Now’s the perfect time for dreaming about your spring and summer garden. Gather up your seed and garden catalogs, take some notes, visit a garden center, let your imagination loose and put a plan on paper.
Choosing one style, though, can be difficult. Do you want a formal garden, a cottage garden, perhaps herbs mixed in with vegetables and flowers? Will you grow only culinary herbs, or a combination of culinary, aromatic and decorative?
Well, why not a little of them all? Consider planting a number of smaller, themed gardens. I did that at my home in Maine, and came to see each one as a room:
There was a beautiful knot bench in the tea garden where I grew chamomile, lemon thyme, sage, yarrow, lemon balm, roses, calendula, bee balm, mint, lemon verbena and several scented geraniums. The bees loved this garden, and it was a great stress-reliever to sit on the bench in the warm sun and listen to the buzz of their activity, inhale the fragrances, and enjoy the garden’s peace and beauty. In the middle of winter, it was possible to sit and recall the warmer days of summer; the bee balm seed heads were as fragrant then as in midsummer, and you had only to crush one to be taken back.
The culinary garden was circular with a birdbath in the center. The walks around the beds were of crushed rock, and bricks outlined the circular shape. In the winter, the snow would melt off the rocks first and leave the herb beds covered, making an interesting pattern. I grew tarragon, marjoram, curled onion, chives, sage, winter savory, Welsh bunching onion, garlic chives, thyme, oregano, nasturtium, parsley, coriander, chervil, basil and borage here. It was my habit to pick a bouquet of these herbs to chop and toss into a salad. If there were any left over, I would put them in a basket to dry for winter use, or freeze them in a little water to add to a winter soup. As soon as the snow melted, the chives and bunching onions were there to harvest for the first taste of spring. The blue jays and mourning doves that frequented the birdbath were great company on an afternoon spent cultivating and harvesting.
The rose garden was next; it had two entrance trellises and a third trellis with a bench underneath. In the beginning, I planted 14 old-fashioned roses, but some didn’t survive the cold winter. I replaced them with the more vigorous rugosa rose. This garden was also circular, but with a larger center then the culinary garden. I edged the center with sweet alyssum; placed a lovely old clay pot in the middle filled with scented geraniums; then planted double pink petunias around it. The effect was of a huge tussie mussie. I planted creeping thyme between the bricks in the path. The aroma was out of this world. When the thyme was in bloom, the bees were busy at the blossoms so it was necessary to step carefully. The trellises made interesting shadows in the snow for a pleasing winter effect. Garden structures can be important for a winter garden.
The next garden was the everlasting garden, where I planted herbs and flowers that dry for decorative use: liatris, strawflowers, statice, echinops, xeranthemum, acroclinium, feverfew and salvia horminium, to name a few. Everlastings are generally easy to grow, and in most cases the annuals can withstand a light frost. I planted this garden first in the spring and simply covered the rows with Remay cloth until the days became warmer. A huge number of strawflowers can be harvested from just a dozen plants; I picked them every sunny day. This garden provided me with bouquets to carry to friends, fresh flowers in summer and dried bouquets in the winter. The pleasure of giving and getting was twofold — between the garden and me, and between my friends and me.
I had never heard of a liberation garden until one day I realized I had inadvertently planted hops, grapes and elderberries together in one corner of the main garden, and that all are used to make alcoholic drinks. I decided to expand on the idea, did some research and discovered that heathers were once used as a substitute for hops in making beer. So I added heathers to this garden. I planted sweet woodruff for May wine, and a quince bush, rose bush, mint, wormwood and lemon balm for making cordials. A friend would occasionally harvest hops for beer, but I didn’t try it. I did, however, harvest the hop cones each year for use in sleep pillows, an old-time remedy for insomnia. And the heathers were a marvelous addition for year-round pleasure. The reds, greens and golds of the leaves and the pink, rose and white flowers make a garden tapestry to be enjoyed even on a winter walk. I harvested bunches to use in wreaths and winter bouquets. There was a low bench in this garden that was a wonderful place to hide away and sit quietly. The mint crept out into the path, and its refreshing fragrance would linger long after it was touched.
The fragrant garden was just what the name implies. On warm summer afternoons, its heady aroma could be overpowering. Lavender was of course a part of this garden. Old-fashioned cinnamon pinks, though not as attractive as the new hybrids, smelled beautiful. I planted several dwarf lilacs and a half dozen peonies, along with several fragrant rugosa roses and garden phlox. There was a succession of aromatic blooms all summer, from the early spring peonies to the late summer phlox. I harvested huge baskets of peony petals for potpourri, and added rose petals from the rose garden. I enjoyed strolling in the gardens just at dusk and picking a bouquet of fragrant herbs to infuse for use in the bathtub. I would put some sprigs in a pan of water, simmer for a few minutes and then strain the infusion into the bath water. The whole house would smell sweet.
With all this talk of fragrant baths, meditative teas and secret hiding corners, you might get the wrong impression of what it is like to cultivate more than an acre of garden space.
My knees were permanently stained brown.
It was difficult at times to really enjoy the gardens — or get away for any length of time — because there was always something that needed attention.
Summer was an intense time of planting, weeding, harvesting and processing.
But I loved it.
Rosanne Dombek is a Master Gardener who owned and operated an herb and garden shop in Blue Hill, Maine, for more than 15 years.