Spring is just around the corner whether the gardener is prepared or not. So, if the dormant season is the moment to suck our thumbs and think about novel plants for the new season, it's time to get a move on.
I'm thinking about using more perennial herbs ornamentally, by planting varieties that are particularly pretty. Lots of herbs happen to be pretty by accident - rosemary, thyme and lavender varieties are obvious choices - but I've always had a deep appreciation of chives. They turn any garden into a magazine cover in May, when their violet-purple blossoms appear as jovial orbs above wispy clumps of foliage.
Chive leaves are elongated tubes, gathered and snipped as a garnish. If you pick apart the flower heads, the individual florets enliven the sight and taste of a salad. Flowering chives represent that time in May when the heat is knocking on the door, but spring, fresh and lush, is fully expressed. The March-sown salad greens are ready for picking - and sprinkling with chive blossoms.
The chive watcher will know that the blossoms are magnets for bees. The resulting honey might be a bit oniony, but the bees are efficient pollinators. The blooms of May become the seeds of summer, and in a fertile, free-draining and sunny site, they soon grow into grasslike clumps. Unless you are quick to dig them up, they become mature plants ready to repeat the cycle.
At the base of a 20-foot fence, I put in three chive plants from wee pots. With a few years, their seeding had formed a hedge along most of the fence. In the face of such fecundity, I am ruthless. After they flower, instead of removing just the blooms, I cut the entire clumps back to the ground and dig out any invaders. The chives grow back nicely over the summer, having made room for a collection of salvias.
Given this embarrassment of riches, the idea of planting more chives seems odd, but I came across some new varieties at a trade show where Mary Vaananen of Jelitto Perennial Seeds was thrilled to talk about them. Three new varieties are available this year, bred for the uniform size and texture of the foliage and for flower colour. The names aren't that imaginative - Pink One, Purple One and White One - but at least you know what you're getting. Started in early spring, they should bloom the first year, she said, though I wouldn't expect too much of any perennial in its first year. Chives grow happily in pots as long as they are not neglected.
Strawberries are the same; they will grow merrily in regular pots and strawberry pots - the tall, bulbous containers with apertures for soil and plants. Proven Winners last year introduced a decorative strawberry named Berried Treasure. I grew it in a pot and expect it to come through the winter. The blooms are semidouble and of a rich magenta-red. The fruits are small and surprisingly flavourful, certainly compared with anything you would find in a supermarket.
Kevin Hurd, the brand's director of new products, said two new flower colours - a strong pink and a pure white - will be available in 2021. The variety is more compact than a regular strawberry plant, doesn't run as much and is particularly suited to container growing, he said. "It's perfect for children," he said. His 8-year-old son "can't keep his hands off them."
Oregano is an essential culinary herb, but most varieties aren't that handsome, and some are too eager to spread, especially the flavourless wild marjoram. I have to break into Latin to explain the distinctions. Wild marjoram is Organum vulgare subspecies vulgare. The preferred Greek or Greek Mountain Oregano is O. vulgare subspecies hirtum. Perhaps the confusion is best avoided by following the advice of Virginia herb nurseryman Francesco DeBaggio, who writes that, for culinary use, the Italian oregano, Origanum x majoricum, "is the best all-purpose oregano." And, as a clumper, it doesn't spread. Some oreganos are truly beautiful, even if their flavour falls off, and the prettiest have blooms with stacked bracts in the manner of hops - akin to a Hawaiian lei.
Kent Beauty is a small, mounding plant with pendulous stems ending in these strange blooms, which endure for weeks. They will come through a reasonably mild winter, but only if they are planted in amended, well-draining soil. If they're in (freeze-proof) containers, they are best placed in a sheltered corner of the garden until March.
This year, I might grow a related plant named Dittany of Crete. I've avoided it in the past because the name unsettles me, even if the Greek goddess Artemis is supposed to have worn a crown of it. It, too, has those attractive bracts above bluish-grey mouse-ear leaves, and it's marginally hardy for us and probably safer now that we don't seem to dip that much anymore into the teens. The one I really want to try is the larger but floppy hop flower oregano, O. libanoticum, festooned with pale green bracts tipped with pink flowers.
Heleniums are summer flowering daisies that may qualify as herbs in that dried and ground parts were an alternative to the powdered tobacco snuff that people used to snort. It was a strange habit but not a particularly anti-social one, though it caused people to sneeze. Heleniums, thus, are known as sneezeweed. They are valuable garden plants, blooming merrily during the hottest weeks. They have a couple of weaknesses. The clumps get tall and top-heavy with bare ankles, making them challenging to place with other perennials. And they can get powdery mildew, a disease that, at best, renders them unsightly.
Mt. Cuba, the native plant garden and research centre in Hockessin, Delaware, recently released a study of the best - and worst - helenium varieties. The gardeners spent three years evaluating such traits as disease resistance, flower performance and stem sturdiness and identified 10 top performers out of a field of 44 types.
The highest-scoring variety was Kanaria, a solid yellow helenium liked for its length of bloom, flower show and other attributes. It grows to five feet and blooms from early August into September. Other top plants included two species: the especially long-flowering and compact Helenium flexuosum, as well as the late-season H. autumnale and its variant Can Can. Zimbelstern and the orange-red Flammenspiel also excelled.
More than 20 varieties flunked the trial, an unusually high number for a plant of native origin, but that was put down to purposeful neglect and their genetic link to a Western species ill-suited to the Mid-Atlantic. The top performers "are fabulous, though," said Sam Hoadley, who conducted the trial. "The ones that did survive I really like and wouldn't hesitate to put them in my own garden."
The staking problem is minimized if you cut back spring growth to 12 inches in May - the plants regenerate bushier, and blooming is delayed a week or two, which is not a bad thing. You could attend to that between admiring your chives and picking those plump lettuce heads.
Birdhouses or nesting boxes can be cleaned out of old material in advance of nesting season. Use the opportunity to repair and secure boxes or move them to better locations. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology gives guidance on box heights and locations.