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
- Culinary herbs
- Medicinal herbs
- Ornamental 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.
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.
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.
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
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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