Dear Miss Floribunda,
I am new to this area and to gardening. Coming from New England, I was advised to expect a long, hot summer. When I started a garden this spring, I wasted money buying plants from local nurseries assuming that whatever is sold in this area will do well in this area. Nothing but a few geraniums are still alive ─ and those, only in spots. Some areas of the land in back of my house are boggy and others bone dry. My neighbors have given me good advice about raised-bed gardening, soil amendment, and planting trees and shrubs in fall, but these are solutions that involve time, expertise and considerable expense. I audaciously hope for inexpensive immediate gratification ─ preferably continuing into the future, if that’s not too much to ask.
Hard-Up on Hamilton Street
Gardening does require a great deal of patience, but less money than you imagine if you attend plant exchanges and learn how to take cuttings and plant seeds. Be that as it may, there is a solution to your immediate dilemma this summer. Herbs will give you the most reliable return for the least effort and least expense.
There are herbs for dry spots, there are herbs for boggy spots, herbs for sun and herbs for shade. Herbs from Mediterranean areas, whose ancestors evolved on sun-baked crags, actually do better in soil that is not rich. They are immune to disease and harmful insects and can crowd out weeds. Herbs waft delicious fragrances throughout the garden, and fragrance is surely one of the paramount reasons to have a garden at all. Most of them flower briefly, and some ─ such as lavender, hyssop, chamomile and santalina ─ will bloom most of the summer.
However, herbs are far from being dependent on ephemeral flowers for charm. Their versatile growth habits, their fascinating leaf forms and textures, their variations of green from silvery celadon to deep emerald ─ all add a great deal of interest to any garden. Many are perennial or self-seed and as you develop your garden they will be helpful in protecting your plantings from those insects and weeds they defy. They are easily available at farmers’ markets and nurseries.
My Aunt Tansy tells me herbs are also delightful and useful when brought indoors. She keeps pots of basil to repel flies and boxes of mint over her kitchen sink to keep the ants away. (Because mint can be invasive, she keeps it in containers even outdoors.) Some thyme and parsley in sunny windows and a potted bay laurel tree provide her with the ingredients of “bouquet garni” when she wants to try one of Julia Child’s recipes; a pot of oregano is her staple for Italian cuisine; rosemary and sage growing outside her back door provides authentic flavor for Provencal recipes and for colonial American favorites. She hangs lavender in the closets to keep moths away. She has myriad recipes for teas, remedies and household cleansers using the herbs in her indoor and outdoor gardens.
To speak with Tansy and other gardening experts, please come to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society at 10 a.m. on Saturday, July 21, at the home of Jeff and Marsha Moulton, 6122 42nd Avenue. If you can’t make it, just send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.