Round Robin: Feathered Friends

NEWBERG, Oregon–Thinking back on this past growing season, I noted an obvious decrease in the number of tree frogs, butterflies, and hummingbirds visiting my garden. I hope that it was only an aberrant year, although I did enjoy a corresponding decrease in the aphid, Colorado cucumber beetle, and grasshopper infestations that have often plagued my herb garden.

As for other local wildlife, I delighted in watching our resident American kestrels (also known as sparrow hawks), which this year hatched three young. I pitied the parents at feeding time as I could hear the youngsters’ cries of hunger from everywhere on the property. I tried to coax our female barn owl into a romantic mood by putting up a nesting box, but she would have none of it and sent her two young suitors flying. After the wheat was harvested and the straw cover all but eliminated, I became the unwitting host to a covey of quail residing first in my rosemary test plot and then in my lavender fields, depending on which set of sprinklers I turned on. Surprisingly, the dogs took no interest in them.

I suppose that the greatest pleasure of the year was watching George and his wife, Georgette, our nicknames for a pair of barn swallows that painstakingly built a mud nest inside the barn right above my plant workbench. They were quite inquisitive and very bold, chattering incessantly on their roost only a couple of feet above us and watching my children as they played in the pile of potting mix or me as I transplanted herbs. When Georgette began incubating, I took the precaution of placing plastic bags directly underneath the nest. When her babies were finally old enough to leave the nest, I cleaned up the mess.

My fowl experiences reminded me of some of the finest herb topiaries I’ve ever seen, made by Sue Brungs of Cincinnati and displayed at this year’s International Herb Association convention. These were herbs in the forms of peacocks, long-legged shorebirds, geometric shapes, and even a dinosaur. I was particularly impressed with the peacock, which was a prostrate rosemary clipped very tightly to shape the head and body; other branches had been allowed to grow naturally into long, flowing tail feathers. Her artistry is matched by her clever strategy of renting out the creations for various social functions, making money on them but never relinquishing them. The prospect of putting all my time and effort into making a topiary and then selling it to a stranger has always daunted me, but this idea of leasing my “babies”–hmm–that has possibilities.

I am eagerly awaiting the inclement winter weather to settle in so that I can justify many hours of reading pleasure without gardening guilt. Every day, a new herb catalog joins the growing tower balanced perilously on the corner of my desk. I really must start reading them in earnest before they topple. I have peeked briefly into some of my favorites and am excited by the new listings of plants now available in the market. I predict that the sages (Salvia spp.) will again steal the show and open the herbal door to many an uninitiated gardener. Imagine an herb that is heat and drought tolerant, sun-loving, soil-adaptive, and virtually everblooming as are the new hybrids of S. microphylla (little-leaf sage) and S. greggii (Texas, autumn, or cherry sage). I can only imagine the dazzling new colors of S. g. ‘Cienega de Oro’, ‘Peach La Encantada’, ‘San Isidro Moon’, and ‘Dark Dancer’, and I dream of S. m. ‘Wild Watermelon’, ‘Maraschino’, and ‘Raspberry Royale’. As I envision these plants’ arriving in the mail, spring doesn’t seem so awfully far away.

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