Herb Garden: Part One

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Usually by now, I have cleared out my herb garden of winter leaf mulch and readied the soil for adding annual herbs to the returning perennials such as sage and thyme, but not this year. The calendar says it’s mid-April, but the trees flap their hands and insist it’s still March as icy winds sweep down from the Cascade Mountains.

Nonetheless, saucer magnolias bloom all over town and tulips bob their red heads. My grape hyacinths have laid a blue carpet before the front gate. Violets spring up among heart-shaped leaves edging the front porch and the brick paths of the herb garden.

Herb gardens began some five thousand years ago among Chinese physicians. Over the centuries, herb cultivation spread to Egypt, Greece, and Italy. For medicinal purposes, Hippocrates cultivated herbaceous plants found in the Mediterranean area. Roman matriarchs designed and established kitchen gardens; Cicero’s wife comes to mind. In Medieval times, European monks and nuns concocted herbal remedies from plants in their walled gardens. In fact, these monastery gardens may have been the precursor of what the French later laid out in parterres — symmetrical beds within large rectangles, with paths running between the beds for easy access to the herbs. (More about these ancient gardens in a future post.

My own little herb garden began as a potager,  a kitchen garden similar to the photo shown at the top. It was laid out in a 20 ft. x 12 ft. rectangle extending from the patio on the east side of our house. After my husband rented a rototiller to dig up the ground, we both were astonished to find numerous chunks of construction debris that had been buried rather than hauled away when the neighborhood was developed back in the ’60s. The clay-like dirt had to be amended with loads of top soil mixed with peat moss and vermiculite. Only then could we purchase a variety of vegetables, both plants and seeds, and get them into the ground.

Many were the spring nights we rushed outside, after listening to late news dew frost reports, to cover tender plants with white paper “hot caps” we bought from hardware stores. Those nightly scrambles were worth the trouble. There was nothing sweeter than dining alfresco, right beside the little garden, eating fresh turnip greens growing at our feet! Brussels sprouts didn’t do so well, however; they turned moldy. Bibb lettuce was lovely, but carrots ended up short and stubby. Common green beans and tomatoes, on the other hand, thrived abundantly. I invited two little girls from next door to help me pick surplus beans and gave them half of the harvest to take home. In turn, their mother gave me a recipe for beans and tomatoes slow-cooked with a ham hock — another delightful supper outside by the garden.

After wearing out all my paper hot caps, I gave up growing vegetables and, instead, dedicated the plot to herbs. I designed a simple parterre and bordered it with a low hedge of English boxwood on three sides. Another neighbor told me about old bricks from demolished buildings downtown, so I collected a couple of dozen for a crosswalk to intersect the quadrants.

In the center, I placed a large clay pot planted first with a small nondescript rose bush (it didn’t survive the winter), then a bushy rosemary (it didn’t survive winter, either), finally a little bay tree (which did survive, three winters, before succumbing). I “settled” for a pedestal with a sundial, and it still marks the hours of thyme planted at its base.

To accent each quadrant, I added Old Roses. Two reverted to root stock but the other two, grown on their own roots, continue to thrive and bloom in May and June after nearly four decades.

Since herb gardens should feature a place to sit, we bought a simple concrete bench from one of the local garden centers, and placed it against the bare east wall of the house, overlooking the herb garden to the lawns and perennial beds beyond. How lovely to lean back against sun-warmed wood with my prayer book and a mug of tea before beginning my day!

A few years later, we moved the bench to another garden area and installed a white wood bench arbor in its place. Honeysuckle tangled with a climbing New Dawn (c. 1930) clamors over the top. Finches build their nests up there. English ivy covers the once bare walls.

Italian parsley, French sorrel, French thyme, blue sage, chives, and marjoram return every April or May. Rosemary in a pot comes out after a winter on the kitchen windowsill. I add annuals such as chervil, dill, and summer savory. Basil goes into the ground later, May or June, depending upon late frost warnings.  Even so, if a late chill doesn’t blacken the leaves, earwigs will chew them down to the stems.

By mid-summer, my herb garden resembles a rambling Cotswold cottage plot rather than a more formal French parterre, but I don’t mind. I enjoy the exuberance. Bushy lemon balm borders the brick walks after taking over the early spring violets. They emit a delightful lemony scent when my legs brush against their soft leaves. I love to snip a sprig and add, along with a thin slice of lemon or lime, to summer drinks from ginger ale to lemonade, white wine to even cold water on warm summer days and nights.

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Watch for future posts featuring Colonial American Herb Gardens, Medieval Herb Gardens, Persian Garden Design.




Author: www.rosesintherainmemoir.wordpress.com

Celebrating just over fifty years of holy matrimony, I am blessed to be a mother of two and grandmother of seven. Much of my writing speaks to the culture and tradition of the Deep South, where I spent the first thirty-five years of my life before relocating to the Pacific Northwest. As a poet and essayist, I’ve published both online and in print media. I launched this INVITATION TO THE GARDEN blog the summer of 2017 on WordPress.com. I look forward to hearing your stories, too!

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