Round Robin: Rueful Memories

WOLFTOWN, Virginia–After last winter, our severest in years, I took an inventory of the damage to my herb garden in hopes of forestalling devastation this time around. I found that my five lady’s-mantle plants had succumbed and the cold had claimed my fig tree, and so I started over with new ones. I’ve given the new lady’s-mantles more space; the old ones had been in front of two hardy lavenders that had grown so lushly that they were threatening to smother all their neighbors. The lavenders made it through the winter in fine shape.

Tarragon appreciates the winter period of dormancy. It thrives when it has a chance to rest as long as its feet stay dry. When I first started growing tarragon, I usually lost it over the winter. Then I interviewed a man in Ohio who grows thousands of tarragon plants each year for the bedding plant market. Winters in his area are far harsher than ours in Virginia, with temperatures staying well below zero for weeks at a time. His advice? Amend my heavy clay soil with lots of sand and grow the tarragon in raised beds. I’ve had good luck with tarragon ever since. I move the plants every three years or so. The last time was to an area where dill reseeds itself each spring. The tarragon isn’t really happy there, but it limps along. Perhaps the presence of the dill is suppressing its growth. Next spring, I’ll have to think about moving either the tarragon or the dill seedlings.

Rue came through the winter beautifully in the several places I’ve put it, but it needs heavy pruning each spring and often again in midsummer to keep its attractive blue-green mound shape. I dug up a large rue growing in a place that gets limited sunshine where I wanted to plant an old rose, Gruss an Aachen, next spring; it’s supposed to be one of the few old roses that tolerate shade. I also lifted out several smaller rue plants that had reseeded themselves around the large one and moved them to the base of my eight bluebird houses. Cats don’t like the smell of rue, Jim Long tells me.

Next spring, I must clip most of the thymes practically to soil level when new growth is visible. By late summer, they get gangly, with dead-looking stems. When people ask me why their thymes have died, I suggest that if there are puffs of green at the end of the growing stems, they should look closely near the roots. If they see tiny green growth, their thymes are not dead; they just need severe pruning. If thyme is planted where there is good drainage, it’s pretty hard to kill.

Virginia’s Piedmont is marginal for lilacs; they prefer more northerly temperatures and hard winters. This past summer, the heavy blooms were more beautiful and more abundant than I’ve ever seen them. What a thrill!

We overestimate the gardener’s role. Nature has a mind of its own–a lesson we are reminded of again and again.