Jeanne Grunert is a freelance writer, blogger and book author from south central Virginia. Her books include "Plan and Build a Raised Bed Vegetable Garden" and many others, available on Amazon and wherever fine books are sold. Learn more about Jeanne, her books and her garden at


Herbs as Ornamental Plants
by Jeanne Grunert - posted 06/10/16

I have to admit: I'm an herbie, an herbaphile, an herb lover. An herbarian. Someone who loves herbs. My garden is sprinkled liberally with their magical touch. Rosemary and calendula line the garden paths, and thyme and oregano creep among the stones surroudning my little garden pond. Mint has taken over the flower bed near the garage, which is just fine for me - I love nothing better than an afternoon cup of freshly brewed mint tea. And sage? I've got sage tucked among the butterfly plants and in an area of the garden that has such dry, sandy soil that few things except sage and my beloved lavender grow.


Why do I grow so many herbs? There's something about having a useful yet beautiful plant in the garden that appeals to me. Many herbs not only provide tasty or fragrant leaves and flowers, they also support local pollinating insects. Bees seem drunk on lavender nectar. The native Virginia butterfly, the Eastern Swallowtail Caterpillar, loves to clamor aboard dill and parsley, leaving behind her precious cargo of eggs to hatch and feed on the leaves. The more I learn about the herbs in my garden, the more I appreciate their beauty and versatility.


We often think of herbs as "special" plants that deserve a place of honor in the garden, perhaps their own neat little circle complete with a sundial in the center. While that's quite charming, it's almost impossible for most gardeners to have their own special herb garden. That's anothe reason why I advocate planting herbs liberally among your flowers and vegetables. Not only do they add useful plants to the garden, but many pair quite nicely with other plants, acting as companions to boost bloom, repel insects, or attract pollinators to increase your garden yield.


If you grow too many herbs - is there even such a thing as too many herbs? - you can air dry them or use a fruit and vegetable dehydrator to quickly preserve the bounty. Many herbs, such as lavender and rosemary, can be cut with long stems, bundled, and hung upside down inside the house to dry. It's a time-honored method of drying herbs for future use.


Cooking with herbs, crafting with herbs, or simply enjoying them in the garden, herbs planted among the flowers are reminiscent of the Middle Ages, when monastery gardens were the healing centers of towns and herbs were considered part of one's pantry. Try planting some herbs among your flowers today.

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Succulents for the Garden
by Jeanne Grunert - posted 05/27/16

Succulents never appealed to me. Sure, my parents grew the ubiquitous "hens and chicks" (Sempervivum tectorum) in a little rock garden next to the garage. I remember being fascinated by the 'baby' chick plants growing around the central plant. We've tried growing various sedums in our central Virginia garden, but few seemed to like the rich, acidic soil.



Well, duh. Now that I've looked into growing succulents, I understand exactly why the poor plants hated the rich, acidic soil. Succulents come to us from dry, sandy soils for the most part. There are some native Virginia stonecrops or sedums that are considered succulents who love the forest floor, a woodland plant that thrives in the rich understory. That's the kind of stonecrop I really need for my garden.



No, those that like it hot and dry are great plants for a wide range of conditions, but not for rich, fertile soil. Many sedums, succulents and other plants that evolved from desert conditions are great little water conservation plants. They don't require much care and they actually prefer hot, sandy soil.



Succulents also do well in containers, and I've even seen them grown in arid terrariums. They make good house plants, great rock garden plants, and low-growing border plants that can tolerate the heat of being planted next to a garage, roadway or wall.



Most succulents are disease resistant. The biggest thing you have to worry about with them is over watering. They don't even like too much rain water. Growing them in pots and containers in Virginia may solve that problem by allow excess water to drain away. You can also pull the containers in under an overhand during rainy days to prevent your succulent plants from drowning.



With so much going for them, it's no wonder that succulents have grown in popularity. If you're looking for a plant that's hard to kill, try growing succulents.


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When Plants Surprise You: Microclimates
by Jeanne Grunert - posted 05/20/16

Last night, I toured the gardens of a local artist, a friend who is also in my Master Gardener group. As another gardener and I marveled at her ingenious solution for keeping deer out of her vegetable garden (fences, very tall fences, and electric fences) and the sunlight dappling the water in her pond, a smudge of purple glowing under the canopy of mature dogwoods and other deciduous trees caught our eye. Speculation ran rampant: what was this tall purple plant? It wasn't until we drew closer that we realized it was the humble foxglove...but blooming in perfect dense shade.


Now I had always thought foxglove a sun-loving perennial, but I know from experience that it can tolerate some shade. My own foxglove grow on a slope under the cool shade of the peony bushes. In the spring, I can see their white, lavender, pink and dark purple flowers among the glossy green peony leaves, and the shade keeps them from getting scorched in the hot Virginia summers. The foxglove I've planted along the garden path never fare quite as well; they lack the same shade.


I realize what I was looking at in my friend's garden was a wonderful microclimate that she used to great advantage. Her home is situated on the edge of a small deciduous tract of land in a housing development, with a thickly sloped gorge behind the house that probably hid a little stream. Flanking her home were beautiful, stately mature dogwoods and other deciduous trees that provided cooling shade during Virginia's hot summers for the lawn and home. Under their canopy, a small microclimate had developed, a cool moist region that beckoned ferns, hellebores and foxglove into its lush green embrace.


Microclimates are small pockets in your garden where the rules about the prevailing climate don't really apply. In my friend's garden, the shade and moisture under the trees created a cool, shady microclimate perfect for her plants. In my dad's garden in New York state, cannas against a south-facing brick wall, and he never once dug and stored them indoors, as you're supposed to do, yet his cannas flourished year after year. Microclimate at work, you see. The sunlight heated the bricks of the house during the day, and the heat radiated off of the house and into the garden, keeping the soil just warm enough to prevent the cannas from being damaged by the cold.


You can't predict microclimates, but once you discover them, it's fun to explot them for all they're worth. Sudden spots of cool damp ground in my Virginia garden are rare, but I've found such a microclimate next to the stone foundation of my patio, and lily of the valley and impatiens grow at last in my garden. Impatiens may be a cliche, but I still love them, and being able to plant them at last gives me great joy.


You can find microclimates that are cooler or warmer in the garden, these little pockets of surprises that can shelter plants who normally can't withstand Virginia's hot, dry summers or suddenly cold, wet winters. Look for areas of your garden that just don't behave the way you'd expect them to. Places next to the house, under a tree or in a sudden dip in the ground are all prime places to investigate for microclimates.


I don't know if you can grow foxglove in your yard, but my friend certainly made the best of her microclimate. Lush Japanese painted ferns, nodding white hellebores and foxgloves hidden in the dark heart of the tree canopy shade beckoned us over from across the lawn. That's a little jewel of a garden, hidden away, using every resource possible to provide plants with what they need and create an imaginative landscape for people.


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