It’s courtship time in the Gardens at Heather Farm, and the usual suspects have arrived.
The resident Red-Tailed Hawks are scoping out where they will nest this year as Bushtits hop about gathering spider webs for nesting. But it’s the hummingbirds that catch the attention of visitors as the birds begin their lively courtship. The female perches in the flowering cherries in the Anne Ward Garden, while the male begins his acrobatic show to win her and to claim his territory.
It is fascinating to watch the male hummingbird’s ritual of courtship that includes a looping U-shaped dive starting from as high as 50 feet above the female. If the female perches, the male shifts to making fast side-to-side flights while facing her.
According to a study at Yale University, the chirping sound one hears as he moves quickly up and down is caused by tail feather vibrations.
While the hummingbird’s dance is visual, other senses are on display in the Sensory Garden.
Although many of the plants growing here still sleep despite the springlike temperatures, this hands-on garden is designed to stimulate the senses with the soothing, gentle trickle of water in the small pond and the silvery, silky leaves of lamb’s ear that encourage a visitor’s touch.
Strongest of all is the sense of smell, with the aromas of the plants stimulating memories and conversations.
The Sensory Garden is predominately planted with herbs. The word herb derives from the Latin word “herba,” meaning grassy or green plants. Herbaceous plants such as basil or dill are soft and fleshy, and after flowering, they either die entirely or fade back to the base at the root. Other plants, including lavender, are considered herbs, even though they have woody stems. Their inclusion in the herb family is not because of the stem structure, but because of the essence of the aromatic parts.
Lavandula dentata, an early bloomer commonly known as French lavender, has been flowering since late fall. If deadheaded, the pale lavender flowers will continue throughout the summer.
Lavandula dentata can reach a size of 3 feet by 4 feet, and the silvery-green leaves are textured and serrated.
Like all lavenders, the leaves have fine hairs that give it the soft, silvery appearance. The leaves and flowers can be harvested any time in the growing season and are excellent as a cut flower.
Lavandula angustifolia, or English lavender, is known for its culinary and medicinal properties; French lavender is grown for its abundance of flowers and its long blooming time.
Growing lavender is easy, but it is not always happy in heavy clay soil. One of the biggest killers of lavenders are root-rotting diseases, humidity and wet soils.
There are ways to avoid this; mounding or planting in a raised bed, incorporating gravel or crushed volcanic rock into the top portion of the soil, or adding crushed rock in place of mulch will help with drainage.
Most importantly, do not overwater in the summer.
Pruning is essential to keeping lavender looking vigorous.
It is important not to prune too severely into the older, woody part of the plant, or it will die.
At the Gardens, we prune lightly in the spring to stimulate new growth at the base; in the fall, we take off the spent flowers and prune lightly to shape.
— Patrice Hanlon