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Reflections Upon an Herb Garden

from the archives... [updates in italics and brackets]

Closeup of sage flowers in my herb garden
Sage flowers look like itsy-bitsy orchids.

Once upon a time, the kitchenMage had the herb garden of her dreams. Wisteria draped the entrance arbor, opening onto a herringbone path interplanted with thyme and moss and edged with lavender and a plethora of mints. Herbs, both common and rare, filled this garden and new finds were constantly finding their way there. Rare thymes and more mints than she could name filled the beds, and the air, with intoxicating scents. A few choice trees also lived there: the prized sweet bay, a pink dogwood bent near horizontal from its attempts to survive its old home, and the maples (no two the same) that defined the border.

Oh, I'm sorry! I was daydreaming there for a minute.

While I would love to have that herb garden again (and it is worth a look, though I apologize for the old, not so great photos) the sad fact is that I don't. Worse, I won't have anything like it for a few more years to come. [It has been about four years and the garden is still sparse in spots. While I finally have established thyme, my tarragon has never lived beyond its second year. Establishing a garden in a place that gets 10 feet of rain a year is not easy.] A few summers [ha ha ha] from now, I expect to once again walk through a garden like that, although not too much like that.

I have a new house and a new "yard" — if one can call nine acres a yard — but after two years, the new garden remains unplanted. [The herb garden is still confined to the beds around the house, while some trees have made it into the yard. So, yeah, still mostly unplanted.] When we arrived, the little beds around the house's foundation looked like builders had done the planting: some unkempt low junipers and dozens of pansies, in a stunning array of magenta and white--one shade of each. Boring! (When the foxglove and daisies that had been hidden in winter, when we bought the place, first emerged, it seemed fitting somehow that they were also white and purple.)

Frankly, the only thing to recommend the gardened areas was the blueberry patch. The untended space, mostly Douglas firs (originally planted for timber harvest) with fern-laden undergrowth edged up against wild fog forest, has more to recommend it, including the wildlife. At least most of the time.[In what I consider a major victory, the blueberries have been fenced and we get the bounty now while birds screech at us from nearby trees.]


Call me naïve, but I really hadn't counted on the sheer volume of critters in the yard. In addition to the deer and small creatures common to the cusp of field and wood, there's an elk herd — numbering from a dozen to many times — that wanders through on their way from on valley to the next. I don't even want to think about what the neighbor's escaped cows did to the poor magnolia!

There was a bit of momentary panic at the thought of doing without any herb garden while I wait for fencing to protect my treasures from marauding beasts. Really good fencing. Elk-sized fencing. Luckily, it was winter and I really couldn't do much beyond sulk at the idea of life sans garden. That and watch the critters. [About that fence...let's just say I am considering a new site called "WillBlogForFencing"]

Over the first couple of months, I noticed that nary a critter has ventured close enough to the house to see, let alone nibble, the beds of evergreen blobs and rampant pansies. Go figure.

One day it dawned on me. They never came close to the house. [duh, geez, I am so long as we don't discuss how long it took me to realize this. Also, it's not a hard and fast rule, elk have come within 5 feet of my front door to nibble roses on a 15 degree night.]

Those beds, filled with plants I found neither useful nor, truth be told, attractive were rapidly emptied and replaced with an herb garden that, while not quite so poetic as the old one, is wonderfully functional and quite lovely in its own way.

This small scale gardening has also been a learning experience. rosemary and chivesThe prominent location and shallow beds call for plants that are beautiful as well as aromatic and tasty so I have selected colorful varieties of some favored herbs: Tri-color and golden sage, variegated mint and thyme, and golden oregano, along with lots of edible flowers brighten front edges, while a swath of many mints thrives in the back, dry stripe under the roof overhang.

My favorite rosemary [which died in a long, hard freeze shiva has been sat, candles have been lit, dishtowels have been rended...] has a home and creeping thyme softens the hard line between concrete and garden Best of all, there are chive clumps everywhere! [We had our first chives of spring over the weekend. This is about a month earlier than usual.] And I must admit I love being able to step outside in bare feet to harvest herbs, something that was more difficult in the large garden.

it's all edible!

Establishing some plants has been a struggle. The first winter killed all the expensive new tarragon plants [successive winters have continued the tradition...I now think of tarragon as an annual.] and last winter's freeze/flood cycle took out half of the rosemary yearlings. Those plants sometimes died at the old place too, but with room to plant a hundred rosemary cuttings, rather than a tenth that, half of them dying isn't quite so sad. [This winter has been mild. Most of my rosemary cuttings made it. This is far closer to 100 than I care to admit.]

After two years though, almost everything I need for cooking is here. [After eight years, there are still herbs missing from my usual stock.] There isn't a lot of some things, the thyme collection is short a few things (lavender and caraway evade me — well, I found them and they died the second winter.) and I can't find any lime mint. [Lime mint emerged from nowhere a couple of years ago and has established a decent patch. But I truly don't know how that happened. I am betting on pixies.] But there is enough to cook with daily and share with friends. And it is lovely, not looking at all like it was planted as a functional garden. More than one person has commented that it looks like a park.

This garden has also led to my conviction that any small space — even yours — can be transformed into a gorgeous herb garden that will rock your culinary world. Thoughtful plant selection and placement can result in a garden that will improve both your cooking and your yard.

While I know this isn't my old herb garden, it will do for now. In fact, even after the large garden goes in, the little one stays. I just need a cat-sized wisteria arbor.

the sage corner in herbgarden early may

(my herb garden set on flickr)

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