This fragrant, hardy plant is one you’ll want in the garden

Every May I’m sure it’s time to get rid of my lemon verbena.

Started with a branch that grew in a 4 inch pot about 20 years ago, it is now more than 6 feet tall and wide. I’m thankful for all the fragrant foliage that has been there, but I suspect it’s finally time to cut it up and turn it into mulch.

This idea is repeated every year, since the lemon verbena is the last plant to sprout in spring. Luckily, I’m one of those people who don’t like to “plum” in my garden, so this year I’ve held back the urge with my lemon verbena. Lo and behold, by mid-May her stems were again covered in glossy mint green foliage and her branches of delicate white flowers had begun to open.

Lemon verbena (Aloysia citriodora) is one of those plants that we can’t imagine living without. Its foliage has the strongest lemon scent of any herb. You can use it to make tea or flavor pastries or icing on your cake. The plant does not require water and will do well with a single soak a week in the summer.

Brought to Europe from South America by Spanish and Portuguese explorers, the custom was adopted of placing it in handkerchiefs from which its scent was inhaled to ease the burden of the summer heat. From now until it loses its foliage in winter, I give every guest who leaves my house a few sprouts of lemon verbena as a parting gift. It never disappoints.

Another shrub in my garden with fragrant foliage that has thrived for at least two decades is a spice shrub (Calycanthus occidentalis). This California native sports unusual flowers with tentacles that look as much at home under the sea as they do in the garden. Mine grows under a bottle brush tree (Callistemon citrinus), whose opulent scarlet blooms harmonize well with the rose wine-colored spice shrub blooms at any time of the year. The spice bush is also known as the strawberry bush because its flowers, which open sporadically between April and August, according to some, have a scent that combines the scents of pineapple, strawberry and banana. Spice Bush can handle any type of soil. It grows along stream banks and is generally described as moderately water-demanding, although mine, living in some shade, requires no more water than Lemon Verbena.

The resins and essential oils that give fragrance to many of California’s Native Americans and other plants of the Mediterranean climate serve two purposes. First, they increase sap viscosity, thereby reducing water loss from the leaves during the long dry season that must be endured. Second, they make it easier for plants to catch fire, a beneficial event in their life cycle since blistering heat is required for their seeds to germinate. Aside from viscous essential oils in their leaves, California Natives use three other strategies to minimize heat stress and water loss: leathery leaves, which provide a waterproof leaf cover (e.g., Manzanita); small leaves that have less water loss area (e.g. Ceanothus); gray to white foliage that reflects sun off leaf surfaces (e.g., California white sage [Salvia apiana]desert marigold [Baileya multiradiata]and Artemesia species).

“With all the hype and gnashing of teeth about impending once-a-week water restrictions, I’m blasé on the subject because my prolific edible garden has always gotten along with a lot less,” writes Yvonne Savio, a gardener in Pasadena. “I’ve only ever done my watering timing when absolutely necessary,” she continues on her blog at gardeninginla.net. “But it requires that the plants and trees, from the moment they are seeded or transplanted, be trained to grow deep to attract the water you make available less frequently.”

Savio waters her garden as follows: once every three weeks in spring; once a week in summer, except for plants “with lots of foliage like fully branched tomatoes,” which need more water when temperatures soar into the 90s (although above 95 degrees “turns off plants, so more water risks too.” drown”); twice a week in the fall; once a week in a dry winter. While Savio recommends watering when the soil is dry to a depth of three inches, the soil depth the water should reach depends on the length of your plant’s roots, so deep-rooted tomatoes and asparagus, for example, receive more water than radishes and lettuce Salvio also enriches your beds with compost before planting, maintaining a layer of mulch at all times to minimize watering frequency.

Thanks to Randy Duprey, a gardener in Manhattan Beach, for bringing my attention to a vegetable grower in the UK using Lady Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia) as a cover crop. Green manure or cover crops are worked into the soil to enrich the soil. They grow and decay quickly and are often sown between harvesting one crop and planting another. Lady Phacelia can advantageously be turned underground just six weeks after the start of growth.

And, wouldn’t you know, Lady Phacelia is native to California, making it particularly well-suited to growing here. You’ll see its mauve flowers thriving alongside California poppies as you gaze at the expanses of blooming wildflowers. Lady Phacelia is also excellent as a pollinator, attracting beneficial insects, especially hoverflies.

Joan Matthews, who gardens in West Hills, wrote, “I’ve noticed my gardener was kicking up clouds of dirt in my yard,” and “it’s like taking a hair dryer and sucking out all the available moisture.” The sale Gasoline lawn and garden equipment will be banned in California from January 2024. However, electric and battery powered devices, including blowers, powered by these alternative energy sources remain. While they have their place in removing debris from sidewalks and driveways, blowers are antithetical to the health of plants. Leaves that fall into flower beds should be left in place to build up a rich layer of topsoil underneath. And Ms. Matthews is right when she states that fans cause water loss because leaf litter stores moisture on the soil surface, which is absorbed by the plant roots.

Finally, I’ve recently seen artwork displayed in botanical gardens. Exhibits of this kind seem to have become a fashion trend, but I don’t understand how plant lovers could allow this to happen. Call me a purist, but in my humble opinion, man-made artwork stuck in the middle of a garden can only distract and distract from the plants’ natural beauty.

Send questions, comments and photos to joshua@perfectplants.com

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