Thursday, 24 of April of 2014


Designing an Herb Garden

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.

1. Structure

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.

2. Color

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.

3. Texture

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. You can sketch out plans on graph paper, purchase garden planning software, or use free programs like this one to plan your garden.





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Daylilies: Cornerstone of the Perennial Garden

I recommend growing Daylilies to every gardener and potential gardener I know. They are great to start out with because they are a hardy perennial, require very little special care and will be happy and flower abundantly in bright sun to partial shade. If you develop what I call a  “daylily plan” they can become the cornerstone of your perennial garden. Daylilies don’t make the best cut flowers since the flower blooms last for only a day, but they bloom in such profusion a single plant can have a succession of blooms that can last for weeks. The buds of the flowers can be cooked and eaten.

As much as I like to see the old fashioned orange daylilies on the side of the road or in a field, I steer clear of orange Daylilies for my garden. Mostly because modern hybridization techniques have created Daylilies in almost every color of the rainbow and I like to take advantage of that. Modern hybrids can rival the beauty of Orchids.

When trying to figure out what kind of daylily you want, the variations are so great you need to think about what you like. The variables are color, bloom shape, height, price and bloom time.


Daylilies now come in almost every color you can imagine. I say almost because they are still having a hard time with blue, and if you see a Daylily described as blue, chances are it’s more a shade of lavender. They are getting close to blue, but the bluer the daylily the higher a price you will pay for it. There are also color combinations. Some come in a contrasting colored “rim” (called picotee) or have a colored “eye” in  the center. Even this eye can have another colored rim. Also ribs running down the center of each petal can have a different color. The colors and combinations will astound you.

Bloom Shape

The flowers are composed of three petals and three sepals. The sepals form the outer protective sheath of the bud. When the flower opens the sepals become part of the flower and generally recurve back toward the stem. Petal variations usually define the shape of the flower. Petals are generally wider than the sepals. Sometimes so wide they can cover the sepals. When they are long and narrow they create a flower form that looks like a spider. Some hybrids have heavily ruffled petals. Double varieties can just have a few extra petals, or look like a pom-pom. The size of the average flower is 4” to 6”. But diminutive types can be as small as a few inches and large flowering varieties can be as large as 9 inches.


The stems the flowers bloom on are called scapes and they can vary in height as well. Make sure you take note of this when purchasing a plant so you know where to place it in the garden. The strap-like leaves also vary in height, but their sizes is less of a concern than the height at which the flowers bloom.


I only mention price because trendy new hybrids can literally be hundreds of dollars when they are first introduced. As years go by the price falls quickly and you can find amazing hybrids in a price range from $2.00-$12.00.

Bloom Time

When purchasing Daylilies from catalog or online, you will notice a bloom time is generally specified, usually in shorthand that is defined by the site. Generally early blooming is from June to early July, Mid-blooming is from the end of July to August and late is from late August to September. Although I have a variety that has bloomed as late as October.

Finally, much is made about diploid and tetraploid Daylilies. Normally, Daylilies are diploid, or having two sets of chromosomes. Many hybrids are tetraploid, having an extra two sets of chromosomes. Although both have their advantages, tetraploids tend to be stronger, hardier and more vigorous. However I would not pass over a Daylily I liked simply because it was diploid.

Now that you know all this you can create your daylily plan. Ordering from a website or catalog, I choose the colors I want and order one plant in that color that is early, one that is late and one that is mid-flowering. That way I have a profusion of Daylily flowers in the garden from June to the beginning of October. The only flaw in this plan is that late flowering varieties tend to be in shades of red and rust since they are developed from a late blooming species type that have these color characteristics.

Daylilies are rarely bothered by pests. I think mine may have a type of thrip, since the older leaves yellow and die. Plants with long strap leaves like Daylilies, Gladiolas and Crocosmia are often bothered by thrips. I don’t really do anything to prevent it, and the plants thrive. Deer don’t generally eat the leaves but will eat the buds. Every four years the plants should be divided by root division which is easy to do, and an easy way to cultivate varieties that you like, give to friends or trade.

A good site for more information on Daylilies is :



Although I would call it more of a lavender, the hybrid “Prairie Blue Eyes” is the closest to a blue Daylily that I have. pink-attraction.JPG

“Pink Attraction” has an almost Orchid-like beauty with a green throat, pink petals and a pale center rib.


Like many Daylilies in my garden, the name of this variety is long gone. A pale yellow, its heavily ruffled recurved petals are wide and showy.


A deep pink variety puts on a nice show in mid-summer.


A consistent performer, “Hyperion” puts on a good show and occasionally reblooms.


“Catherine Woodbury” blooms profusely with the palest of pink flowers and a nicely contrasting chartreuse throat.


This deep red variety has large flowers. The profusion of buds show how a plant can produce their daily flowers for weeks at at a time. Many red types such as this one bloom later in the season.


This is my latest blooming Daylily called “Autumn Red.” This picture was taken in early October.


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Shade Gardens- Where Ferns, Moss and Hosta Thrive

Chances are there will be at least a few places on your property that don’t get the 6-10 hours of full sun that most gardens require. These are probably areas where trees or buildings block the sun. At Andrew’s Legacy we have a few of these areas and they are the perfect place for a shade garden. There are a lot of plants with low light requirements. Many woodland plants, such as Trilliums, Wild Ginger, Ligularia, Dog tooth violets and the like, lend themselves to shade gardens. But some are fussy, requiring special soil amendments, specific water fertilizer and light requirements, and have brief seasons. Ferns and Hosta are hardy and adaptable. Moss can be a bit particular, but once started is easier to care for.

I chose my two main shade gardens in areas that don’t get much light other than dappled sunlight or morning sun. I fought with and pulled up tree roots and rototilled in lots of compost and pete moss. I create a rich fertile environment for my plants and unknowingly for the surrounding trees as with a few years their roots invaded my gardens, sucking the life out of them. I fought with them for a while and eventually realized the only way I could outwit them was to leave the hardy plants that were surviving the tree roots in the ground and fill in with containers and moss. Ferns and Hosta became the backbone of my shade gardens since they seemed able to survive anything.


There is a surprisingly vast number of hardy ferns to choose from. The variety and number shoots up if you are willing to include tropical varieties, which worked well for me since I was including containers as part of my shade garden. Shades provide a lush texture and through varieties like the Japanese Painted fern and Ghost fern can provide color variations. Most are used to battling for resources with trees and have done well planted directly into my inhospitable ground. The Japanese Painted fern seems to reproduce well by spore, as I have found plants coming up in many spaces around the yard. Ostrich fern spreads by underground creeping roots or rhizomes. As with most shade plants they do need to be well watered, prefer and acidic soil and a nitrogen fertilizer. They seem to be unbothered by slugs or deer, but deer have been known to eat the new growth. True ferns do not produce seeds, but make spores found on the backs of leaves or in central bracts. Spores require perfect conditions to grow, but many varities of ferns can be reproduce through root division.


Hosta are one of the most common leafy perennials in the American gardening lexicon. They became so ubiquitous they fell out of favor in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s until hybridization began to produce hundreds of new and exciting types. The “blue”-leaved varieties tend to do better in shade, although most Hosta don’t seem to have a problem in the shade and the yellow/chartreuses types really pop in a dark place. Slugs love hosta, and I have been told deer do as well, so you will have to maintain diligence against these pests. Hosta thrive in the same conditions as ferns, although for the most part you may want to put them in the brighter section of the shade garden. They are easy to grow, hardy perennials and there are many exciting new types showing great variation in leaf shape, size, color and variegation. Hosta can be propagated  by root division which is recommended every three or four years to avoid overcrowding.


For many of you, this may be an odd choice for a shade garden, especially those of you who have battled with moss in sections of your lawn or on your roof. But moss gardens have become popular, especially in Asian countries and Japanese gardens, and that popularity has spread. Moss can create a carpet of intense velvety green that flows over hills and engulfs objects in its path. It can be particular, but if it’s happy it will thrive. It can be the perfect addition to a shade garden, growing where nothing else will, unaffected by tree roots and the deepest shade. I got my moss from a neighboring wood, digging clumps and moving it to my garden. If you get moss form an area other than your property I recommend you get permission. If you don’t know where to get moss there are a few hardy varieties that can be purchased online at:

Moss does require a lot of water and may need to be watered daily, especially when you are trying to get it to take. It does love a liquid nitrogen fertilizer, which will help it spread and green-up. Moss can dry up and will come back, but it looks best when it is well watered and thriving. Moss can even look good through a warm winter, or brought indoors in a greenhouse or terrarium. (Moss requires high humidity at all times.) Moss can connect empty areas of your shade garden, or you can create a moss garden with nothing else but moss. I have made a Pinterest board devoted to deep shade gardens made with moss and fungi.

Here are some pictures showing how we have used Ferns, Hosta, and Moss in our shade gardens.


This Hosta, called “Patriot” shows stark contrast in the variegation between the deep green and white edges, making it stand out in the shade.


Like many Hosta in my gardens I have long ago lost the name of this one, but its ribbed leaves and nice variegation help it stand out against the Dicentra in the background.


A thriving Ostrich fern works its way through the shade despite invasive tree roots. Hosta and English bluebells are in the background.


 The pale green color of the ghost fern helps bring it forward in the dark shade and provides a nice contrast to the deeper green around it.


A close-up of a burgeoning Hosta. In the spring their growth is explosive.


Nice variegation of green against a pure yellow color in this Hosta.


Sometimes fences or garden walls create shade in the garden and can look stark and bare. A Staghorn fern, mounted on a cedar board creates interest and a focal point on this garden wall. Since it is tropical it needs to be moved indoors for the winter. One screw holds it to the wall so it can be easily removed. An unusual plant it is also an interesting conversation piece.


The traditional Boston Fern is happy in the shade of the porch. It’s leaves cover the moss basket it is growing in. Daily watering, frequent fertilizing and large containers are the tricks to making this tender tropical thrive.


There are many new Hosta that are bright chartreuse yellow. I recommend these varieties since the color really pops out of the shady garden and contrasts well with purples and pinks.


The Lady In Red Fern has an upright habit with deep red stems.


The Japanese Painted Fern is very hardy and colorful showing white, many shades of green and burgundy.


A Hay-Scented Fern grapples for space in a large container with Herchuera “Southern Comfort.”


This is the view from the side of our porch. A small shady space became a hidden garden filled with hardy and tropical ferns, Hosta, Moss and a variety of woodland plants. Although there are several containers in this garden, they are obscured by the lush growth. A copper bath beckons the birds and a terra cotta lion plaque stands guard.


Once established, moss will create a velvety green bed, filling bare spaces and looking lush and inviting.


Unusual containers are great for growing moss. Make sure they have drainage so the soil is not super-saturated, but a saucer on bottom can help ensure constant moisture.

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