entrepreneurs generally are thriving and reporting increased business.

As always, some of the most valuable exchanges happened over the dinner table or in the halls outside the educational sessions. The sessions themselves were informative and inspiring in spite of the perennial and insoluble frustration of overlap (for every session you attend, there are two others you have to miss). Buckets of potpourri and soaked fine rag became beautiful paper designs under the direction of Sharon Lovejoy; six gorgeous herbal arrangements evolved under Donald Haynie’s hands, along with excellent advice on achieving such results; the concept and the quirks of the herbal “fairie festivals” that are popping up across the country were deftly presented by Betsy Williams; and the sessions on herb schools and how to carry off a successful herb festival were packed.

This year, the membership formally resolved to increase the number of educational sessions on medicinal herbs. This has been a pet campaign for me, and the time has come. Newsweek has reported increasing acceptance of alternative therapies. Even the National Institute of Health has allocated $2 million for research on alternative medicines. Although that’s a paltry sum, given their total budget, it’s a foot solidly wedged in what was previously considered a closed door. Most important of all for me is former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s statement in a recent Washington Post editorial: “The scientific basis of medicine is much weaker than most patients or even physicians realize . . . . For true reform to succeed, we must also make it possible for the values and attitudes of patients to play the central role in the choice of treatment.” Now that’s revolutionary! And it’s time for the IHGMA to join the revolution.

—Portia Meares

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