Anyone who really likes to cook understands the importance of keeping a few herb plants by the kitchen door (what the French call “portager d’herbes.) Having fresh herbs at hand is a kitchen staple. But what I would like to take on is the explanation of designing a full-fledged, stand alone herb garden.
Most culinary herbs by nature are not particularly attractive plants. The focus is on the leaves and how they taste so most look rangy and leafy, much like a weed. So designing an attractive herb garden can be difficult. This is where the definition of “herb” becomes very important. By opening the definition up to include medicinal herbs, you broaden your scope to include a whole range of herbs, many of which are quite attractive. There are two distinct definitions of the word herb, 1. Any plant with leaves, seeds or flowers used for flavoring, food, medicine or perfume, and 2. Any seed bearing plant that does not have a woody stem and dies down to the ground after flowering. How strict or open you want to be in your definition is up to you, but I am going to limit myself to herbs that are generally accept as culinary or medicinal and adhere to the first definition.
As I mentioned, herbs tend to be rangy and weed-like. This explains why most traditional herb gardens rely heavily on external structural elements that define the garden. This includes brickwork, defining borders and creating paths and fencing, low or high. It also includes focal elements such as statuary, gazing globes, sundials or birdbaths and ornamental pots and planters (also useful for tender herbs such as Rosemary and Bay that must be over wintered indoors.) Attractive potting sheds, greenhouses, or cold frames are often found at the base of herb gardens. Bold mulches such as cocoa mulch or dark pine bark help formalize and define individual plants. For centuries, herbal plants that lend themselves to hedging such as boxwood or Santolina give a formal structure to the herb garden. Although they take up room, hedging areas, or creating internal patterns with low growing hedges such as Dwarf English Boxwood contains and formalizes rangy unstructured herb plants. Using plants that create living walls such as tansy is a good way to create a background wall to provide a base to your garden. Many herbs can be trained into standards such as Rosemary, Bay and Santolina, another way to add structure.
As soon as you talk about garden color everyone first considers flowers, but you can see how this can’t be your go-to solution in the herb garden. This is not to say that there are several plants, particularly in the medicinal herb category that provide some beautiful and colorful flowers. Calendula, Yarrow, Tansy, Nasturtiums, Chamomile, Chives, Nicotiana, Lavender, Hyssop (agastache), Monarda (Bee Balm) are colorful and floriforous herbs that I would have no trouble including in the herb garden. Some would go as far as including roses, which could be very helpful in providing flowers, but purists might draw the line at using only Rosa varieties that were considered in the herbalist’s cadre such as Rosa Gallaica Officianalis (an ancient variety that was used as a medicinal herb and the rose that the perfume attar of roses is extracted from) or perhaps roses that produce rose hips such as Rugosa Roses.
But as most good gardeners know, relying only on flowers to provide color is not the best plan. There are many herbs that have colorful leaves, in fact almost every variety of culinary herb has a complimentary type or hybrid with interesting leaf variations. Plants with yellow or gold leaves such as Golden Lemon Balm, Golden St. John’s Wart, Agastache “Golden Jubilee,” Golden Oregano, Sage, Thyme or Golden Feverfew, visually pop out of the garden especially when planted next to plants with purple leaves such as Purple Sage, Purple Basil, and Purple Parilla which are some of the most intensely purple plants. Planting contrasting colors next to each other is a garden trick that makes plants visually pop out of the garden. Angelica Gigas is a purple version of Angelica that can create a very dramatic focal point to the herb garden. Other herbs add interest with variegated leaves, such as many varieties of scented geraniums, Tri-color Sage, Pineapple mint, and variegated oreganos, thyme and basil. Most every herb comes in some sort of leaf or type variation and nurseries with a well-stocked herb section should offer some of these unusual varieties.
Texture is an issue that you don’t really have to concern yourself with when designing an herb garden. With Basil’s broad shiny leaves, the soft fuzzy leaves of Lamb’s Ear, the tiny profuse leaves of Thyme, the wispy fern-like leaves of Yarrow, the variety provided in the natural forms of the herbs themselves take care of texture.
4. Plan of action
After you have learned about the requirements of the herbs and how they grow in your area, decide what you want to grow. Draw out a plan and place the plants where you think they would look best considering their height, color and texture. Don’t forget to take into account the space requirements as well. Most all herbs need as much sun as you can give them and prefer a slightly sandy well drained soil. When planting in pots, a standard potting soil seems to work well as long as the pot has good drainage. Use plants that will make your garden look good, but don’t forget to save room to plant plenty of plants that you will actually use. Most herb gardens will include annuals, perennials and a few biennials as well. I use the perennials to provide structure and leave empty areas for the annuals. It’s a good idea to draw an aerial plan, taking into account the space requirements for each plant before starting the actual planting. Of course herbs have many uses outside the garden and you will want to focus your efforts on the plants you use the most, but as you plant herbs to solve problems in the garden, you will be introducing yourself to a variety of plants that have many uses. There are herbs that dry well for floral arrangements (such as Yarrow or Tansy), herbs that lend themselves well to potpourri or sachets (like Rose Geranium, Lemon Verbena and Lavender to name only a few). And in the kitchen, it’s not just about fresh or dried herbs, there are herbs that make incredible vinegars (Tarragon or Basil), salts (Basil), pestos (Basil, mint), teas (chamomile, mint), jellies (Rosemary, Lemon Verbena, Lovage, Mint etc.), blends (herbs de Provence) and herbs that provide interesting garnishes or salad ingredients (Sorrel, Nasturtium, Marigold, etc.)
So use this winter to plan your herb garden. If you are new to herb gardening, you might want to start small. But whether you decide to go big or small, I hope I’ve provided you with the information you need to create and attractive and useful herb garden.
A brick path and small picket fence provides structure in a friends herb garden.
Tender herbs such as Lemon Verbena, three different types of Rosemary (including prostrate Rosemary in the front. It’s sprawling, spreading habit allows it to spill over the edge) and Basil Perpetuo (a new hybrid variegated Basil) fill this wooden planter, which is half of a used oak wine barrel. Cocoa mulch keeps down the weeds and keeps in the moisture. For a few weeks it even retains a deep chocolate smell. And after all, in the herb garden it’s all about smell, isn’t it?
A golden variegated Oregano
Most people are only aware of the most simple form of herbs, but most of them come in many different varieties and forms. In this pictures alone there are four different types of Basil, Thai Basil, Siamese Basil, Basil Dark Opal and Genoa Basil.
Two cement obelisks define the beginning of a thyme path and provide structure in the herb garden.
Angelica Giga lends intense purple color and height. It attracts an incredible amount of bees and the root can be dried and used to give a licorice flavor to cakes and cookies.
A bright red nasturtium. The flower is edible and has a peppery flavor. We use it all summer to brighten and garnish breakfast plates.
Echinacea, a medicinal herb has a beautiful flower with a cone center. Many hybrids, colors and double variteties have come on to the market. Here it is mixed with a type of Amaranth and Agastache “Golden Jubilee” (commonly known as Hyssop) in the background.
I can’t seem to have an herb garden without a thyme path. There are many different varieties of creeping thyme that are well suited for growth in a low traffic path. When the thyme is walked on the fragrance is released. Although I have been very persistent, I have had trouble growing one here. The soil is either too moist or to dry and most of the path does not survive the winter, causing me to start all over again in the spring. I think the effort is worth it though.
Even a gazing globe can create a focal point adding color and structure to the herb garden. This one is surrounded by Lamb’s Ear. An old Hydrangea (not considered and herb) blooms in the background.
Chamomile is ready to be harvested. Our blooms were so potent this year, it took only five of them to brew a stiff cup of tea.
This is an ornamental version of Oreganoe. It is not hardy here, so I grow it as an annual. Plant it high or allow it to spill over a tall pot as the subtley colored flowers are best enjoyed from beneath.
A retired water pump serves as a perch for a cat bird. Dwarf English Boxwood defines the edge of the herb garden and a single plant of regular Boxwood creates a cornerstone. Marigolds brighten the line and create a visual transition to the grass.
Foxglove is a medicinal herb. The digitalis extracted from it is still used as a heart medicine. In the herb garden, this “Excelsior” hybrid stands as high as 6 feet and makes a dramatic statement.
A view of the entire herb garden. The tall plant in the back is Tansy. When it blooms it creates a colorful wall and the flowers are easily dried.
Calenduala or “Pot Marigold” is a medicinal herb, used in cometics and toiletries. Most of the flowers are shades of yellow and orange, but hybrids leaning towards pink are becoming available. This one is called “ Pink Sunset.”
Tansy in full bloom.
Mint, “Emerald and Gold” has been growing in this wooden box for 10 years. Mint tends to be invasive and is best grown in a container. Keep an eye out for escaped seedlings as it easily self sows.
Yarrow, a medicinal herb is now known for its attractive flowers and easy care. It can also be easily dried, but varieties other than yellow do not retain their color. Here a hybrid called “Summer Berries” mingle with Lavender blossoms.
Looking out from the Herb Garden across the lawn to the cutting garden with the 1953 International Harvester pick-up in the background. The purple building to the right is the chicken coop.
I created this rough garden plan using an online garden planner at. http://www.smallblueprinter.com/garden/planner.html. You can sketch out plans on graph paper, purchase garden planning software, or use free programs like this one to plan your garden.