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Planting perennials: thoughts and cautions

“Now, ere the sun advance his burning eye

The day to cheer and light’s dank dew to dry,

I must upfill this osier cage of ours

With baleful weeds and precious-juiced flowers.”

— Friar Lawrence in William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Act II, Scene III

In this scene from “Romeo and Juliet,” I can picture Father Lawrence stepping into the monastery garden with his willow basket in the early morning to weed and pick herbs that will be used for cooking and healing.

The friar’s garden soliloquy foreshadows the events to come, and sums up an underlying theme of the play:

“Oh, mickle is the powerful grace that lies

In herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities.

For naught so vile that on the Earth doth live

But to the Earth some special good doth give.

Nor aught so good but, strained from that fair use

Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.

Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,

And vice sometime by action dignified.”

Just after Father Lawrence utters these words to himself, Romeo enters the garden, picks one of the flowers and ominously remarks, “Within the infant rind of this small flower, poison hath residence and medicine power.”

The names of the herbs are not mentioned in this passage, but typical monastic garden plants during the Renaissance period included: sage, betony, hyssop, rue, chamomile, dill, cumin, comfrey, apothecary roses, lavender, rosemary, and many others. (It’s thought that Romeo’s fate came by drinking poison made from aconite, also called monkshood and wolf’s bane.)

Weather permitting, I’ll have some new perennial herbs planted out in the Bard’s Garden at Hanley Farm by the end of this month. Besides those I’ve already mentioned, there are a lot of perennial herbs to choose from: chives, oregano, thyme, bronze fennel, bee balm, lemon balm, echinacea the list goes on, and that’s not counting annual herbs that will be ready to plant out later in May.

Perennial herb transplants enjoy a little cool moisture as they are becoming established in the garden, but they thrive in the warm sunshine of summer when soils are much drier.

Transplant potted herb starts into moistened holes with added compost and 1-2 tablespoons of bone meal. Adequate spacing will range from 6 inches apart for small herbs to 24 or more inches apart for large herbs. Add a layer of mulch after planting to retain moisture and reduce weeds.

I have a tendency to plant too close together, but it helps if I have a mental picture of how much space a particular plant will need at maturity, rather than spacing based on what the plants look like right then.

On the other hand, too much bare space between plants invites weeds and makes it harder for plants in the garden to thrive as a community.

The other day, I was in the Bard’s Garden pruning and clearing away debris. I spent most of my time yanking out mint that has overtaken Perdita’s herb garden in the Winter’s Tale section. I knew better than to plant mint in the ground, but the small starts looked so innocent that I threw caution to the wind (or the soil) and planted six different varieties of mint.

Two years later, Friar Lawrence’s words come to mind: “Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied.” (Those weren’t actually the words that came to mind as I was ripping out three-feet-long runners of mint that were strangling my lavender plants, but those are the words I can print.)

I’ve learned my lesson, so let me be clear: Do not plant mint in the ground. Constrain those overly ambitious “precious-juiced flowers” in a pot.

Mint is not the only invasive herb that will need some restraining; there are several others I’ve found that multiply more quickly than bubbles in a boiling pot. Most of these plants produce tons of seeds that germinate with ease, so be sure to deadhead before the flowers set seed: catnip, calendula, chamomile, dill, fennel, feverfew, lemon balm and did I mention mint?

You probably have other herbs in the garden that you’ve been growing for years and only planted once. I’d love to find out what they are, so email me!

I’ll finish planting the Romeo and Juliet section of the Bard’s Garden this spring, and I invite you to come tour the garden from noon to 3 p.m. Sundays during April, May and June at Hanley Farm, 1053 Hanley Road, Central Point. Please take some mint.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/ and check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener, and her website at www.literarygardener.com.