Time Enough

“A garden is a grand teacher.  It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.”  — Gertrude Jekyll

For the first few years in the house, I gardened almost exclusively in containers:  big ones and little ones, plastic and ceramic, pots scavenged from the street and from nurseries, and recycled from the house’s “staging” for sale.  (Needless to say, the previous residents of the staging pots had long before migrated to the yard waste can, largely due to the watering problem I’ve mentioned.)  The motley collection made a somewhat unconventional landscaping scheme in the back yard.

On one side of the house, though, there was a narrow, unused side yard that led to a shed.  It had about ten years’ worth of dead leaves stacked up in it, and I guess I was simply too terrified of the prospect of cleaning it out to do anything but scuttle past on the way to tending more pots.  (Too many Steven King novels had me paralyzed with the conviction that there was Something In There.)  But once you get even a little success with gardening, you start looking to expand — and there wasn’t much more room for containers.

So I put my big-girl gardening gloves on and pulled out all the leaves.  We tried planting directly in the dirt that I eventually discovered was under there, but it was almost solid clay, and the plants didn’t do well. So the next spring I called Naturalyards (www.naturalyards.com) and ordered this sweetheart of a cedarwood raised bed planter.

Once it was installed, I found that I had some well-used bricks and a few garden ornaments had that been left behind by the previous owners.  I also found several forks, a single dress shoe, and a headless Barbie.  (The latter was disposed of with the alacrity that only a dedicated Steven King reader can appreciate.)  Now safe from the Barbie, I decided to use the bricks and ornaments to make a little spot for a statue of St. Francis overlooking the new garden bed.

I planted some “Carpet of Snow” sweet alyssum around him. The first year the alyssum seemed, well, unpersuaded about the whole idea.



The next year the alyssum was showing a little more enthusiasm, but it was hardly the lavish, billowing display I’d had in mind.  Periodically it would lose most of its flowers and shrivel up into angry little sticks, but then come back weeks later. I’d water it with an irritable “Look, do whatever the heck you want,” because nothing else seemed to work. There were plenty of other plants to fuss over.

During the cool, rainy winters here, I generally empty the annual pots, clean things up a bit, and leave the perennials to overwinter on their own.  It’s been a successful strategy for most of the hardier herbs, like the thymes, marjoram, sage, and the Oregano That Ate Detroit.  It’s also a successful strategy for me, as I prefer to stay inside during the winter in fleece pajamas, whining bitterly about the damp.

This spring like every spring I finally emerged, blinking owlishly in the sun, to see what happened to everyone over the winter.   I had no illusions about the alyssum, given its track record.  But I was delighted to discover what this cranky, reluctant, miserly plant had finally done. During all those drab, bleak, cold days, completely without my attention or assistance, it had decided to flourish.  It needed only one thing from me: patience. And maybe a little water this summer too.




Let’s talk about Valerian

I learned early in this adventure that herbs are probably the best bet you’ve got going when  a) you know absolutely nothing about gardening  b) you have no actual land to garden on and c) you tend to forget basic principles like “plants require watering.”  Let me advise you, if you hit all three marks like I did: get a small pot (the drugstore probably has them for a buck or less), buy a small herb (I recommend thyme, the stuff is practically idiotproof) and a small bag of dirt (again, drugstore), put said herb into said dirt into said pot, and put it into some sort of sun — inside, outside, whatever.  There. You’re good.

Once you’ve killed a few, you’ll start remembering the watering part.  And then you’ll be ready to handle more interesting herbs, like valerian.

This is a two-year-old valeriana officianalis, started from seed:  it’s nicknamed “The Brave Little Valerian” because I figured I would kill it as a seedling, but didn’t, and then I figured I would kill it when I dug it up last fall and cut off its roots, but didn’t.  It’s still here and in my face, with weird-smelling flowers that even the bees don’t particularly appreciate and the squirrels that predate my backyard avoid at all costs.  This is one hellraiser of an herb, and it’s well worth cultivating for more than a few reasons.



First:  the ancient Romans used this plant, the medieval English thought it could cure practically everything (it was called “all-heal”), and it was included in the United States Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1942  as a tranquilizer.  If you’ve got a history like that, you’ve got a track record worth considering. Right now, valerian is recognized (particularly by the Germans, in their Commission E reports) as a mild sedative and anxiety-reliever that has few, if any, aftereffects. You can pick up capsules with powdered valerian root at most health-food stores.  Many people report that valerian helps with insomnia even better than prescription drugs.

Second:  There’s no reason to go through life without cultivating something that smells so bad that it got the historical name “Phu.” As Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs notes, “[t]he whole plant, with the exception of its flower, has a fetid smell.”  I hate to disagree with an authority as august as Rodale’s, but as I noted above, even the bees approach the flowers like starving kids given broccoli for dinner.

Third: The act of harvesting this plant for its useful parts has a certain atavistic pleasure. Observe:

These are the roots of the Brave Little Valerian, after its first year.  The active compounds of valerian are reportedly concentrated in its roots, but boy does this plant not want to give them up. It’s probably perfectly happy nodding peacefully off in the sun day after day and just wants to be left alone. Alas, life is hard, even for plants.  After more than enough time sweating and wrestling and cursing, I managed to get this into the kitchen. This picture is after about an hour of soaking and vigorous washing. It hardly bears mention that this might not be a project for the easily bored or frustrated.

Once the soaking and washing are done, it’s time to chop. Believe me, after an hour of trying to wash the dirt off these roots, you’re more than ready to take a sharp knife to them. (Actually, you’re thinking about a chainsaw at this point, just for the sheer roaring satisfaction).  But keep the end goal in mind.  The raw herb root can be used immediately in infusions or decoctions, or preserved in tinctures. Tinctures draw the active elements out of an herb and preserve them fairly indefinitely in carriers like alcohol, glycerin, or vegetable oils, while infusions (like hot-water teas) and decoctions (cold-water steeping) can provide the benefits of an herb on a more immediate basis. Celestial Seasonings offers a tea mix of chamomile and valerian root for insomnia (“Sleepytime Extra Wellness Tea”).  For me, that’s the whole point of this exercise: to get an organic, homegrown valerian root for a tea mix with my chamomile.


Here’s the Brave Little Valerian chopped and ready for the dehydrator. While you can dry herbs in other ways — in the oven on low heat, or in the sun outside, or spread on mesh sweater-dryers, or hanging on accordion laundry racks — in my experience, a dedicated dehydrator produces the best results.  I use an Excalibur 9-rack machine, but I’ve done all of the above too.  The jar on the right side of the picture below shows what I came up  with after all the effort.

What’s probably most remarkable about this entire exercise is what happened after I ripped up the Brave Little Valerian and chopped off its roots. I was left with the “root crown,” which is a hard, circular, and fairly mystifying object.  Not knowing what else to do with it (well, I did briefly consider it as a dog frisbee), I put it back into a pot and watered it.  (See second paragraph).

It not only re-rooted and branched and leaved, but has now flowered for the first time.  I am pleased to report that The Brave Little Valerian abides.