Surely it can’t still be winter? And yet, it clearly is–outside, anyway. In here, I’ve been immersed in my photo archives for the last few days, picking out photos of plant combinations for the book I’m working on. Revisiting the digital highlights of the last decade has reminded me of some plants and pairings I’d like to try again, including some old favorites that I’ve neglected over the past few years.
I still have herbs on my mind from my last post, so I decided to separate out a bunch of herb combination photos, in the hope that you too might enjoy thinking about these fragrant and flavorful beauties. There are a lot of them, so it made sense to focus only on lavenders, thymes, sages, and basils this time. Above is one of my all-time-favorite pairings: spiky ‘Provence’ lavender (Lavandula x intermedia) with wispy Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima).
Lavenders generally aren’t thrilled about living here: They’re all right during the growing season, but the winter wet often does them in. I’ve had pretty good luck with ‘Provence’, though, and can usually get two or even three years out of a clump. Above is another ‘Provence’ combination, with some ‘Hummelo’ betony (Stachys) in the background and ‘Black Adder’ anise hyssop (Agastache) and a young plant of Creme de Mint Tatarian dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Crimzam’) in the front.
I usually don’t bother buying other “hardy” lavenders, but every few years, I start a packet of English lavender (L. angustifolia) seed, plant out a dozen or so seedlings, and appreciate whatever survives the first winter. The photo above features one from a packet of ‘Hidcote’, planted with ‘Berggarten’ sage (Salvia officinalis) and ‘Grey Lady Plymouth’ scented geranium (Pelargonium) in a deliciously scented trio. Below is another English lavender seedling in front of Chinese forget-me-not (Cynoglossum amabile) and ‘Kosmic’ kale.
I also like to start a batch of common thyme (Thymus vulgaris)–and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), too–every few years. When the seedlings are about 1 inch tall, I pot up 3 seedlings each into 2-inch pots, then plant them out in early summer. Pinetree Garden Seeds sells a pack of 350 common thyme seeds for $1.50: more than enough for planting closely as an edging or as fillers around taller plants.
Above is a mini-hedge of common thyme and a taller line of rosemary seedlings, with nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) and pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis) in between. Below is common thyme interplanted with white Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica ‘Alba’).
While the common thyme plants usually fizzle out by the third year, creeping thyme (T. serpyllum) lasts much longer and spreads nicely. If I want more, I just move a piece to where it’s needed. It makes a nice groundcover around small succulents.
When I set out succulents that are tender here, such as the orangey coppertone sedum (Sedum nussbaumerianum) and pinkish brown ‘Bronze’ graptosedum (x Graptosedum) above, I just pull back the thyme a bit to make room for them. Creeping thyme also mingles well with hardy creeping sedums, such as Spanish stonecrop (Sedum hispanicum)–shown below with both plants in bloom, plus lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina).
Bushy lemon thymes (Thymus citriodorus) also perform rather well here. Below is a variegated form called silver thyme (‘Argenteus’), with a thin white edge on each leaf.
Silver thyme is attractive in leaf and even prettier in bloom. Above, it’s in a container with creeping rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’) and Chinese dunce cap (Orostachys iwarenge). Below is a different view of the same container, showing the silver thyme and creeping rosemary with Corsican stonecrop (S. dasyphyllum ‘Major’).
Two thymes that are particularly vigorous here are variegated lemon thyme (T. citriodorus ‘Variegatus’)–the bushy one at the back in the picture below, with a thin yellow leaf edge–and creeping ‘Yellow Transparent’–the yellow-green one in the foreground. (The shot below is from late August; in spring, ‘Yellow Transparent’ is much more yellow.)
‘Yellow Transparent’ is sold under a number of other names as well, including ‘Transparent Yellow’, ‘Transparent Gold’, ‘Clear Yellow’, and ‘Aureus’, and under T. vulgaris, T. x pulegioides, and T. serpyllum. It’s so vigorous that it can grow right over smaller succulents, so I occasionally have to do a bit of clipping to keep it in balance. Above it’s with more of the ‘Bronze’ graptosedum, blue echeveria (Echeveria glauca), and some ‘Aztec Gold’ creeping speedwell (Veronica prostrata).
Tiny-leaved ‘Elfin’ creeping thyme (T. serpyllum) has done very well in that same slightly-raised bed. It spreads out at a relatively good clip, but it’s so diminutive that it creeps around even small companions, rather than over them.
Above is ‘Elfin’ creeping thyme and variegated lemon thyme with more succulents. (I think the main one above is an x Pachyveria; there’s also some ‘Bronze graptosedum and blue echeveria.)
Woolly thyme (T. psuedolanuginosus) comes and goes here. It’ll be happy for a few years, spreading to make a patch several feet across if it has the room; then it will almost disappear before regenerating from a few remaining sprigs. It doesn’t seem to make a difference whether it’s in a raised position–as shown above, mingling with ‘Snow Flurry’ heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides f. prostratum) on a low stone wall–or right at ground level–as shown below, pooling around the base of ‘Provence’ lavender.
During the growing season, woolly thyme is a cool gray-green that works well with lots of other colors. Below it’s with fall-colored October daphne (Sedum sieboldii).
When cold weather settles in for the winter, woolly thyme takes on a soft purplish blush. Below, it’s in a gravel path, at the base of a dormant clump of Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima).
Sages (Salvia) also offer some lovely foliage options. The gray-green of regular culinary sage (S. officinalis) is nice for color, and it’s easy to start the seeds, but I prefer to pick up a few small pots of ‘Berggarten’ each spring. Its leaves are broader and tend to be more silvery when it get lots of sun, so it’s much more interesting as a foliage accent.
‘Berggarten’ has a very distinctive appearance and makes a beautiful partner for rich green leaves, like those of lemon thyme (above) or rosemary (below).
Texturally, ‘Berggarten’ contrasts well with tiny leaves, and with grassy or strappy leaves too, like those of ‘Kwanso Variegated’ daylily (Hemerocallis fulva).
‘Berggarten’ has about a 60 percent chance of overwintering here (about the same as regular culinary sage). The variegated culinary sages won’t make it at all, but they’re so pretty that I don’t mind buying a new plant of each every spring.
It’s easy to make great combinations with golden variegated sage (S. officinalis ‘Icterina’). Try it with whites or soft yellows, or with blues and purples. ‘Tricolor’, with green, white, and pink in the leaves, is lovely with white or pink flowers.
Another must-have sage for foliage interest–and flowers and fragrance, too–is ‘Golden Delicious’ pineapple sage (Salvia elegans). It’s completely tender here, but it grows quickly from a small pot planted out in late May, forming bushy, 3- to 5-foot-tall clumps of bright yellow foliage.
It does bloom, with sprays of bright red blooms in October, but for most of the growing season, it’s a fantastic foliage accent.
The greenish yellow foliage works well with lots of other colors, but I usually end up pairing it with reds or oranges. Above is an early-August, dark-and-light combo of annuals and tender perennials: ‘Golden Delicious’ pineapple sage contrasted with ‘Purple Knight’ alternanthera (Alternanthera dentata), Canna indica ‘Purpurea’, and Vertigo fountain grass (Pennisetum purpureum ‘Tift 8’) and accented with touches of red from ‘Black Velvet Red’ zonal geranium (Pelargonium x hortorum) and ‘Red Spider’ zinnia (Zinnia tenuifolia).
Below is an early-September shot of ‘Golden Delicious’ with ‘Profusion Orange’ zinnia, ‘Sweet Caroline Bronze’ sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas), ‘All Gold’ lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), and Mellow Yellow spirea (Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’).
Basils (Ocimum) are another of my favorites: for flavor, in the case of regular sweet basil, and for beauty, in the case of those with interesting foliage. The neatly mounded form and tiny leaves of ‘Pistou’, for instance, make it a really cute annual edging plant. Below, it’s with ‘Lemon Gem’ marigold (Tagetes tenuifolia) and ‘Rubine’ Brussels sprouts.
‘Pistou’ is easy to start from seed, so you can have plenty of seedlings to play with for just a few dollars. ‘Pesto Perpetou’, on the other hand, is one that you have to buy as a started plant each year. It’s worth it, though, for the handsome, columnar form and showily variegated foliage.
Above is ‘Pesto Perpetuo’ in front of ‘Black Adder’ anise hyssop (Agastache) and underplanted with alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca); below, it’s with ‘Souvenir d’Andre Chaudron’ catmint (Nepeta sibirica).
‘African Blue’ is nice as a foliage accent at first, with dark stems and purple-blushed leaves; then, the flowers take over the show for the rest of the season. You don’t have to worry about clipping them off, because ‘African Blue’ doesn’t set seed; it just keeps branching and blooming. In the shot below, I have it paired with purple heart (Setcreasea pallida) to pick up the stem color and ‘Big Ears’ lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) for some textural contrast.
Going back to the easy-from-seed basils…I wouldn’t miss starting a packet of some purple basil each spring, for use as fillers wherever I need dark leaves.
‘Osmin’ is one that’s dependably dark. Above is an early-July shot of it with ‘Limelight’ four-o’clock (Mirabilis jalapa), ‘Burgundy Giant’ fountain grass (Pennisetum), and golden elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Aurea’). Below, it’s mingling with ‘Lady in Red’ Texas sage (Salvia coccinea). (I usually try to keep the basil flowers pinched off, but sometimes they get away from me, as in this late-August shot.)
Purple basils are also excellent for contrasting with silvers. Below is what Chiltern Seeds sells as ‘Purple Tulsi’ holy basil, paired with gold-and-silver chrysanthemum (Ajania pacifica).
‘Red Rubin’ is another excellent purple strain: equally as good as ‘Osmin’ and excellent for contrasting with yellow leaves, like those of ‘Australian Yellow’ lettuce, and setting off reds, such as ‘Lady in Red’ Texas sage.
That’s it for the first four handsome herbs; there are lots more combinations to come. Look for Part 2 on February 15th. Thanks for visiting!