Herb Garden

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THE HERB GARDEN
How to grow a perfect herb garden

Unlike many other types of gardening, herbs are very inexpensive and easy to maintain. The beginner can be an instant success, and as time goes by, develop into a master gardener, growing more difficult and esoteric plants. There is room for all skill levels, and many different garden situations. In terms of modern usage, herbs can be broken down into three different groupings.

  1. Culinary herbs
  2. Medicinal herbs
  3. Ornamental herbs

Culinary herbs
First in most peoples minds are the culinary herbs. These are the herbs we are all most familiar with basil, rosemary, parsley and oregano, etc. In growing these plants, we not only provide ourselves the joy of gardening, but the satisfaction of eating the fruits of our labor. The flavorings that herb gardens provide to our daily bread can truly enhance our lives. Ask anyone who has used fresh herbs in their cooking and they’ll tell you that dried herbs can't compare. Some are perennial, some are annual and with few exceptions, all are easily grown. Everyone can grow these plants, from the window boxes and container gardens of apartment dwellers, to the borders and raised beds of country folk. It is one of those simple pleasures that is an inexpensive luxury.

Medicinal herbs
The next group of herb plants are medicinals. While this type of herb had lost most of its value to the 20th century world, one has only to walk down the aisle of your local drugstore to see its resurgence. Echinacea, valerian, hypericum, gingko, and garlic are all back on the shelves as medicine. Lavender, roses, mint, and basil are being used for aromatherapies to ease the stresses of modern life. We are once again finding healing from nature. Less than ten percent of new drugs coming onto the market are entirely man made and nearly eighty percent are derived from plant material. For the home gardener however, it is difficult to extract the medicinal parts of the plant. Echinacea, for instance, must be extracted by boiling only the roots, reducing it over a period of hours while skimming off the impurities. It seems unlikely that most gardeners would be willing to devote the time (and destroy their coneflower) to make their own echinacea extract. Realistically, most medicinals now fall into our final category.

Ornament herbs
Ornamental herbs are almost a contradiction in terms. Herbs have traditionally been plants that have had values other than the aesthetic. As time has passed, we have found many medicinals to be unhealthy and old spiritual associations have gone the way of the dinosaur. The plants however, remain in the lexicon of herb gardeners and in their gardens. Dioscorides recommended abisinthe, or wormwood, as a cure for drunkenness. We now know it to be destructive to both the heart and the nervous system, but it still remains in the herb garden in its many forms, providing a wonderfully soft, silvery foliage. Many of the plants thought of as mainstays of the herb garden are holdovers from superstition and magic. Perhaps that is part of the mystique of herb gardening…

Herb garden design
The herb garden is historically a more formal design. When we think of herb gardens, we generally tend to think of the clipped hedges of the parterre, or the precise brick walkways of the colonial herb garden. In today’s world, the formal lines and designs can be hard to fit into our modern panorama, and we should look to make our herb garden fit our landscape and not the other way around. On the other hand, if you live in a colonial style home, what could be a more appropriate garden than a colonial style herb garden?

Herb container gardening
My herb garden at home is a container garden. The doorway from our kitchen opens onto a paved area, so this is the perfect answer for my situation. All things being equal, I think this is probably the best style for me. Even if I lived in my own home, I like the informal jumble of pots by the kitchen door, and I can bring my rosemary and lemon grass in for the winter with very little fuss. The different glazes and textures of the pots lend color to what could have been a very green garden, and containers allow me to adjust soil mixtures to suit specific plants. Window-boxes are another form of container with all the benefits previously mentioned, plus the added attraction of being just outside a kitchen window. To sum up, containers are easy and fun. I highly recommend this style of gardening, especially to those just starting out.

Raised bed herb gardens
Closely related to container gardens, raised beds are a great way to herb garden. We can amend our soil to suit our plants; this is important, as many of our favorite herb plants require more drainage than our soils allow. The higher the raised bed, the better the drainage. Higher beds are also wonderful for older or handicapped gardeners, allowing easy access without bending or stooping. The raised beds also perform one other function that mirrors the container gardens; they contain the plants. Plants like mint can become a terror if let loose in the landscape, and weeds can choke the life out of our herbs. Raised beds and containers keep the wild ones in, and keep the bad guys out.

Parterre
The parterre is easily done, and lends a formal, elegant look to the garden. The plant of choice for hedging is Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’ or dwarf English boxwood. Its small size and willingness to take a hard pruning, along with its tolerance of most soil and light conditions, make this a perfect plant for the job. Simply divide your garden into separate areas for each of the herbs you wish to grow, and hedge them in. Larger boxwoods can be used at the corners and junctions to add height and visual interest, and a sculpture or sundial can provide a nice finishing touch. The parterre can be inclusive of some of the other formal elements, such as the cartwheel and the herb ladder. These are newer introductions to herb gardening, coming into vogue at the start of the 20th century. Both constructs involve using brick to enclose growing areas for individual herbs, and lend a crisp, clean look to your garden.

The herb garden need not be the monocultural garden of old. As with the potager, vegetables, perennials, vines, and trees can all combine together to provide a beautifully mixed palette. The informal border fits virtually any type of home, and allows for easy combination with already existing plants. Just remember that single herb planted together with other single plants of other species will just begin to look cluttered. Planting in threes and fives allows the eye to register the plant, and yet move restfully over it to the next group (and you’ll end up with more pesto!) I recommend this for most plantings of perennials and herbs. This is a technique known to every designer, and it’s the number one reason why his or her gardens look better than others.

Let's not forget roses
Roses deserve a special note here. They are one of the original inhabitants of the herb garden, and are wonderful companions of most of the herbs. Both groups of plants like sunny, drier conditions and the foliage of the herbs provides a perfect foil for the rose blossoms. The hips on older type roses have been used medicinally for millennia, and provide interest into the fall.

Rosa rugosa is a great rose for the herb garden and fits both aesthetically and historically. Look for the antique and damask roses for that truly authentic look.

In conclusion, herb gardening is not a difficult hobby to become involved with, and the rewards can be great. Unlike many other types of gardening, the plants are very inexpensive and easy to maintain. The beginner can be an instant success, and as time goes by, develop into a master gardener, growing more difficult and esoteric plants. There is room for all skill levels, and many different garden situations. In short, herb gardening is for everybody. Enjoy…

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