The life of the party

By midsummer, my tidy garden parties have become informal and disheveled. Herbs, a strong presence by then, create a certain amount of chaos. As my gardener-granddaughter, Ivy Rose, observes, herbs are weedy, wild things that sprawl, ramble and flop. But the benefits of interplanting them with vegetables — superior pollination, protection from pests and diseases, improved growth and flavor, and soil mineralization — have made herbs a traditional component of organic potager gardens. They also add unruly charm, color and surprise to my sedate, predictable vegetable patches. Still, their wild, willful behaviors and often intimidating size require discretion when choosing which ones to grow among food plants. Lusty lovage, for example, is not a good companion for tender vegetables.

Slender, graceful valerian is the only herb allowed in my garden that gets taller than I am. Like the pollinators, I can’t resist its exotic perfume and the white wedding lace of its June blooms, even though gusty winds often blow it over, and it looks bedraggled after it flowers. Valerian invigorates vegetables grown in its vicinity. It naturalizes, but not invasively. I sometimes divide it in spring, when I want valerian somewhere else in the garden.

I do the same with comfrey. The many stout comfrey plants that border my vegetable patch are all descendants of a clump someone gave me years ago. Comfrey grows only about 4 feet high, but its lush fount of enormous leaves gives it considerable girth. It’s beefy but not aggressive (for which I’m grateful, since comfrey is a great blessing for organic gardeners). For most of the summer, honeybees feast in its drooping clusters of mauve, bell-shaped blossoms. And when comfrey turns rowdy and starts to infringe on other plants’ space, it doesn’t mind a little pruning — an easy task that I would do anyway, once the first rush of flowers dies down in midsummer. All those big leaves, though, go straight to the compost pile. They’re so nitrogen-rich, the experts say it’s like shoveling on barnyard manure. Given plenty of water, comfrey will replenish its foliage before the first frost. I blanket all the garden beds with this second batch of leaves and let them compost over the winter.

Rambunctious mint, which plays an important role in my garden’s health, is to be found in every bed, but safely confined in pots. In midspring, I transplant fast-growing mint seedlings from a separate herb garden, where they have free range. I put them in pots big enough to encourage the mints to bush out a bit, but small enough to be easily moved around the garden. In spring, I place these mint containers near young cabbage and broccoli plants to trick cabbage butterflies and other pests, which sail right over these mentholated crucifers and out of the garden, never to return. The key is remembering never to let the pots dry out. Later in the season, I reposition them near beans and squash. Together with nasturtiums, they repel bean beetles and cucurbit pests. For still more clout in summer, I pot up six or seven lemon balms — another invasive variety of mint that I keep planted a safe distance from the vegetable patch — and set the pots in strategic locations around the garden. Basil and thyme (more mints!) protect tomato plants. “It’s aromatherapy,” notes Ivy Rose.

Although parsley is reputed to improve the growth of tomatoes, my parsley patches are there primarily for my own benefit. Not only does this herb make a delicious addition to potato dishes and summer stir-fries, it’s also packed with iron and vitamins A and C, to mention only a few of its impressive nutritional credentials. I plant my own flat-leafed Italian parsley seed in late spring. I’ve learned to be patient and to keep the soil moist until it germinates. When the seedlings are robust, I thin to three or four plants — just enough to meet my parsley needs. When they die back after a killing freeze, I mulch the patch. In early spring, the parsley does its biennial thing, supplying me with greens for a month or so before it switches to making seeds (which I collect). Meanwhile, the new crop from last spring’s seed is maturing, so by the time the first crop dies, its replacement is producing, giving me parsley from April till frost.

Cilantro — the parsley of choice in Mexican, East Indian, Thai and Chinese cuisines — is even easier to grow. To compensate for its habit of bolting in hot weather, I plant tiny patches from my own seed (a 10-minute task) every three weeks from May through September. I push big cilantro seeds barely under the soil and patiently water them till they germinate. I harvest the greens when young and let at least one plant in each patch flower. All summer, white swatches of tousled but charming cilantro flowers tumble over the vegetables.

Chives and dill are perennial in my econiche (2,500 feet up in the Southern Appalachians). From April through October, chives are a prime ingredient in my green salads. Five or six clumps are enough to keep me supplied, provided I give them plenty of water and keep their roots cool in hot weather. I cut the stalks that flower close to the ground, which stimulates abundant new leaf growth. And when planting divisions (which I do in late summer), I keep in mind that chives are said to improve the growth and flavor of carrots.

Fresh dill has the same effect on cabbage. It’s another of my favorite additions to salads and also a preferred garden scent (whenever Ivy Rose and I collect its fragrant seed, we inhale deeply). Some we save and some we sow, though dill invariably pops up on its own where it will. I love its independent ways, its zero maintenance requirements, and its green-gold, umbelliferous blooms.

Most of the flowers in and around the edges of my garden are herbal: comfrey and valerian, chives, dill and cilantro, blue borage and chicory, pink echinacea and bee balm, red and gold nasturtiums. Except for calendula, the pest-deterring marigolds aren’t always listed as herbs, but they act just like them in the vegetable garden, so we have plenty — not the boring, garden-center types but unusual and heirloom varieties like Turkish Tashkent and Pinwheel (Ivy Rose’s favorite), which dates back to the 1700s. My favorite is the tall, wild species cempoalxochitl, (“zem-pul-so-chee-tul”); for two months, it’s covered with hundreds of orange, daisylike flowers that produce thousands of easy-to-collect seeds.

Serving as a link between mild-mannered, domesticated vegetables and hardy weeds, herbs keep an organic potager vibrant and healthy. Whether tangled up with beans, scrambling under giant zucchini leaves, or drooping over the cabbages, herbs — robust, aromatic, riotous — enliven the whole garden.

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