ATLANTA, Georgia–This is a fine time for planting here. Temperatures are cooling down, and so the herbs are losing less moisture from their leaves and generally need less tending. The soil remains warm after the long, hot summer, and newly planted perennial herbs and woody aromatic trees and shrubs continue to grow roots and become established late into the season. I planted two dozen rooted cuttings of rosemary in one section of my vegetable garden-cum-nursery in mid-September, and they are growing vast root systems in the loose soil. I am planning to put in bayberry (known as wax myrtle here in the South) along a portion of our boundary as an aromatic visual barrier; my target planting date is the third week of October. Fall is a great time to transplant, refine design and plant combinations, and generally eliminate any errors in judgment from my herb garden. The herbs don’t miss a beat after being moved during the balmy days of October, November, and December.
Unfortunately, autumn is also the time that pine voles seem to come into full bloom. Pine voles are small, gray, mouselike creatures with a stub of a tail. Villainous vegetarians, they tunnel under the mulch and gnaw the roots and crowns of my finest myrtle topiaries and most expensive tree roses. When a healthy plant wilts overnight and can be pulled right out of the ground, rootless, I know that the voles ate it. Voles are also mad for tulip bulbs, but I use garlic to outfox them. One spring, 2 tulips out of 200 came up. The following autumn, I made cages out of 1/2-inch-mesh hardware cloth, dug holes, buried the cages, then planted a dozen tulips in each one. What a lot of work! I have since discovered that planting a clove of garlic in the same hole with every third tulip has the same result: the scoundrels leave my tulips alone. The garlic sprouts a narrow leaf or two, marking the tulip planting but not interfering with anything. When I yank up the spent tulips, I can either pull up the garlic or leave it for a garlic harvest in June. I also ring the area where I plant beans and English peas with chives to foil the voles.
I’m anticipating that our first hard frosts will delay as usual until the first or second week in December, leaving me the glorious months of October and November to enjoy the scent of ginger lilies in my garden. When not busy transplanting, I love nothing better than to walk through the clouds of fragrance surrounding the white flowers of Hedychium coronarium this time of year. You may know them as garland flower, butterfly ginger, or cinnamon jasmine in your part of the country. These tall members of the ginger family never get around to blooming until late fall. It’s because they are from tropical Asia and need a long growing season. Ginger lilies need rich soil and plenty of water; they grow even when immersed up to the crowns. Last fall, I moved them to the overflow swale for my pond, and now I have plenty of shoots to dig up and give away. They are spreading rapidly, pushing rhizomes into the Jerusalem sage and under the moth mullein and sending up shoots in an ever-increasing circle. A friend has come twice to my garden with empty bushel baskets to take away loads of many kinds of plants, including surplus ginger lilies. At that time, George boasted of pink and yellow ginger lilies in his garden. (I wonder if they are forms of H. coronarium or maybe H. spicatum, whose rhizomes are used for perfume in India.) I think that I might pay him a return visit armed with my spading fork. It would only be neighborly.
Pineapple sage is another fragrant plant that’s in full glory come late fall, awash with bright red tubular flowers. I saved a choice spot at the edge of the border for it, and now it spills out over the lawn. It’s quite a sight, especially when the hummingbirds find it. Each spring, it sprouts from the crown, but occasionally a severe winter kills it. I must remember to root cuttings inside against that possibility.
I was impressed by a vivid color combination in the Birmingham Botanical Garden’s autumn herb garden: dazzling red pineapple sage, dark blue-violet bedding salvia (probably Victoria), and golden yellow Mexican tarragon. Together, the brilliance of their colors is amplified.
Tagetes lucida–I call it Mexican tarragon, but you may know it as mint marigold or sweet-scented marigold–is perennial in my garden and blooms late into fall. When my sons were younger, they held the distinction of taking the last garden bouquets in to their teachers: bright yellow Mexican tarragon for the Thanksgiving holidays. Now, alas, the boys are too sophisticated for that. To keep Mexican tarragon from growing too tall in the border, I cut it back to 18 inches in July and in half again in early September. Cutting any later prevents it from setting buds and flowering before winter. Although Mexican tarragon is evergreen along the Gulf Coast, it dies to the ground each winter in Atlanta. It’s late to sprout in the spring, but just as I start to get anxious, there it comes. As the name indicates, the cuttings smell of licorice or tarragon, a welcome scent when I’m in the middle of weeding chores or on a garden stroll. Since the true tarragon languishes in our hot, humid summers, Mexican tarragon is a suitable replacement. I think I’ll move some late yellow chrysanthemums next to it for a big show at the end of November.