Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Bob's Herb Garden

Weeds thrive in most of my garden beds and in most there is a steady march of encroaching grasses. I'm neither proud nor embarrassed about this, just the fact. One of the things about gardening among weeds is that many wonderful flower garden plants simply cannot survive the competition for long.

It's pretty common for people to become quite acquisitive when they first start gardening, but plants are expensive to purchase, so the ardor cools when expensive plants fail to take hold. Most of my garden beds have less than ideal soil and I'm no good at watering. I've killed a lot of plants in my day. So I like tough plants and many herbs fit that description.

Bob's a friend of mine. He bought a new house a few years back. The first summer he was there he did some nice plantings on his city lot. The platings were somewhat formal. I still think that the bigger part of Bob's aesthetic really is toward the formal, but over the last couple of seasons his planting style seems looser. I chalk this up to the sister of acquisitive, known to those beginning a garden, inquisitive. It's awfully interesting to plug a plant in the garden and see what happens.

A bit of advice proffered to beginning gardeners is to eschew "gift" plants from other gardeners. The rationale is that if a gardener has enough of some plant to give away, it's probably a rampant grower you'll regret introducing into the garden. The other side of that coin is when flowers bloom from plants given to you by friends, it seems like you're receiving a bouquet just from them. Really, I think it's quite possible to get very fine plants from the gardens of friends. The problem is in the timing. You've just got to be in the right place at the right time. Spring and autumn are the best times and especially in the spring there's just too much going on and the connections frequently aren't made.

I was very pleased that this past weekend Bob was around and expressed interest in some plants from the garden. In addition to all my weedy plants there are some gems in the garden, just not in great abundance. I had told Bob earlier to come out and get some plants, and without thinking about it too much, probably had the more refined plants in mind. Bob surprised me by asking about herb plants.

The good thing is that Bob has been in my garden in every season. He's got at least some idea about how big and weedy some of the plants are. While his back yard is not huge it's got some very nice hardscape. There is a well built stone wall bisecting the space and defining an area around a patio and grassy sitting area. I can imagine larger and vigorous plants in the area on the other side of the wall. Even still, I was a bit leery about some of the plants we dug for him to take home. My suspicion is that after a year or so many of them will be yanked out. Nevertheless it should be fun to watch them grow and there are so many wonderful herbs to grow these gift plants may be the beginning of a discovery of the wonderful world of herbs.

I'm not sure I remember all of the plants Bob got, but while it's fresh in my mind I thought I'd list them with their common names and scientific names. Scientific names seem to put people off. I know that one problem I have is proper pronunciation. The form for scientific names is the genus first then the species. Related genera are placed into families. The trouble with common names is many plants have multiple common names and many different plants are called the same common name. So the scientific names are useful. Knowing the generic name is useful, but not the whole ball game as species in the same genus can be quite unlike each other except in some formal way. The formal ways plants are alike is interesting and useful, so eventually the scientific names and families of plants become important to gardeners. Still what people really want to know are the common names of things.

We started out gathering plants by my little house. There's a colony of Hens and Chickens in the wall. I've got them growing in walls all over and all of them started with a very few I purchased long ago. Over the years I just pull a few of the "chickens" from the mother plant and stick them in a wall. I think Bob took a few. Hens and Chickens are also called Houseleeks the scientific name is Sempervivum. I'm not sure of the species I have, they're of the most common sort, so I suspect they are Sempervivum tectorum. Whatever they are I hope they grow for Bob. There are so many interesting species and cultivars that Sempervivum can be fun to collect and grow.

From there we walked down to the garden by the drainage easement. The ground in that portion is very hard clay. One plant that grows reliably even competing against the invasive grasses is Apple Mint, Mentha suaveolens. Actually I think I got a selection that's supposed to be Pineapple mint. Plants in the Mentha genus tend to cross with other mints easily, so the best characteristics don't come true to seed. The results are quite variable. Mints are easy to grow in this climate--too easy for many gardens. The upside of the variablity in the genus is people have selected plants with excellent characteristics, but you get those from cuttings or bits of rooted stem from those particular plants. My Pineapple mint isn't the best of the breed, but a nice plant nonetheless.

Crossing the bridge into the back garden area there's a boarder planting in very stony ground. I've got some Junipers and evergreens started and eventually I want to get more. For now I've got some very willing plants growing and Bob chose two that are almost invasive: Tansy and Mugwort. I gave Bob two little Mugwort plants. I suspect after a summer of growing those and seeing how big and fast they grow they'll will be the first to be yanked out of his garden. Mugwort is Artemesia vulgaris. The undersides of the leaves are whitish so the shrub is pretty in a way. Bob wanted Artemesia absinthium, which I have grown well in years past. It seems to require good drainage, and that's why I don't have it anymore. Mugwort isn't so easily discouraged. Tansy is Tanacetum vulgare. That plant is invasive. I warned Bob and gave him only a single plant. I know he likes the look and smell of it, but I predict that eventually it will be banished from his garden too.

We walked up to the little frog pond. Here we collected Meadowsweet and Lady's Mantel, both garden worthy plants. Meadowsweet is a name shared by several different plants, and it's a plant with numerous common names. What Bob got is Filipendula ulmaria. This is a very venerable herb, from which Felix Hoffman derived Asprin. The graceful, fragrant white flowers begin blooming about the same time as my Peonies so I sometimes include them in Peony bouquets. Lady's Mantel is Alchemilla molis. I like the name Alchemilla, it reminds me of alchemy. Herbs all have wonderful stories attached to them. Water beads on the leaves and alchemists apparently would collect this water for use in potions. The leaves are very beautiful, as are the flowers. The color of the flowers is often described as "acid green." I think the color is much like the color of a type of old fashioned glassware which is generally referred to as "Vaseline" so that's how I describe the color. In any case, flowers next to Alchemilla look brighter and better. I pointed out to Bob that some very fine-leaved Sedum growing in and along the wall all came from a little pinch I took from our mutual friend David's garden and he took a bit of that too.

I pointed out all the Cat Mint, Nepeta mussinii growing along the walls and under the rose bushes, but I don't think we actually collected any. I also pointed out Catnip, and managed not to give him a plant of that either. I did give him a small clump of a Nepeta species grown from a packet of seeds from Thompson and Morgan they call 'Blue Infinity' and list as Nepeta transcaucascia. T&M hasn't verified the name, and I've never seen Nepeta transcausascia listed anywhere else, but it's a nice easy plant about 40 inches tall.

Along the way to the area pictured to get some Valerian we stopped to dug up a clump of Marshmallow, Althea offcinalis. "Offcinalis" is a sign that the plant in question was used as a medicinal herb. The story goes that the root of the plant was used instead of corn starch to make the original marshmallow confection. The Wikipedia article debunks that, pointing out that marshmallows are a modern confection. But the root is sometimes used to flavor halva, an ancient confection. I like the looks of the plant; it's probably too tall and coarse for most backyard gardens. The same could be said of Valerian, Valeriana offcinalis, but I really love Valerian. Near where the Valerian grows I spied some Great Lobelia, Lobelia siphilitica and gave Bob a couple of plants. Of course we dug some Valerian and enjoyed their smelly roots.

While crouching in that area I spied some Agrimony, but there was also another plant coming up which I was confused about. I grow most of the herbs I do because they are so willing, not for making potions. Obviously if one were to plan on ingesting any plant material, it pays to know what you're doing. Many plants are poisonous, and while many herbs probably don't do what people have long thought, many others do in fact have real medicinal effects; and importantly counter indications and side effects. I was confused about identification because I was more or less operating from a mental map of what I planted where, and wasn't remembering. It turns out the mystery plant was Meadowsweet. It's seems incredible not to recognize a plant I'd just dug minutes before. Plants look similar and there are many plants it could have been. I guess the moral of the story is to have multiple ways of identifying plants to make sure to harvest what you intend.

The Agrimony in that section of garden was started from seed labeled Agrimony eupatorium. In my confusion I walked closer to the woods to a spot where Agrimony grows. I'm not sure whether the plants closer to the woods are seeded in from my planting or from around here. Perhaps my most used horticultural reference book is Roger Tory Peterson's Wildflowers: Northeastern/North-central North America. Peterson notes:
There are 7 similar species in our area, accurately identified only by technical characters.
So even if I trust the seed I grew was correctly labeled--I do--I am not up to the task of identifying the Agrimony species growing outside my garden bed.

There were several other herbs growing in that section among them Lungwort, Pulmonaria officinalis. I love that plant for the early flowers and the mottled foliage. I'm not sure Bob was impressed, but I think he took a little clump of it. At the time I probably was going on and on about the variety of late spring blue flowers. Among my favorites are Common Blue Violets which litter the ground in that section of the garden. But it's still early spring and many of the plants are still small giving little hint of the displays soon to come. At this point, I think Bob was ready just to go, but there was one more plant I wanted him to have.

I like Mountain Mints very much and am surprised they are not grown more widely as I've not discovered any downside to them. The species I dug up is Pycanthemum pilosum. Elsewhere in the garden I grow Narrow-Leaved Mountain Mint, Pycnanthemum tenuifolium which I think is splendid mixed in around ornamental grasses. Both are native plants, but I've never come across them in the wild.

Roger Tory Peterson was a brilliant artist and a master of visual representation of information. One of the very useful aspects of his book "Wildflowers" is a system of icons to indicate families of plants. So let me see if I can put these plants into their respective families. Hens and Chickens and Sedum are in the Crassulaceae family. The mints are in the large family Lamiaceae which was once called Labiatae. The older name refers to the apparent "lips" on the flowers. A square stem is a good hint the plant may be in the mint family. Mugwort and Tansy are in Compositae, which I call the daisy family, but thinking of Mugwort flowers that descriptor may confuse. Marshmallow is in the Malvaceae family. Valerian is in Valerianaceae, the Valerian family. Agrimony, Lady's Mantle and Meadowsweet are in the Rosaceae family. Lungwort is in Boraginaceae. I call that family the Borage family, but perhaps better is to call it the Forget-Me-Not family as Peterson does. Lobelia is in Campanulacea family which inconveniently is divided into two sub-families: Bluebell sub-family Campanuloideae and Lobelia sub-family Lobeliodeae. Am I forgetting any?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I thought I had lost one at first but have come to realize that I have 100% transplant growth.

Thanks John