Even Mother Nature was in perfect form today giving us southern New England mothers, and other gardening souls as well, an absolutely lovely afternoon to clean up our garden beds, sow our cool season seeds, tend our transplants, and prune a large amount of winter kill from roses and thymes. A brisk wind made it comfortable outdoors in a light sweatshirt and kept those nasty black flies from finding their much desired food source – me!

About fifteen years ago or so, we turned one quadrant of the vegetable garden into an approximately 12 foot by 15 foot herb garden. It looks like a rectangular ‘C’ with a smaller rectangle in the middle. The center bed was originally filled with a dozen varieties of thyme but over the years, the lemon, golden, and red-flowered ones are all that remain. The garden bed version of ‘Survivor’ I guess. I chose thyme to fill in this area because I happened upon a sun dial with the inscription ‘Tempus Fugit’ – time flies and I immediately thought that a thyme/time bed would be the perfect match for this garden ornament.  The problem with my herb garden is that it is in a low lying area of the yard and in wet winters the water table rises quite high and the root zone is saturated. The rock-lined raised beds improve drainage somewhat but not nearly enough to reliably grow those few choice herbs that absolutely, positively cannot tolerate wet feet – like lavender, garden sage, Russian sage, and a number of thyme varieties. I could choose to relocate the herb garden but I like it where it is so I just opt to replant when necessary and fill in with annuals.

Center bed of thyme

Center bed of thyme

Several herb species, like pineapple mint, lemon balm, artemesia, three kinds of chives, and betony have no problem living with wet feet and I continually need to either lift and divide them or deadhead to prevent these plants from taking over the whole herb garden and then some. Giving the garden a once over early in the season when the soil is moist and loose makes it easier to pull up wandering mints and lemon balm seedlings, and divide over exuberant clumps of chives.

I have two old-fashioned roses at the front corners of the herb garden. One is an Old World gallica called ‘Alika’. It has bright fushia, sweetly scented, single blossoms, rather large rose hips, and a propensity for sending up shoots into the oregano. The other I call the Franklin rose. The flowers are partially quartered so I think there is some cabbage rose in its lineage. They are a marvelous, pale pink with that soft, sensual, true rose fragrance. While visiting family in Franklin, MA I noticed a for sale sign at a house whose gardens I remember well from my youth. Now the beds looked sad and neglected. As if making a run for freedom, this old rose had sent suckers out into the front yard bordering the street. I clipped a few of its lovely flowers as a reminder of the care free days of yesteryear and when I got home decided to try and root the stems. One took and has been my companion for more than twenty years now.

One of my favorite combinations in the herb garden this time of year are the Purple Sensation alliums and Silver King artemesia. The alliums are about 2 or 3 inches in diameter and stand about 2 feet or so tall. Flowering alliums have quite beautiful blooms that are very attractive to bees but their foliage begins to look brown and ratty before they are done flowering. Placing the bulbs in the artemesia patch helps to camouflage the dying leaves while illuminating the flowers. These bulbs seem to have no issues with the poor winter drainage situation. Indeed, they increase in number each year.

Beautiful flowers but unattractive allium foliage

Beautiful flowers but unattractive allium foliage

 

Alliums planted in silver leaved artemesia

Alliums planted in silver leaved artemesia

As the alliums begin to fade, the baptisia becomes a rhapsody in blue. Now mature, it reaches almost five feet in height and width. Despite attempts to stake this beauty, once the flowers start to fade and seed heads begin to form, it becomes so top heavy that I end up cutting the top back a bit to keep it from covering the path. I let a few seed pods mature each year. The seeds need the winter stratification to germinate. I started this plant from seeds given to me by a garden club friend and now I try and pot up a few seedlings each year for our annual garden club plant sale.

There are several plants that are mostly annuals or short-lived perennials that reseed themselves in my herb garden each year. Probably the most prolific is chamomile. I have the tall type with small, white, daisy-like flowers. Blooming right now are pink corydalis which are sought after by hummingbirds. Seeds of these two plants continue to germinate throughout the summer. I thin them and sometimes move them to more appropriate locations. Calendulas and bronze fennel come back but in quantities that make them more than welcome. Sometimes my pineapple alpine strawberries also seed themselves as does the rue.

As I am going through the garden, I also add a bit of ground limestone and some slow release fertilizer. Either cocoa shell or buckwheat hull mulch is great for this garden because of the small sized particles. I find they set off the herbs plants to a greater extent than coarser bark mulches. I will put some mulch down now and then after I transplant warm weather loving basils, marigolds, sages and other finds into the garden around Memorial Day, I will top it with a final one inch layer.         

Dawn P.