by Mimi Hedl
Back in the mid ’80s, before I kept records of what plants and seeds came to Strawdog, I received my first rose cutting, a Damask rose, rose de Rescht, from Penny Henderson, a member of the Flower and Herb Exchange, out of Decorah, Iowa, she from Davidsonville, Pennsylvania. Why do we remember these little details? I guess because learning how to strike a rose from a cutting seems like an initiation for a young gardener, and Penny raised horses, romantic, and seemed to know lots about gardening that I wanted to learn. I can only surmise what went on in my young mind. I do know I felt eager for fellow gardeners and quite alone in rural Missouri, so I welcomed her letters and gardening talk.
Using a stick, I primed an opening for the cutting at the head of the culinary garden, still only a skeleton of what that garden would become; the twenty raised beds constructed and filled with compost, but little planted at that time. On paper, when I designed the garden for the architect of my dreams to consult, it looked like a Gothic arch. At the head, where the rose hedge now grows, the arch, and the beds, pews in a church, the sides of the arch. I didn’t think about it at the time, but now I realize my Catholic upbringing figured into how I designed my world. I wanted order and hierarchy of a sort, the rose hedge the master, the mistress.
I would never do that now, plant a cutting so far from the house, from a source of water. I’d keep it in a pot close at hand, and when roots formed, I’d move it to its home when the elements all seemed propitious, like a Greek goddess casting a spell. Luck served me well and the rose took. In time I would take more cuttings and establish a hedge of roses marking the eastern perimeter of the culinary garden.
Mistakenly I planted garlic chives with the roses, their white flowers attractive with the ever-blooming damask rose. The combination seemed perfect until the seeds from this Allium fell every which way and I had a forest of garlic chives. Garlic chives need a wild place or a smaller garden where the gardener has time to cut back the seed heads before ripe seed claims more territory. Like all things, I learned this the hard way. So, on a late summer day, thirty years later, you would find me working on that eastern edge of the Culinary, in extremely dry conditions, digging garlic chives from the roses.
Assembling tools for this task required little more than pruners, shovel, fork, and rake. I already had on my gloves. With trusty wheel barrow, I headed out in the early morning, before the sun had taken hold of the sky, and began undoing what I had done years ago. A gardener’s lament.
Up at the Hong Kong Market in Columbia, they sell large bags of garlic chives, cut close to the ground and bundled with rubber bands. If you’ve never used this green in a stir fry, please try them. Two cups would not seem like too much for one person, they cook down considerably, have a mild, delicious flavor and add fiber and nutrients to your meal.
Because of all the organic material in the soil, beginning with the entire quarter acre covered 2 feet deep in straw when the idea for the “Park,” sprouted; and followed, over the years with more straw, and now grass clippings, the fork slid into the earth relatively easily instead of meeting an impossible resistance that clay, untempered, provides in dry times.
The roots to the garlic chives, a massive structure, held little soil so I only had to knock the clumps against the fork once or twice before tossing them into the wheel barrow. I trimmed back the rue that has become a tame companion to the roses and a lovely foil with its blue-green leaves, yellow flowers and swallowtail caterpillars that appear in late summer. After rue flowers, it becomes scraggly and needs a trim anyway. It felt good to dive under and around the roses, pulling up the chives, grasses and even tree seedlings that had sequestered themselves in the chaos of an unweeded patch.
Lemon balm grows on the west side of the rose hedge, and creates a nice barrier that the head mower enjoys when she pushes the mower against this fragrance. Even those of us who love and grow herbs can forget the restorative powers of fragrance. Many a foul mood can become a glad mood with the wafting of sweet smells. Take me to that delight!
By noon I had pushed the last wheel barrow load of weeds to the compost pile. It never fails to amaze me how many weeds cram themselves into a small space. Hot and sweaty, I retreated to the hydrant to cool off, to go in for lunch, a nap. Over the next few days I’d haul all the bagged grass from mowing out to Rose de Rescht, mulching the bare, weed-free earth, creating a frame for the culinary garden.
A woman named Nancy Lindsay, brought this rose back from Iran. She happened upon it in an old Persian garden in ancient Rescht, hence its name and the attribution of “very old.” Both lemon balm and rue would figure into the very old category too, so I like to think many other gardeners have combined these three plants in similar designs, the world over.
Planting, tending our gardens seem like peace offerings. If you’ve ever noticed a gardener working as you walk or pedal by, you’ll notice the prayerful positions they assume. Heads lowered, often on the knees, sometimes prostrate, but focused on the earth. A friend of mine who lived in Cochise’s Stronghold, called the activity, “feeding the earth.” I like that. I like thinking that our actions have a positive thrust on our often crazy world. That perhaps our activities counter some of the more careless actions and that gardening does represent a quietly subversive activity.
When I stand by the rose hedge and look into the Culinary garden, the beds neatly arranged with a wonderful variety of herbs and flowers, I do feel like a conductor, as we all must, when we see the dream become reality, in cooperation with the earth and her dictates. And this church of sorts fits my conception of life and the universe. I go to the garden for comfort and nourishment, as I try, not always successfully, to explain to my Christian neighbors.
Thoughts like these surfaced in the early morning, before the sun slows down our bodies, our minds and work becomes drudgery. What a fine way to begin my chore, my appointed task of redeeming the rose hedge.