Marin Master Gardeners
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Marin Master Gardeners

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Aromatic entryway gardens look, smell great

October 17, 2010
Barbara J. Euser

In Greece, it is customary to place a pot of basil near the front door so that guests may brush their hands against it and savor the fragrance before entering the house. Aromatic entryway gardens create a welcoming atmosphere. The visual attraction of the garden is enhanced by the scent of the herbs, warmed by the sun.

In two gardens I have created, I extended the principle to include perennial aromatic herbs: rosemary, lavender, oregano and lemon verbena. Two varieties of lavender grace the garden in my front terrace garden. One has grayish leaves and medium-length flower spikes. It threatens to take over the narrow raised bed. Regular pruning keeps it within bounds without dampening its enthusiastic presence.

The second lavender has pale green leaves and is a more restrained presence. Its fragrance is not quite as intense as the gray-leaved lavender, though clearly recognizable. Its flower spikes are not long, integrating the blooms into its branches. I planted two Rosmarinus officinalis 'Prostratus' in the bed, one near the edge, hoping that its branches would eventually trail over the side of the bed. It has taken several years for that to happen, but some of its branches now reach the ground. The other rosemary is near the wall. Its looping branches give the effect of a piece of sculpture in the background.

Hiding behind the rosemary is a single lemon verbena. It unfortunately has not flourished in this environment, but even a single leaf, rubbed between the fingers, emits a strong fragrance. A few leaves steeped in boiling water produce a savory tea.

In the forefront of the bed, an oregano plant produces more than enough small, round leaves to flavor all kinds of dishes. It, too, requires pruning, and the dried leaves will last all winter long.

In back of the gray lavender, I have attempted to espalier a bougainvillea. Its dark red blooms (modified leaves rather than true flowers; the flowers are tiny cream-colored forms that look almost like stamens) make a strong contrast against the whitewashed garden wall.

On my olive farm, I built an entryway garden bed of stone. It is an entryway to a large patio, rather than a house, but the concept is the same. The fragrance of the plants sends a clear message -- "Welcome to this place." Here the lemon verbena is much happier and is developing into a round, bushy form. I also planted two gray-leaved lavenders and oregano, which is still struggling, establishing itself. The fuschia bougainvillea will eventually cover much of the stone terrace behind the garden bed. Two prostate rosemary plants are beginning to crawl and sprawl their way to the boundaries of the bed.

Another fragrant plant that welcomes visitors is the rose-scented geranium. It is really Pelargonium graveolens. A single plant has grown to gigantic proportions, escaping its small bed and cascading down between two houses. Its leaves have a distinctive fragrance and are used to flavor desserts and jelly, as well as iced drinks. And, as some French friends told me, the fragrant leaves -- what they call citronelle -- help keep away mosquitoes: good reason to plant it near a seating area.

All these plants are native to the Mediterranean region, and thus thrive in the Marin County climate. Once established, they require very little summer water. Mediterranean plants are naturally dormant during the summer months, when there is little, if any, rain. They grow and flower in the winter and spring. The fragrance -- and flavor -- of their leaves becomes more intense the drier they are. During the hottest days of August this summer, I decided to take pity on my garden plants and water them. Immediately, they all responded with new leaves and the lavenders sent out new buds. I'm not sure I did the plants any favor, however. There is good reason for their growth cycle; plants need some time to rest.

In a Mediterranean climate, the Mediterranean natives described above will require only a minimum of water during summer months, making them a perfect addition to a Marin garden, and a welcoming, aromatic addition to your entryway.

The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.

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