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Sunday, September 22, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest Living

Gulliver's Gardens -- Gigantic Herbs Can Add A Sense Of Wonderment

THE MILD CLIMATE OF THE Pacific Northwest allows certain herbs to grow extravagantly large. You can plant the more ornamental outsized herbs to create a giant's flower patch.

When Lemuel Gulliver found himself abandoned in a land of giants, the Brobdingnagians, he reflected that "philosophers are Right to tell us, that nothing is great or little otherwise than by Comparison." He was crawling through a field of grass 20 feet high at the time, and before his adventure ended had slain wasps the size of partridges and dodged apples as big as whiskey barrels. Gulliver's world turned upside down when its scale changed, and for him, everything in this new world came down, or up, to a matter of size.

Use of appropriate size and scale has always been part of good garden design. A herbaceous border, for instance, usually features serried ranks of small, medium and tall perennials, with the larger plants neatly hemmed in toward the back of the border by their shorter brethren. Because of this design convention, people often look down or across to flowers at close range, but seldom look up at them (unless they are on vines, of course).

Setting aside such traditional design principles, however, it might be fun to bring tall flowers right up to the foreground, with no intervening shorties in front of them. It might be even more fun to forsake the concept of a garden as a lawn-bordered-by-tiered-flower bed, in this instance, for a design that features an entire garden of extravagantly tall plants arching over narrow, winding paths.

And if you select plants of audacious, even outrageous, growth habits, then you may find yourself approximating Gulliver's adventures in your own backyard. Strolling through groves of these stately beauties, you will feel yourself surrounded, even overwhelmed, by them and, like Gulliver, end up slipping through forests of flower stalks, beating back colossal leaves and staring up at the sky through canopies of blossoms.

Which plants should you use to achieve such an effect?

Some outsized ornamental herbs can provide that sense of normal scale run amuck that makes this garden design work. For instance, two stalwarts of the herb garden, cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) and elecampane (Inula helenium), provide not only size but a lavish style when added to a landscape.

In the Pacific Northwest, cardoon reaches in maturity a height of six feet, and its thick, thistle-like leaves with silver fuzzy undersides are proportionately extravagant. August brings an intense French blue flower that caps the stalk and reminds one of a clipped and dense mountain bluet (Centaurea montana); fall and winter wither the bloom into a decorative seed pod that has its own ornamental value.

Elecampane grows to a similar height with matte leaves that reach almost two feet in length at the base of the stalk, and a midsummer flower that resembles a miniature sunflower of a delicate, almost glowing shade of yellow.

Plant these bruisers in triads near each other, but with plants of finer leaf texture, such as bamboo and the taller ornamental grasses, established between them. This planting design creates a midsummer garden of vertical mass in which the exuberant foliage is topped by luminous blue and yellow flowers standing six or more feet high. (And when the herbs are ready to pack it in for the season, the evergreen grasses and bamboos help to screen their fading charms.)

Other garden rowdies that can be used in such a planting scheme include angelica (Angelica archangelica), a seven-foot biennial with tropical leaves and early green-white umbels that tolerates partial shade, and teasel (Dipsacus sylvestris), another biennial that reaches six to seven feet in the Pacific Northwest and sports thistle-like pinky-mauve flowers. Teasel and St. Mary's Thistle (Silybum marianum), a biennial reaching five feet or more with exotic, deeply cut leaves veined with a filmy white membrane, are the only outsized herbs with pink flowers on our plant list.

A quite stunning Northwest native unfortunately named cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum) resembles the well-known roadside flower (well, weed) Queen Anne's lace. But its dinner-plate-sized umbels sway in elegant clusters 10 to 12 feet above the ground, capping thick, wood-grained stalks and leaves that resemble those of devil's walking stick (Aralia spinosa). Cow parsnip can be found interplanted naturally with foxglove (Digitalis purpureus) in Northwest woods. Discovering an open glade filled with its foaming lace flowers underplanted with the succulent magenta bells of foxglove is a deeply satisfying event for the woods walker of early summer. Why not replicate this sensory extravaganza in your own garden?

NONE OF THE PLANTS MENTIONED ABOVE are particularly demure in appearance or in habit of growth; they are, in fact, garden bullyboys. But there is a lanky beauty, delicate in form and color, that belongs to this group. Dill (Anethum graveolens) is a graceful clump of slender, six-foot stalks topped by soft, sulfur-yellow blossoms resembling attenuated yarrow flowers. This plant combines height and grace in a style unequaled by the other herbs. Try planting dill if you want a luxuriant but refined Gulliver patch in a corner of your garden.

A garden filled with plants of such exuberant style and growth as the outsized herbs may come to seem too much of a good thing if it is not sobered by the addition of refined companion plants. Bamboo and ornamental grasses work well in this role as good evergreen or semi-evergreen companions; in addition, some of the taller perennials combine height and colorful flowers with relatively airy forms to provide a satisfying counterpart to the rude vigor of the herbs.

Other outsized ornamental herbs include purslane (Atriplex hortensis), wild senna (Cassia marilandica), chicory (Cichorium intybus), lemon grass (Cymbopogon citrus) and artichoke (Cynara scolymus), a vegetable. Additional companion plants are Allium giganteum, red-hot poker (Kniphofia uvaria), goldenrod (Solidago) and American white hellebore (Veratrum viride).

Stands of delphiniums, foxgloves, Crambe cordifolia, hollyhocks and verbascum will help tame the boisterous Gulliver garden visually while also adding to it a longer and more varied period of bloom.

Gulliver tells us that once home in England after his deliverance from the Brobdingnagians, "I looked at everything with a Sort of Wonder . . . observing the Littleness of the Houses, the Trees, and the People after mine Eyes had been accustomed to prodigious Objects." Eventually Gulliver became used to England's smaller scale again, and he no longer expected to see men the height of church steeples walking down the road. But you have to wonder if he ever wanted to slip on "my Breeches which were made of a Mouse's Skin" and go running down the overgrown paths of a giant's flower garden once again.

JAN KOWALCZEWSKI WHITNER IS A FREELANCE WRITER SPECIALIZING IN GARDEN TOPICS. CHRISTINE COX IS A SEATTLE TIMES NEWS ARTIST.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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