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A sense of herbs

Herbs as ornamentals

Herbs as ornamentals

February 11, 2003|by Dorry Baird Norris

Creating an interesting and educational herb garden that is also beautiful is a real challenge.

One season, Diane Miske, who bears the marvelously simple yet descriptive title, "gardener," at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., tried to show the possibilities herbs have as ornamentals. Miske is in charge of the Robison York State Herb Garden, the Martha Howell Young Cutting Garden and the fragrance bins at the garden's entrance.

She replanted the large beds at the entrance to the garden with a carefully selected assortment of herbs to enhance a silver, white, purple and green color scheme. Originally these beds had been designed to showcase antique roses but they proved too care-intensive in the harsh upstate New York winters.

Diane started with a rough plan on paper and then "painted" with the plants as she set them out in the garden. Since this is a public garden where appearance is important, she chose to set plants close together for a full look the first year. The Zone 5 site, protected on the north by the headquarters building, is wonderfully sunny and well drained. An added bonus is access to unlimited compost and a greenhouse in which to start seedlings and to winter over tender plants.

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The handsome, lime green plants along the front edge of the garden first caught my eye. They proved to be curly teucrium (Teucrium scordina cv "Crispa"). Hardy to Zone 5, this elegant plant makes a handsome low hedge or border.

The towering white anise hyssop (Agastache cv "Snow Spike") which reached a height of four to five feet was started from seed in March. It was companioned toward the back of the garden, with a favorite of mine - long-blooming, blue-flowered Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia). Two other sages, furry, low-growing Salvia argenta and exuberant clary sage (Salvia sclaria) lent additional color and texture to the mix.

The clary sage was started from seed sown in the fall. Strongly scented Nepeta champhorata as well as the Purple Ruffles basil were also started from seed. Nepetaa, a Greek import, is camphor-scented and has white flowers touched with purple spots.

Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) with their sweetly scented white flowers and the somewhat taller A. siberican that sports large pinky-purple blooms provided height and added interesting texture to the garden.

The native, red-veined cancer root (Salvia lyrata) proved a happy companion to steel blue rue and deep purple perilla. A striking, three-foot-tall capsicum, "Purple Venezuelan," whose leaves were purple on top and green underneath bore purple flowers and fruit. A purple-leafed mustard lent early color and volume and by the time it started to go to seed - in spite of regular deadheading - other plants had begun to fill in. Purple clover proved to be a magnet for rabbits and was abandoned when dried blood failed to deter their visits. Mentha longifolia sp. himalaensis, from the National Botanic Garden, produced silvery foliage on strong three-foot plants.

A good stand of parsley and the lemon-scented Vietnamese balm (Elsholtzia ciliata) added bright green to the garden palette. This lavender-flowered plant is useful for both potpourri and cooking. Planted with white rugosa roses the mid-sized double flowered chamomile (C. nobilis "Flore Pleno") provided a needed spot of white in the garden. For a season-long white accent, silver horehound (Marrubium incanum), with its white woolly leaves and white flowers, was another winner in the brightness department.

This splendid experiment is but one example of the glory to be found in green herbs when tint, shape and texture are considered. How will you "paint" your garden canvas this year?

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