In an orderly garden, finding room for wildness

Hello from North Haven!

When Bill and I moved into our house, almost exactly ten years ago, it sat on a pile of dirt. Slowly we seeded grass, added top soil, built raised beds, and carved out spaces for perennials, herbs, asparagus and strawberries.

After a decade, the flower beds in the front and back of the house are tidy and predictable. New gardens flanking a flagstone walkway to the front porch have filled in after five years. I have a more or less planned rotation of vegetables in the four raised beds, usually including potatoes, tomatoes, beans, radishes, squash and the little white turnips I love best of all. There’s a spot for garlic, where every fall I choose the plumpest cloves from each crop to plant for next year.

And then there’s the herb garden.

Years ago, a well-meaning friend gave me a single, flopping strand of oregano, root attached, and I planted it in the beginnings of my herb garden, a round bed in front of a boulder. Some chives from my parents’ house were there, a sage plant, some chamomile, some mint. I recall thyme, tarragon and lemon balm as well.

From that single, half-wilted oregano slip came what is now a veritable oregano tree, and it’s eating my herb garden and my yard. The chives make an appearance early in the spring, before the oregano really gets going, but is quickly subsumed. Somewhere in there I can find the sage, but the thyme is gone, as are the tarragon and lemon balm. The chamomile reseeded itself a few times and then ran out of real estate. Even the mint, itself a pernicious space hog, has been overwhelmed.

I could just dig it all up, I suppose. The oregano is growing down into the strawberries and asparagus, and has taken over a substantial part of the lawn as well. I could excavate it all, pull up the root system, cover it with black plastic, and start over. And I probably will. But each July, the oregano makes a very convincing argument to let it be. As summer starts to tip over towards back to school, the oregano starts to bloom, little compound clusters of purple covering the immense herb bush. And with those purple flowers come an incredible diversity of pollinators.

The oregano, with some bee and butterfly visitors

On any warm afternoon, our oregano wilderness is literally buzzing with bumblebees, honey bees, robber flies, bee flies, and butterflies from orange fritillaries to painted ladies and hairstreaks. And, with news reports filled with doom and gloom about the state of the bees, I’m having trouble convincing myself to destroy what seems to be a major source of nectar.

There’s also something reassuring about the sudden wildness in the middle of our orderly yard, a reminder that as much as we try to bend nature to our control, some things are going to just do what they want, and provide a sanctuary for other species in the process. In fact, it’s a good reminder of my big takeaway from yoga, mindfulness, and cognitive behavioral therapy: let go of what you can’t control.

Once the purple flowers dry and I’m stuck cutting back enough oregano to supply a hundred pizza parlors, I’ll feel less romantic about the unruly, anarchic oregano patch, and start fantasizing again about starting over, putting a little piece of oregano in a pot and letting the sage, thyme and tarragon occupy their tidy little mounds again. Maybe even mulching between things to drive the point home. But I would miss the buzz and the flutter and the reminder that wildness lurks just under the surface of even the most orderly garden.


Courtney Naliboff

About Courtney Naliboff

In addition to this blog, I'm a contributing writer to, a Jewish parenting site, a blogger and book reviewer for, and the author of Salt Water Cure, a column in Working Waterfront. I report news from North Haven for Working Waterfront and Island Journal, and was a speaker at the Maine Conference for Jewish Life in 2015. Follow Frozen Chosen on facebook or visit my Web site for more writing and free music to download!