Advances in Gardening Series: The Perennial Herb Bed, Patience and Plant Spacing and Breaking Your Own Rules

No, this is not a pile of weeds. Someday it’s going to look good.


Mrs. Homegrown here:

One of the big lessons of gardening is patience. One way gardening patience is expressed is in planting perennials: buying leeetle teeny plants and planting them vast distances apart and then waiting with your hands politely folded until they grow to full size. A very common landscaping mistake is to go out and buy a bunch of gallon-sized landscape plants and plant them close together, just so the yard looks good right away. This practice has probably worsened with all those “overnight transformation” type TV shows.

Two things are questionable about this scenario. First, it makes both financial and horticultural sense to plant young, small plants. Small plants are cheaper, they catch up with the gallon-sized perennials in no time at all, and will probably be healthier in the long run.

The second is a question of spacing. Perennial plants used in landscaping tend to be bushy things, plants which will need some room when they grow up. Too often they don’t get the space they need and end up looking pathetically smushed together within a couple of years. They can’t express their natural shape, and different plants end up intertwined and melded together like conjoined twins, then forcibly sculpted to size in odd box and muffin shapes.

In short, when planting perennials, you have to place them in reference to their full size. And that size always sounds impossibly big, but in fact, it is is true.

My perennial herb bed above does not follow this advice on conservative spacing. You can’t see from the picture, but this area (which is about 9′ x 6′) is planted with a rose geranium, culinary sage, white sage, yarrow, rosemary, lavender, aloe, lots of thyme and a sick native rose which is probably not going to make it. The spacing between the plants is not quite what it should be. Erik looks at it and shakes his head and does that thing with his mouth which means his lordship does not approve. But I’m holding my ground on this one. This is a working herb garden, not a perennial border. I wedged more plants in there than I should have because I fully intend to be harvesting from each of the plants regularly. If I fail to do that, yes, the bed will look too tight.

Right now, crowding ia the last of my problems. Even if the plants aren’t quite far enough from each other, they are still small, and there is a heck of a lot of bare dirt between them. Ordinarily I’d recommend to anyone in a similar position to fill in all that empty space with a thick layer of mulch. It represses the weeds, saves water, and makes the area look nice. Again, though, I’m not following my own advice.

See, I feel bad about our recent leveling of the yard. Our bug balance (predator bugs vs. problem bugs), had been really nice for the past few years, but now I fear it’s going to be all wonky. Helllllooo aphids! To counterbalance that, I want as many insect friendly plants going as possible in our yard this year. So instead of mulching, the space between the perennials is seeded with all sorts of random stuff. Borage and California poppy and nasturtium are predominant right now, but that will change as the year progresses.

The little perennial herbs are in danger of getting lost under all those boisterous feral flowers. I’ll have to make sure they don’t get smothered. In the meanwhile, nothing is big yet, which means the weeds are popping up like crazy. I hate weeding. Usually I do everything in power to arrange things so I have no weeds. In this case, though, I’m weeding because I want my flowers. And you know, I don’t mind it so much because I know it’s for a cause.

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6 Comments

  1. I’d love to see more details about the balance of bugs. My plants always seem to be destroyed by little green bugs or little black bugs. What do you plant to keep the pests away.

  2. Turnip: That’s a good idea for a post. In brief, it’s been trial and error for us, but we’ve found that the more hospitable we make our yard for all sorts of critters, the fewer problems we have with pests.

    This means a bunch of things, like allowing the yard to be somewhat wild. Predators need safe places to pass through their life cycles. We have lots of ground cover, dry stuff, and old wood for spiders and lizards. We keep lots insect friendly plants in the yard–like fennel–to feed and house lady bugs and a host of other insects. We may not know exactly what any given insect is up to, but we figure the broader the spectrum, the better.

    Sometimes the balance is surprising. For instance, we had a stand of artichokes in our yard for years. For the first couple of years we had terrible aphid problems with them. Lady bugs were eating the aphids on the outer parts of the plant, but they didn’t seem to want to go deep between the leaves, where the aphids were the worst. We had to hose out each choke a couple of times of week to keep them edible, which seemed a huge waste of water. We considered ripping the plants out.

    Then, around the third year, earwigs started inhabiting the artichokes–nesting between the leaves. At first we thought this was a problem (earwigs! ewww!), until we realized that chokes with earwigs had no aphids. The earwigs were eating them. And earwigs are a lot easier to flush out of an artichoke than aphids. So we happily let the earwigs take up residence. Two or three lived in each choke. When we harvested, we’d submerge the chokes in a bowl of water and the earwigs would come swimming to the surface–at which point the chickens (who loved this game) would gobble them up.

    The scheme worked for everybody–except maybe the earwigs. But the point is that you have to be open minded. Even “problem bugs” can be useful in the right context.

    We also make the yard very bird friendly. We provide lots of places to sit and keep our birdbath filled. The birds come for water and stay to eat bugs. The other day I was watching a tiny bird hopping around in our shallots, delicately pecking at the greens. When it left, I went and looked and sure enough, there were some tiny black bugs–aphids I think, on some of the stalks. I hope she comes back for seconds!

    That’s all I can say for now. But we’ll see if we can’t put together a post on the subject.

  3. My artichokes are just covered with the little black bugs. Any other suggestions besides earwigs…ick, I hate those things…..

    Pam

  4. @Pam: Earwigs really are the best natural method of aphid control. It’s easy to get two or three earwigs out of a choke, while it’s impossible to get all those little aphids out from between the leaves. The only other really natural option is to take a spray hose and flush the chokes out almost every day–at least a few times a week–so they don’t establish a foothold. Also, ant control helps, since the ants farm the aphids.

    This is just an inspiration that may not work at all…but I’m wondering if you could put Tanglefoot on the artichoke stalks? That’s this sticky stuff you buy at the nursery. Ants and aphids would have a hard time getting past that barrier.

    If you submit to earwigs, know that the easiest way to get them out is to submerge the choke in a bowl of water and swish. I used to hate them too, but really learned to love them once they established themselves in our artichoke patch.

    • Ah, thanks for asking how this turned out. I’d forgotten about this post. I don’t have a recent photo, but you’ve inspired me to do a new post about it, so keep an eye out.

      It’s all filled in now, and it’s one part of the garden–perhaps the only part!–that I feel is working nicely. The white sage is dominant, the rosemary and oregano creep beneath it. The aloe is still there, much larger, somehow carving its own niche beside the boisterous white sage. It throws up amazing blooms. On the opposite side there’s a geranium, which is maybe a little oppressed by the sage. There’s room enough in the bed for a few annual flowers to pop up in the spring, but when they die back, there are no gaps between the perennials.

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