Spring Thinking: What to Plant This Season

1 / 5
Variegated calamint
2 / 5
Red Rubin basil
3 / 5
Dwarf ladies’-mantle
4 / 5
Cat’s whiskers
5 / 5
Blue porterweed

In most of the United States, at least north of the Mason-Dixon line, there is a nameless season between winter and spring. You know this season: the weather can’t decide what it wants to do, gardeners feel unfulfilled, and the frost-free date is like the proverbial watched pot. It is a time of speculation, planning, preparing, of waiting for spring to decide to stay.

In search of a cure for this kind of malaise, we called a few adventurous herb gardeners around the country and asked them a simple question: “What are you excited about growing this year?” Tell us, we said, about new plants–or new varieties of old plants–that you’re planning to try. What quickens your pulse when you think about your garden in spring?

The results of our informal survey follow. Commercial sources (where available) are listed in parentheses at the end of each plant entry.

Rocky Mountain high and dry

“I’m the worst sort of plant collector, without a hint of self-discipline,” says Marcia Tatroe, of Denver, “so I try dozens of new plants every season. In deference to the semiarid climate where I live, the first thing I look for in a new plant is drought tolerance. New plants must exhibit other qualities as well: I especially seek out plants that are edible, fragrant, everlasting, suitable for cutting, or attractive to butterflies, birds, or beneficial insects. If the plants also take care of themselves with a minimum of fussing, so much the better.” With these criteria in mind, here are five of Marcia’s spring picks.

• Stardust statice (Limonium tetrago­num ‘Stardust’, sometimes sold as L. sinense). The florets of this perennial everlasting promise to resemble those of Marcia’s favorite statice, sea lavender (L. latifolium), but are white with pastel yellow throats. Soft yellow color is invaluable in the garden to bring out the sparkle in the blues. Marcia will plant Stardust with lemon-yellow snapdragons and blue Cupid’s-dart (Catananche caerulea) for a long-blooming trio in a sunny corner of the garden. All three prefer lean, well-drained soil that never stays wet. (Shepherd’s Garden Seeds, 30 Irene St., Torrington, CT 06790. Catalog $1.)

•Butter Cream nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus ‘Butter Cream’). Nasturtiums are Marcia’s favorite edible flower, but she wants a soft, creamy yellow one that won’t upstage its less boisterous neighbors in a whiskey-barrel planting. She has hopes for Butter Cream, which she will pair with fragrant dark blue heliotrope and apricot calendulas. “If the color is a disappointment, we’ll just eat the darned things,” she says. (Shepherd’s.)

• White poppy (Papaver anomalum album). This delicate beauty has clear white single flowers with lightly crinkled petals and a heavy center fringe of bright gold stamens. The 14- to 16-inch-tall perennial will bloom the first year after sowing seed. “Because most species of poppies thrive in my hot, sunny garden, I always try at least one new one each season as a sort of counterbalance to the risky acquisitions, many of which are destined to fail. I will plant P. a. album together with Lavandula ‘Lavender Lady’ and magenta sea thrift (Armeria maritima) on an exposed, sunny berm in sandy soil, where the former owner had a large sandbox.” (Thompson and Morgan, PO Box 1308, Jackson, NJ 08527. Catalog free.)

• Verbascum widemannianum. This bold attention-getter has a huge, silvery felted rosette with 6-foot spikes of purple flowers. Marcia plans strong companions for it: silver thistlelike sea hollies (Eryngium spp.) with a bright Homestead Purple verbena weaving among the two. They’ll be in full sun in well-amended clay soil. (Thompson and Morgan.)

• Calamintha grandiflora ‘Variegata’. This is a variegated version of a pretty, easy-to-grow herb with a pleasant minty fragrance and clear pink tubular flowers that bloom off and on all summer. Colorado’s sunlight is intense, so Marcia plans a protected location with rich, deep clay soil and only morning sun. “I’ll try them in front of the tall white plumes of goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus) and next to pink musk mallow (Malva moschata). All these plants would be happiest in moist soil, but I intend to water them only once a week and see what happens. I expect they’ll adapt.” (Wayside Gardens, Hodges, SC 29695. Catalog free.)

An assortment from the mint family

Like Marcia, Carole Saville, an herb gardener in Los Angeles, can’t resist adding more plants each spring, no matter how crowded her garden beds get. “I’m not an acquisitive person, but the more I learn about herbs, the more I have a thirst to know and to grow. I add new plants to learn about them, and the perpetually evolving nature of my garden excites me,” she says.

Here’s her wish list for this growing season.

• White lavender (Lavandula angustifolia ‘Alba’). Carole plans to trial this white-flowering cultivar for her collection of lavenders (described in “Lavish Lavender”, February/March 1994). “I’m always interested in different lavender species and cultivars,” she says. A white Spanish lavender that she planted in 1994 is struggling, so this time she chose an English lavender propagated from stock imported from Hillier’s, a respected English nursery. It is said to reach 3 feet in its second year. “I will plant it near Goodwin Creek Grey (L. lanata ¥ L. heterophylla). The white flowers will complement the woolly white leaves of Goodwin Grey and make a pretty contrast to its lavender-blue flowering spikes.” In areas colder than USDA Zone 6, growers suggest winter protection for Alba because it is less cold-hardy than some other English lavenders. (Shepherd’s.)

• Agastache ‘Apricot Sunrise’ and A. ‘Tutti-Frutti’. Carole first saw Apricot Sunrise in a wholesaler’s display of drought-tolerant plants with bright flowers, found it “unforgettable”, and bought a plant just before it went dormant. She’ll place it alongside a collection of ornamental salvias in a border outside her living room window, where hummingbirds frequently visit. “I’ve heard Apricot Sunrise described as vulgarly brilliant, but to me the color is apricot-with-milk, and I think it will blend in beautifully with the bright salvias,” Carole says.

She will plant the magenta-flowered Tutti-Frutti in an area where it can grow as big as it wants–as tall as 6 feet, according to some catalogs. “I use both the leaf and flower of other agastaches I grow with fruit salads, sweet desserts, and sorbets. I am particularly anxious to try the candylike flowers of this cultivar.” (Sandy Mush Herb Nursery, 316 Surrett Cove Rd., Leicester, NC 28748. Catalog $6.)

• Red Rubin basil (Ocimum basilicum purpurascens). Carole grows as many purple basils as she can, using them to tint herbal vinegars, in a striking cream sauce for a cold linguine salad, for subtle flavor with freshly diced summer fruit, and in many other dishes. “But the main reason I grow them,” she says, “is to use the plants as a design element to punctuate the colors and various forms of the basil bed.” Purple basil complements the purplish-green leaves of holy basil (O. sanctum), the crimson tones of cinnamon basil, the reddish stems and rose flower bracts of anise basil, and the wine-colored stems of Thai basil, while contrasting with the rich green leaves of sweet, lemon, and Spicy Globe basils.

Red Rubin basil is a European reselection of Dark Opal basil that is said to be more uniform in size and color with less variegation or streaking. Plants have purple stalks, dark purple leaves, and lavender flowers, and the flavor is reported to be excellent. (Territorial Seed Company, 20 Palmer Ave., Cottage Grove, OR 97424. Catalog free.)

His and hers

Betsy and Joe Strauch garden in western Massachusetts. Betsy grows mostly vegetables, herbs, and annual flowers, and Joe concentrates on herbaceous and woody perennials. Siting a new plant is often more a matter of finding an empty spot in a bed than planning an entire landscape of pleasing combinations, although they have done that on occasion, too. In recent years, Joe has stepped up his production of perennials, most of which he grows from seed, and so competition for garden space has escalated. The Strauchs will make room for several new plants this spring.

• Red orach (Atriplex hortensis). This ornamental relative of spinach grows to 5 feet tall and has dark red leaves that are used as a spinach substitute in summer. Betsy plans to plant it at the edge of the vegetable garden where it won’t shade its neighbors and to try a few plants against the west side of their white house next to a clump of steel blue globe thistle (Echinops sp.). (Pinetree Garden Seeds, Box 300, New Glouces­­ter, ME 04260. Catalog free.)

• Lobelia ‘Queen Victoria’. This hybrid perennial with maroon leaves and scarlet flowers grows to about 3 feet tall. Its parentage includes the Mexican L. splendens and two eastern woodland species, L. cardinalis and L. siphilitica. Native Americans used the latter two to treat syphilis, colds, stomach problems, and worms, among other ailments. The Mexican component in its heritage apparently makes Queen Victoria not reliably hardy, but Joe has decided that it’s so spectacular it’s worth a try. The perennial lobelias grow best in damp, heavy soil like that along the back edge of the Strauchs’ yard, where L. cardinalis and self-sown L. siphilitica are already thriving. (Thompson and Morgan.)

• Alchemilla alpina. This dwarf ladies’-mantle has leaves deeply cut into seven elliptical lobes. Long, silky hairs cover the underside of the leaves. The nomenclature of the alchemillas is hopelessly confused; the A. alpina of commerce may actually be any of a number of other species. The single plant now in the Strauchs’ nursery bed, which came from seed obtained from a seed exchange, seems to be A. plicatula, which produces 8-inch stalks of tiny yellowish flowers. Whatever its true identity, it’s a delightful plant, definitely a candidate for the front of the border, perhaps next to diminutive campanulas or dianthus. (Thompson and Morgan.)

• Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca). This 3- to 5-foot-tall member of the mint family has soft green, heavily veined leaves shaped somewhat like maple leaves in tiers on its square stems and small pinkish flowers in whorls in the upper leaf axils. It grows wild in much of the United States. Motherwort has long been used in herbal medicine to relieve the discomforts of childbirth and as a nerve tonic, but it’s also ornamental. “I’ve read that it looks good with dyer’s chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria), which we have already, so I’d like to try planting them together,” Betsy says. (Goodwin Creek Gardens, PO Box 83, Williams, OR 97544. Catalog $1.)

• Lunaria annua ‘Alba Variegata’. This white-flowered moneywort, or honesty, has leaves that one source describes as “suffused white”. “I have always liked the silvery pods of moneywort, but I can’t stand the purple flowers of the common form,” Betsy says. “I’m not sure whether I’ll like the foliage of this cultivar, but it will be fun to try it.” Despite its name, L. annua is a biennial, and so there won’t be any flowers or silvery pods until 1996. The plant’s anticipated height of 30 to 40 inches and pale foliage and flowers suggest a shaded site at the back of the border against a dark background. (Thompson and Morgan carries Alba, with white flowers and green leaves, and Variegata, with variegated leaves and purple-blue flowers, but not Alba Variegata, which the Strauchs got through a seed exchange.)

• Nigellas. Pretty, mostly blue flowers and ferny foliage characterize the various species of Nigella, which offers a fascinating diversity of flower and seedpod shapes. Last year, Betsy envisioned a collection of five of the species planted side by side to show off their similarities and differences. She sowed the seeds directly in the bed because all sources caution that nigellas resent transplanting, but a heavy rain the next day washed out most of the seeds and very few came up. This year, she’s trying again. “I’m going to risk transplant resentment and plant the seeds in pots,” she says. “Some I’ll grow under lights indoors, and the others I’ll put in a cold frame outside. I’ve even got some new varieties to try.” This year’s cast of characters includes love-in-a-mist (N. damascena); black cumin (N. sativa); wild fennel (N. arvensis), whose seeds were given to the Strauchs by someone who got them from France in a seed exchange; fennel flower (N. hispanica and a cultivar, N. h. ‘Curiosity’); N. orientalis ‘Transformer’, a yellow-flowered form with seedpods that when turned inside out look like flowers; and N. nigellastrum ‘Summer Stars’, which one catalog promises will be “absolutely smothered in small sky-blue starry flowers all summer long.” (Goodwin Creek, J. L. Hudson, Shepherd’s, and Thompson and Morgan offer an assortment of nigellas.)

Flowering herbs for the South

Over the past thirty-five years, Madalene Hill has introduced many new plants to the nation’s growers, who have then brought them to wider acceptance in the gardening marketplace. She brings unfamiliar or ­interesting plants back from her travels, trials them in her gardens, researches their history of herbal usage, and passes them around to others. She and her daughter, Gwen Barclay, now live in Round Top, Texas, where they are currently putting in several new gardens. This spring, they are looking forward to growing a number of new plants they’ve obtained from various sources; none is readily available yet by mail order but may be before long. Watch for them.

• Ruellia ‘Pink Charm’. This is a newly discovered variety of the native Ruellia, commonly called Mexican petunia, a member of the acanthus family. There are 250 Ruellia species, ranging in height from 8 inches to 3 feet with flower colors from pale pink to bluish lavender; many are splendid garden plants, although some are invasive. Pink Charm grows about 10 inches high and has a long blooming season. The blossom, like those of others in the genus, resembles a small petunia.

• La cam (Psiloesthes elongata). The Vietnamese use this plant in preparing a special sweetened purple rice dish. “We tested the leaves, and they do dye the water!” Madalene says. The plant, a member of the acanthus family, does well in the garden or potted for the patio in cooler climates. Growing about 18 inches high, it is covered with salmon-colored bell-shaped blossoms 11/2 inches long that hang down like pendulums. It is a long bloomer, producing flowers throughout the summer.

• Cat’s whiskers (Orthosiphon stamineus). This member of the mint family is a tender perennial that attracts butterflies. Madalene and Gwen got a start of the plant on a recent trip to Florida, where it grows to 4 feet tall and wide. “The plant is covered all summer in large white airy blossoms with incredibly long stamens that look like a cat’s whiskers. It’s magnificent,” Madalene says. It is a conversation piece in the garden and in large floral arrangements with white roses.

• Blue porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis). A robust Caribbean native, this plant belongs to the Verbenaceae, a tough family with many lovely species. Blue porterweed grows to about 4 feet tall and is quite woody. It is easily propagated from stem cuttings. The flowers are a bright cobalt blue and are borne on grasslike stems much like those of veined verbena (Verbena rigida). “A double or triple row of plants opening their flowers each morning would be a feast for the bees,” Madalene says. Blue porterwood gets its common name from the foaming brew that is made from its leaves in Central America. In the Caribbean, the plant has been used to treat colds and wounds and to expel worms.

• Philippine violet (Barleria cristata). Like Pink Charm and la cam, this species is a member of the acanthus family. Its common name notwithstanding, it is native to India and Burma. Madalene and Gwen’s start of this plant came from Mounts Botanical Garden in West Palm Beach, Florida, where it is grown as a head-high hedge. Each of its trumpet-shaped sky-blue flowers is 11/2 to 13/4 inches long and encased in an interesting prickly calyx. Philippine violets, along with la cam, are just two of the many Old World tropical and subtropical plants that will probably be entering the U.S. marketplace in coming years.

Kathleen Halloran has a job that feeds her plenty of ideas for her garden in Laporte, Colorado. She is former-editor of The Herb Companion.