Notes from Regional Herb Gardeners
Jo Ann Gardner
WESTPORT, New York—We all need soil—after all, it’s the medium we use to grow the herby plants we love. But let’s be frank: soil is boring. It’s the plants we lust for, especially in spring when the first sight of unfurled leaf, swelling bud and fresh flowers makes our hearts beat faster. This, not the plain ground beneath, is what satisfies our gardening souls.
That may be, but as I have learned, a little passion for soil will go a long way toward creating the kind of gardens we dream about, full and lush, not only in the spring when conditions are nearly perfect—gently warm and moist—but throughout the entire growing season, through searing heat, droughts or torrential rains.
As a conscientious gardener I always spread compost on my planting beds in the spring and fall on top of the natural soil. Such a virtuous feeling, this spreading of good stuff on the ground, knowing you are creating rich, friable soil. I was especially pleased with the job I’d done in creating a bed that extended 2 to 3 feet beyond the network of tree roots in dry shade, so I could plant the spring and early-summer herbs I love: lungwort, cowslips, violas, sweet cicely and bistort—a plant I’ve grown in sun and shade—in tight borders and naturalized in damp meadows.
But last summer’s heat and drought (weeks of searing sun with temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s), when even plants in the deepest shade wilted whether they were watered or not, jolted my complacency. A shade border of pink astilbe, Japanese painted fern and herb Robert that had filled out a bay beneath ash, oak and maple made a pleasing midsummer picture—but not for long. Soon leaves curled or turned brown, and herb Robert, a robust, hard-to-kill ground cover, simply dried up and disappeared.
By chance I read George Schenk’s reissued classic (originally published in 1984) The Complete Shade Gardener (Timber Press, 2002), and from the author’s remarks about ideal soil and what can be grown in it, I suddenly understood where I had gone wrong. Schenk tells us that there is a plant for every degree of shade and every soil condition from hardpan clay to sand, but if you want to grow a wider range of plants than tough ground covers, you must create a thick soil blanket at least 6 inches deep on top of existing soil. In other words, it’s not enough to amend existing soil (or topdress it as I had done), you must build it up by making it ever deeper. When you have created a deep base you can even grow sun-loving plants in partial shade. By extension, I realized that my plantings in full sun, which had survived drought but, under stress were not deep enough, and those in dry shade had been scanted even more.
“Deep, deep soil” became my mantra and last fall, before snow curtailed garden activities, I spread 30 heaped wheelbarrow loads of compost to all beds, in sun, partial shade and shade. What drives this new passion for planting depth is the memory of burned-up, disappearing herb Robert, a favorite ground cover. “Deep beds” has a satisfying sound to it, a promise of better times ahead.
Spring, the best of times, brings new growth from the old, from a hint of leaf and bud one day to a spreading plant, fully clothed in new, fresh green finery, the next. We are, of course, enchanted. Who can resist the return of such refreshing, innocent beauty in our midst? But when I look down on the emerging flora, I admire the deep, dark-brown earthy compost carpet that surrounds them, a little rough but full of character with bits of sawdust and stray hay; not quite decomposed manure, not yet earth. This is humus, the result of decomposing household and farmyard waste, supplemented by truckloads of animal litter from the local fairgrounds, dating from more than a year to several months ago. It has a homely, comforting look, and when I push my fingers into it, they go deep down to below plant roots where it is cool, moist and protective. In drought, it will retain moisture; in deluge, it will drain it away. And because it contains manure, it will not only improve the soil texture, but also feed the plants. When you begin to think that in building deep soil you are creating a refuge for the plants you love, this job will become a fundamental part of your gardening life, and as satisfying as the most beautiful garden scene.
RIVERTON, Wyoming—Glorious spring! What a joy to be able to pick herbs fresh from the garden instead of being totally dependent on the grocery store or my freezer selections. Chives, sage, tiny dill sprouts, tarragon and mint are now growing on the south side of the house. Seedlings are planted under lights and in the greenhouse. Soon, I’ll have a huge selection of fresh greens.
I have become an avid advocate of Slow Food, a movement started in 1986 in Italy as a reaction to McDonald’s restaurants coming to downtown Rome. Instead of uniformity of taste through the use of preservatives, artificial ingredients and food additives, Slow Food advocates work to preserve regional flavors and cuisines. Meals are savored instead of being gobbled on the run. Herbs, rather than artificial flavorings, are used to enhance dishes. Artisans prepare food using time-honored techniques. Good food is a part of everyday life.
I try to serve fruits and vegetables in season grown as close to home as possible. That is not always an obtainable goal in wintry Wyoming, but I try to support growers and suppliers closer to home when shopping at the local markets. We are lucky to have ranchers in this county using organic, humane methods to raise sheep, cattle and poultry.
I first learned about the Slow Food method several years ago from the chef/owners of the Old Yellowstone Garage when they were located in Dubois, Wyoming. Their meals were simply but exquisitely prepared. They always used fresh herbs not only for the ubiquitous garnish but to enhance the flavors of all of their dishes. In the past year, the movement has been written up in many mainstream lifestyle magazines, talked about on National Public Radio and featured in beautiful books and cookbooks.
The National Endowment for the Humanities (Wyoming chapter) reading group I belong to read a series called “Books that Made a Difference.” Our first selection was Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring (Mariner Books, 2002). Carson was one of the first to speak out against the pervasive use of pesticides and herbicides to increase food yields without thought being given to potential serious effects on people, animals or insect life. While facing severe criticism, she wrote, lectured and spoke to Congress about the harmful effects of widespread chemical use.
My daughter graduated from the New England Culinary Institute in November 2002. At her graduation, the keynote speaker was Steven Saunders, a master chef from Great Britain. He is prominent in the fight for organic foods and involved with Bonterra Vineyards, a purveyor of organically grown wines in California. Saunders is passionate about healthy, fresh foods simply prepared. He spoke about supporting local growers, buying foods in season and preserving what can be described as peasant foods. He stressed the importance of introducing children to healthy homemade food both to help preserve the family unit and to preserve our planet. He warned against biogenetically engineered foods.
Our large chain grocery stores are now offering a larger variety of fresh fruits and vegetables with a great amount of space dedicated to organics. How wonderful. Even with global warming, the growing rate of obesity and the proliferation of chain restaurants, a healthier, more positive approach to food is becoming increasingly common all over the United States. Good food is going mainstream.
With the new growing season and spring bursting upon us, I plan to renew my efforts to grow and use a variety of herbs and vegetables. I will support the local farmers’ market and seek out local growers. Last year, after some research, I discovered a surprisingly long list of organic growers in rural Wyoming. The food we serve our family and friends can be organic, sustainable and healthy with the growing influence of growers, activists and home cooks whose voices really do seem to be making a difference.
ATLANTA, Georgia—In April and May, my herb garden is in full bloom. Enclosed within a hedge of dwarf Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), a native medicinal shrub, the herbs are mostly low-growing. Some of the biennial flower stalks rise to heights of 4 to 6 feet, but the majority of them are only knee-high. To give height to my oval garden, my husband helped me to build an arbor at either end, and I have planted them with herbal vines. I grow coral honeysuckle, clematis and climbing roses, but my favorite vine for this use is hops.
Hops (Humulus lupulus) are perennial vines that die to the ground each winter. This time of year, hops break dormancy, sprout out of the ground and grow rapidly, 6 inches a day or more. It takes only about 10 days for the thin, hairy vines to clamber up my trellis and spill over the top. In his book Perennial Garden Plants (Sagapress, 1990), Graham Stuart Thomas uses the word “rampageous” to describe their pattern of growth, and to this I might add “stampeding.” The vines are twining, brittle at first and then semi-woody by mid-summer. I find they need some direction or tying before they find their way up the trellis unassisted. The coarsely toothed, 3- to 5-lobed leaves are attractive, if somewhat hairy.
The type of hops I choose for my arbor is golden hops (H. l. ‘Aurea’). The leaves are a brilliant yellow-chartreuse in spring, fading to plain green later in the season. I find they don’t scorch even if grown in the hot Atlanta sun, and the leaves tend to stay yellow longer. Hops are members of the Cannabidaceae, which also includes cannabis, or hemp.
At the end of summer, the plants flower and to my eye they look as though they are hung with green shrimp. The drooping female cones slowly turn to a soft tan or light brown and are highly decorative in autumn. In his Herbal of 1597, Gerard points out, “The floures are used to season Beere or Ale with, and too many do cause bitterness thereof, and are ill for the head.” Districts in England, Germany and the Yakima Valley in Washington state are known for their harvests of the bitter herb. In the United States, herb nurseries such as Nichols Garden Nursery in Albany, Oregon, offer several named cultivars of hops, and Arthur O. Tucker, Ph.D., and Thomas DeBaggio in The Big Book of Herbs (Interweave Press, 2000) point out the relative merits and chemistry behind 18 cultivars for the benefit of gardeners and home brewers.
In addition to beer, hop flowers have long been used to stuff sleep pillows for a soothing night’s sleep because of the lupulin they contain. I dry the cones quickly, spreading them out loosely on a sheet in my hot, dark, well-ventilated attic, and when they are dry and crackling to the touch, they are ready for use. I add lemon verbena and chamomile to the dried hops, and sandwich them between layers of cotton felt and chintz or calico. Then I quickly machine-quilt them into flat mats about 10 by 12 inches and slip them under the bed pillows for a somniferous effect.
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