It’s fascinating to watch how people interact with gardens. Some are primarily spectators, staying carefully on established paths and walking with their hands at their sides, as if they are afraid to break the flowers and leaves by laying a finger on them. These seem to be mostly non-gardeners, but some gardeners too are mostly hands-off, seemingly content to admire from afar but not thinking to touch except for necessary maintenance. They’re also very careful to keep paths clear, sticking to the short-plants-at-the-front “rule” and staking or snipping off anything that’s inclined to lean over the edge.
Then there are the full-contact folks who think nothing of diving off paths and into borders to pet a petal, rub a leaf, or give a tree trunk a firm tap. Visitors who do this are a bit of a terror to garden owners who aren’t particularly tactile themselves but kindred spirits to those who view paths as a waste of valuable planting space. If you find yourself not minding, or even enjoying, paths that are more akin to obstacle courses than proper walkways–having to step over this, duck under that, and brush those aside to get through–you’re probably one of the please-touch folks.
Being able to physically interact with plants is pretty much the only thing I miss about gardening during the winter. But, it’s another reason to look forward to spring, and something I like to keep in mind when I plant my gardens and containers for another growing season. I have lots of favorites for gardening by feel, but I’ve tried to narrow it down to my top five.
Herbs of all sorts were one of my first loves, but if I could choose only one genus, it would be Mentha: the mints. It’s in their nature to be spreaders, but that’s okay, because they can adapt well to life in a pot for a year or two. Besides keeping them corralled, containers raise the plants and put them within easy reach. I like to keep some of my favorites in an old washtub by my back steps, lifting and dividing them each spring, adding some fresh soil, and then replanting a small chunk of each. The leftovers get planted along what I call the Cottage Path, where they and other creepers spread as they like and I just mow a passage through them.
Pineapple mint (M. suaveolens ‘Variegata’) is one I always enjoy having around, because its variable but vibrant variegation is very pretty, though its light, sweet scent is more fruity than minty.
Spearmint (M. spicata) is also on the sweet side, but when you rub a leaf, you definitely know it’s a mint.
For the pure, cool rush of menthol, peppermint (M. x piperita) is an even better choice. Sometimes I treat myself to a new plant of the variegated form for a bit of variety, but it reverts quickly to the solid-green version.
When I can find it, though, eminently whiffable Corsican mint (M. requienii) is my mint of choice. It’s a tiny thing, but its scent is really powerful. You may not even notice it growing in a garden path, but you’ll know its there once you step on it. While Corsican mint isn’t hardy here, I never hesitate to buy a pot or two (okay, yes, a whole flat one year, but I couldn’t resist) when I can find it. While it’s nice between stepping stones, I have the best luck with it in a pot, where I can water it carefully. Even then, it often fizzles out in August, but it’s fantastic while it lasts. Its fragrance is closer to that of pennyroyal (M. pulegium) than that of peppermint, because its power comes from a high content of pulegone rather than menthol.
Anyone who has planted zonal geraniums (Pelargonium x hortorum) is familiar with the pungent, nose-wrinkling aroma of their leaves. I rather like that fragrance, but even more interesting are the species and selections grown specifically for their scents, ranging from fruity to spicy to resinous. They also tend to have very interesting textures, so you get to enjoy them two ways: when you feel them and then when you rub them and release their essential oils.
While most retail nurseries carry only a few kinds, specialty nurseries offer dozens of deliciously scented selections. Buying online is an option, but then you have to depend on their descriptions of the scents. Being able to experience them in person is a treat, though one that can quickly be overwhelming. Once you’ve rubbed and sniffed a half-dozen or so, the scents get muddled on your fingers and the sensory input gets overpowering, and you need to take a break (and wash your hands) before fondling any more foliage.
Pine geranium (P. denticulatum ‘Filicifolium’), above, is an interesting one, with deeply cut leaves that feel like stiff-starched lace and a pungent scent that’s somewhere between real and fake pine: hard to describe but memorable.
Variegated lemon geranium (P. crispum ‘Variegatum’; also sold as ‘French Lace’ or ‘Variegated Prince Rupert’), is another one that’s tempting to touch, with tightly crinkled leaves that have a citrusy scent.
‘Snowy Nutmeg’, a selection of nutmeg geranium (P. fragrans or P. Fragrans Group), also has small, variegated leaves (in this case, irregularly marked with cream), but it’s delightfully soft to the touch, with a rich, warm scent.
The combo below includes three more scented geraniums that are very close to being my top favorites. Pale ‘Grey Lady Plymouth’ is one of the rose-scented geraniums (variously listed under Pelargonium graveolens, P. Graveolens Group, or P. x asperum), with a heavy old-rose scent.
The small, scalloped leaves in the bottom middle are those of apple-scented geranium (P. odoratissimum): they’re velvety to the touch, with a sweet apple-cider scent. And the large, lobed, rich green ones? Those are ‘Chocolate Mint’, a selection of peppermint geranium (P. tomentosum). The “chocolate” part is only visual–a reference to the brown blotch on some of the foliage; when you rub the soft leaves, the scent is distinctly minty.
Upright, bushy ‘Peppermint Lace’ is also lovely: equally good for scent and softness, in a pretty, pale gray-green color.
My top pick for touchability, though, is the straight species of peppermint geranium, because it’s practically impossible to resist petting its large, furry leaves and inhaling its clean, minty scent. It’s a vigorous grower, too: fantastic for filling big hanging baskets , cascading over the edge of large planters, or creating space-filling mounds of rich green foliage in beds and borders.
Ornamental grasses are beautiful to look at, and their rustling leaves can add an interesting element of sound to the garden. It’s even possible to find a few that are aromatic, such as cilantro-scented prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) and citrusy lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus); the latter offers flavor as well. And, touch can come into play with them too. Sometimes that’s not a positive experience: If you’ve ever tried to cut down a clump of miscanthus (Miscanthus) or pampas grass (Cortaderia) without wearing gloves, or even brush past one without long sleeves, you already know how wickedly sharp some of their leaves can be if you rub them the wrong way.
Variegated palm grass (Setaria palmifolia ‘Variegata’) is one whose leaves are pleasant to touch: particularly the newly emerging ones, which have a strongly corrugated texture.
The flowerheads and seedheads of some grasses can also be quite interesting to handle. The arching panicles of bitter panic grass (Panicum amarum), for instance, feel cool and silky.
Foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum) looks like it would be soft and feathery, but those long awns are surprisingly stiff.
My favorite “touch me”grass is Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima or Nassella tenuissima). Wonderfully wispy and silky in bloom (above), it’s a bit stiffer but still nice to run your fingers through when it’s forming its seeds, and it remains flexible even in winter. I very much enjoyed having lots of it along a frequently used path, where I could brush the tops as I walked by.
Lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) are, of course, a classic choice for touchable leaves, but there are also some fuzzy-looking blooms that invite tactile exploration.
Just try keeping your fingers off of the intricately crinkled heads of crested celosia (Celosia argentea Cristata Group), for instance.
The bobbing tails of Japanese bottlebrush (Sanguisorba obtusa) are also terribly tempting, and they too are tall enough to be within easy reach.
The furry tails of chenille plant (Acalypha reptans) are equally enticing to tug on.
The lemon sherbet-colored blooms of yellow meadow rue (Thalictrum flavum ssp. glaucum) look good enough to eat, and they’re sooo soft.
It’s the ornamental onions (Allium), though, that get my vote as top-notch please-touch flowers.
It’s fun to bat around the small, ball-shaped blooms of drumstick chives (Allium sphaerocephalon), as long as you make sure that there are no bees on them first.
Many sources say that the plum-sized spheres of ‘Forelock’ reach just 30 inches tall, but here they consistently reach 4 to 5 feet. There’s no need to even lean over to interact with them.
My top favorites are the fuzzy globes of the giant onions. Two tie for first place: grapefruit-sized ‘Gladiator’, because it’s tall (4 to 5 feet here), and ‘Ambassador’, which, though shorter, has even larger heads. Both are soft to the touch but also sturdy enough to stand up to a firm pat as you pass by, whether they’re in full flower, as above, or heading into seed, when they have more of a rubbery, Koosh-ball kind of feel.
Crinkly, knobby, or wrinkled bark is always interesting, but trees with smooth trunks are especially enticing. Touching the trunk of ironwood (Ostrya virginiana), for instance, is a lot like running a hand over a horse’s leg: it looks smooth on the surface, but you can feel the subtle ridges and ripples underneath. When the smooth surface is combined with peeling bark, as on crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia), you get beautiful patterns as well. I’ve never had luck getting a crape myrtle established here, unfortunately, but seven-sons tree (Heptacodium miconioides) has been really easy, and it’s also quite nice stem-wise.
The bark gets really shredded in late spring, as the trunk expands with another round of growth. The strips on my older plant are quite large, to the point they look a bit messy, so it’s very satisfying to pull them off and reveal the pale bark beneath. From a distance, the trunks look as smooth as milled lumber, but up close, you can see (and feel) that there are vertical ridges, and some horizontal rumpling as well.
Even better, though, is paperbark maple (Acer griseum). It too has peeling (or decorticating, or exfoliating) bark, but the layers are much thinner.
It’s tempting to rub off the shaggy-looking curls, but if you leave them in place, they have a beautiful glow when backlit.
The trunk underneath is so smooth that it feels more like a piece of cool stone than wood. Isn’t that a wonderful color, too?
And then, and then…the plants that folks insist on touching, no matter how strongly you advise against it.
You know them: the obviously spiny things, like sea hollies (Eryngium) and milk thistle (Silybum marianum), with sharp bits that go right through all but the toughest gardening gloves. You’d think any sensible person would stay far away from them, but invariably, at least one person in any group just has to reach out and touch.
I’m not going to ponder the psychology of why I have a fair number of these prickly plants in my garden even though I dislike having to deal with them from a maintenance perspective. Oh, honestly, I know why: they really are just too cool for words…
…and they add an unexpected touch of wickedness among more civilized companions. There’s a practical factor, too: I’ve never seen deer or rabbits messing with any of the spiny solanums.
Would you want to take a mouthful of that?
No, I wouldn’t either.
Bed-of-nails (Solanum quitoense) is big and bold; porcupine tomato (S. pyracanthum) is smaller but with more abundant and more colorful spines. My current favorite of the bunch, though, is malevolence (S. atropurpureum), for its sheer abundance of absolutely evil-looking spines.
You just know how those needles are going to feel, and if you had any sense you’d admire them afar, but oh, don’t listen to me, you’re going to touch them anyway. I do.
So, what are your feel-good favorites in the garden? Are you a fan of fragrant foliage, or delicately crinkled petals, or big, study blooms that hold up to rough handling? I’d love to hear about them!
A final note: I’m planning to take a bit of a blogging break for a while, so my next new post won’t be until January 15th. I’d like to take this opportunity, then, to thank you all for visiting and wish you a very happy holiday season.