The Grown-Up Herb Garden

| October/November 1998

  • Illustrations by Susan Strawn Bailey

We all reach a time in our lives when we have to admit to a certain amount of maturity.

Being a grown-up has its advantages, certainly, but also its responsibilities and cares and its potential for crossing a line somewhere into aging, getting set in our ways, rootbound, maybe a little careworn. So, too, our gardens.

A garden bed starts as empty earth, new, fresh, with creative possibilities that fire up novice and experienced gardeners alike—a chance to discover, plan, shape, explore and transform. The first few years, the plants that survive settle in, establish their zones, reach out to touch their neighbors, as we scurry around to fill the bare spots with even more of them. Some plants begin to sprinkle their progeny into the empty spaces, and all of sudden, there’s a lush and bountiful garden where once there was bare soil.

For vegetable gardeners, a bed renews itself yearly at the gardener’s hand, but for perennial gardeners, renewal is ongoing. We add new plants each year, watching and learning about them, tinkering with color combinations and bloom times so that with each passing season, the garden gets easier and more pleasurable. It begins to sprawl into its own graceful shape and wage its own battles with bugs and weeds. It becomes a grown-up with a mind of its own, and the gardener’s reins loosen.

“An older garden is easier to take care of because you’ve had the time to tune it. You know what’s going to do well and survive because the plants have already proved themselves,” says Rob Proctor, who tends an acre in a suburban neighborhood in Denver, Colorado.

The day may come, however—maybe after five years, maybe ten, maybe more—when we notice for the first time that, oh my, this is a mess, who’s in charge here? The once-wonderful shrub in the corner is so overgrown, it’s stealing air, water, space, and nutrients from the now-puny herbs for which it was supposed to be a graceful backdrop. Sweet Annie is not so sweet since its seedlings invaded the thymes’ crevices in the flagstone pathways. The shadow of the trees along the property line is threatening to swallow the sun-loving culinary herb bed whole. Self-seeding has resulted in some color combinations that we can’t bear to look at, and we wonder why on earth we planted hyssop and Russian sage, which need virtually no water, next to Joe-Pye weed, which wants a lot.

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