Early spring finds perennial herbs on their best behavior

GREEN PIECE

May 17, 1992|By Mary Gold

April is a great time in the herb garden, says Barbara Smith.

To the casual observer there might not appear to be much to look at. But Smith and her husband, Tom, anticipate the appearance of each plant, eager to see which ones survived the winter and which ones didn't.

The new growth emerging from the brown earth emphasizes an infinite spectrum of the color green. And, "It's the one time of year when the herb beds look neat and well-behaved," she says.

Most perennial herbs are by nature spreading, lanky and invasive -- sending shoots into surrounding ground each year. Right now, the plants are neat and in bounds.

The Smiths' property in Mount Airy has the feel of a multi-act play, complete with old-fashioned stage scenery that lifts up and away with each new act. As one proceeds from the road out front to the distant rear of the yard, the backdrop changes every few yards, revealing layer upon layer of landscape design.

The tree-framed front of the house gives way to a comfortable open patio outside the back door, the patio to a shrub-enclosed lawn, the shrubs to tall trees and woodland plants. Finally, the woods open up to a sunny vista of herb, flower and vegetable beds.

Throw in a couple of rock gardens, a grape arbor, some fruit trees, hundreds of azaleas and rhododendrons, and endless supply of leaf mulch under the trees and a horse farm next door, and you come close to what many mortal gardeners call heaven.

Of course, nothing is perfect. The negative feature in this scenario is the deer that find many of the garden and landscape plants good to chew on. Gumpo azaleas are their favorites, says Barbara Smith.

It's interesting to note that the Smith landscape drama has two authors. Some acts are done cooperatively and some individually. (This doesn't include the several rows of garlic plants installed in the vegetable garden last year by their son.) The herbs are Barbara Smith's domain. There are the culinary herbs such as oregano and sage, and spicy-scented lavender and lemon balm.

Many herbs are grown for their everlasting flowers and foliage, used in wreaths and arrangements -- wormwood, a silver-leaved artemisia, velvety lamb's ears, and pearly everlasting, for example. Perennial flower plants such as bleeding heart, campanula, foxglove and delphiniums make their way amid the herbs.

Her favorite herbs are rosemary and basil. "I love them just for their beautiful scents," she says. Sweet basil is an annual and must be started from seed each year.

A tall, bushy rosemary plant made it through the winter outdoors this year, a fairly uncommon occurrence in Howard County. Usually the plants must overwinter indoors.

Rosemary may be started from seed but take several years to reach a useful size. It is more often purchased as a plant or started as a cutting from another plant.

Unlike the herb garden, with its heady potential, Tom Smith's wildflowers, dotting the leaf-covered ground under the tall oaks, are in full flower. April and May, before the tree leaves enclose the area in dense shade, are the months when most woodland flowers make their show. Many of them disappear completely after blooming, reappearing each spring with fresh new foliage. Others remain as ground cover.

Tom Smith has collected a variety of violets. There are blue-and-white flowered ones called Confederate violets, and purple, blue, ivory and yellow ones. Tiny, pink spring beauties, wild ginger and the mottled leaves of yellow flowering trout lilies underscore the larger trilliums, May apples and wild larkspur. The blue bells of Greek valerian sitting atop delicate mounds of bright, green foliage are everywhere.

The Smiths' azaleas, which thrive in and around the tall trees despite the deer's foraging, are a shared interest. With 400 of them, it's difficult to keep track of what's what, but there is a list of all the varieties they have, says Barbara Smith. There are both evergreen types and deciduous ones.

Tom Smith grew up on a farm in Tennessee, and while his wife claims to have converted him to the art of gardening when they married, he says his love of growing things and wildflowers began well before they met.

"I've been gardening since I was so high," Barbara Smith says, holding her arm out at waist height. Growing up on the outskirts of Washington, she acquired a love of plants, and, in particular, an appreciation for plant colors, from her family.

If anything ties the different kind of landscaping themes together at the Smiths, it's her passion for her favorite shades. If the plants have unsatisfactory color, either in flowers or foliage, "out they go," she says.

They've driven hundreds of miles to acquire an unusual specimen, or find a good sale. Plants have come from friends, plant society sales and catalogs. Sometimes the pursuit contains a mystery, such as the search for "Dittany of Greece," an herb Barbara Smith read about but couldn't find locally. She finally located two sources, only to discover that interpretations of what the plant is are varied. Each source sent a different-looking plant.

The quest for new plants is an aspect of the Smiths' gardening efforts that adds a layer of shared adventure and humor to the drama that is in their gardens. The love of growing things glows from every corner of their yard.

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