Herbs on the balcony
Story by LJ Evans, photos by LJ Evans and Todd Paris
Many hands make light work of caring for the herb beds at Georgeson Botanical Garden.
The nip of fall is in the air as the gardeners bend to their work, wreaking havoc as they rip out the pungent plants one by one.
“Anybody want some Kentucky colonel mint?” Emily Reiter calls out. “Great stuff for your mint juleps,” she says with a grin.
A half-dozen volunteers are reaping the results of their labor, harvesting the Georgeson Botanical Garden’s herbs, all selected, planted and tended by the Herb Bunch, a loosely organized group of avid gardeners.
Marsha Munsell is stripping the plants out of the thyme and oregano bed, sown in June with at least 16 different kinds of the classic culinary and ornamental herbs. First to go are the thyme plants — leaves, stems, roots and all — with names like creeping, English broadleaf, German winter, Spanish, lemon, elfin, English, lime and orange balsam. Then she starts on the oreganos — Italian, Kent beauty, Greek and Syrian. Munsell carefully collects a few sprigs of each variety in labeled plastic bags for evaluation later. What the Herb Bunch volunteers don’t take home to preserve or use in their kitchens will go in the Georgeson compost piles.
Reiter and a couple others are taking apart the mint bed. Besides the Kentucky Colonel, there are also vigorous plants of chocolate mint, pineapple mint, spearmint, pennyroyal and lemon balm. As the plants are handled and the leaves bruised, the aroma from each bundle is distinctive — some robust, some delicate — but filling the air with a potent bouquet that leaves no mistake — these flora are cultivated first and foremost for their scent.
A few steps away is an oblong bed this year planted entirely with scented geraniums. They’re all luxuriant, burgeoning — some of them have grown to three and four feet tall. Rub their fuzzy, jagged-edge leaves and the air is redolent with the smell of roses, chocolate, apples, oranges, even coconuts, and the most heady of all, citronella, said to repel mosquitoes (a popular attribute in an Alaska garden), whose scent is right at the edge of being stinky. Donna Dinsmore, her eyes shielded from the bright, low-angled September sun by wide dark glasses, is saving at least one plant of each variety, cutting back the stems and leaves and carefully planting each one in a green plastic pot. Each container gets its red identifying label stuck in the soil, so Georgeson staff can keep track of them in the greenhouse over the winter.
Each plot in the clutch of oval and round raised beds is outlined with rocks. This year half of the largest one was planted with the thymes and oreganos. The other half was planted with Japanese herbs, leafy vegetables and seasoning plants such as purple shiso, mioga ginger, sansho, green shiso, mizuna, mitsuba, and in the middle, a few pepper plants that were supposed to grow fiery, tiny chili peppers. The pepper plants grew but made no chilies. The ginger all died, and the horticulturists digging in that bed can find only stubby, dried-up corpses.
Part of the point of growing these plants is to learn, and one lesson this year is that not all of them will thrive so far north. Experimenting is half the fun and the core of the serious business of this garden.