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Pride in the garden goeth before a fall

May 05, 2003|by Dorry Baird Norris

Our cold and rainy spring has been grand for wiping out the drought and for prolonging spring blooms, but it's been tough on us gardeners. Finally, happy days are here. It has actually been possible to put in real time working in the garden to wipe out the ravages of the winter's cold and to cut back leftover growth from last year.

Last weekend I got to work on the beds in front of the house. In this small space there was both good news and bad. The caraway thyme that had been growing so vigorously and spreading over the sidewalk could only be described as mangy. A good trimming will no doubt bring it back to life. As thyme spreads, it puts down roots, so I also covered the center of the plant with a little soil to encourage growth.

The least favorite of all my lavenders - a pink one - growing next to the thyme survived the winter in disgustingly good shape. It was ready for a good haircut though. It seems cruel to cut lavenders back but it does encourage bloom. You have only to visit the huge lavender fields of Provenc, France, in April and see the stumpy little plants to understand this. Those folks, who rely on lavender blooms for their living, cut them back ruthlessly. With lavenders the message is lop now for bloom later.

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The purple sage that thrust itself through the caraway thyme was a shadow of its former self. Every year, when I am faced with leggy sage, I am reminded of the good monk, Walafrid Strabo. He wrote in Hortulus (circa A.D. 880):

"But within itself (sage) is the germ of civil war;

For unless the new growth is cut away, it turns

Savagely on its parent and chokes to death

The older stems in bitter jealously."

So don't be fooled by those tufts of greenery that decorate the tips of the stems - cut them back. You might also take one of the longer stems, pull off most of the leaves and nick the stem with a sharp knife. Then lay it flat on the ground and cover with soil. Top with a brick or stone. By fall you should have a new plant.

The prostrate rosemary was a goner. Last year I was a bit smug when I realized my prostrate rosemary had come through the winter nicely while the ones in the National Herb Garden had bitten the dust. It just goes to remind one that in the garden pride does indeed goeth before a fall. Fortunately I made cuttings last autumn and have been keeping them alive in water in the house though the winter. For me, this is a more successful way to winter over rosemary than in pots.

The tall rosemary by the steps is another matter altogether. It came to me without a name. It grows to almost 3 feet and blooms from February on. It appeared that the stems had suffered a great deal of winter kill, but when I examined them closely, it was clear that there were new needles sprouting on every stem. And joy of joy, the stems closer to the steps had flowers! As I write this three days later, the whole plant is ready to burst into bloom.

It was dismaying to discover that the row of santolina I had planted at the edge of the bed, where the magnificent "Hansa" rose is budding up, had several plants that looked really tatty. My dream of a tidy ribbon of gray green to pull the area together is shattered. I will have to be satisfied with a ragged ribbon at least until the plants put on some new growth. Then who knows - dreams sometimes do come true.

So there you have it, two beds cut back, weeded and ready for the new season. Now there are only six more to be tended. I wonder what surprises, disappointments and promise they will hold?

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