A West Coast Kitchen Garden

An ever-evolving herb collection.

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Southern California is the land of the perpetual garden. The climate is so gentle that the biggest problem herb gardeners can find to complain about is rampant growth. Most of us in the hinterlands can only fantasize about coping with the problems of a garden that is green 12 months a year.

Carole Saville, a long-time herb gardener from the Garden State of New Jersey, felt as if she were learning to garden all over again when she moved to California five years ago. Even now, the landscape continues to surprise her. Carole lives on a third of an acre situated on a scenic drive overlooking a canyon in the Hollywood hills. A few quick steps from the back door, she grows a lush array of culinary and ornamental herbs in an intricate kitchen garden only 20 feet square. For this free-lance writer and herb garden designer, the kitchen garden represents two lifelong loves—food and gardening. It is not just a sanctuary and playground but a place of constant learning, experimentation, and evolution.

Back east, Carole often visited the re-created monastic herb garden at the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and was charmed by the formal geometric plantings of utilitarian herbs. She began reading old herbals and was fascinated to learn how the herbs she used daily in her kitchen have endured through the ages. Later, she borrowed inspiration from these gardens of old for her West Coast kitchen garden, which is illustrated in detail on page 21.

The geometric structure of Carole’s garden serves as a fine foil for the informal luxuriance of culinary herbs. A 3-foot Korean box hedge frames the space on four sides, giving it a feeling of intimacy; a tiered brick planter showcasing herbal topiary marks the center. The original centerpiece plant was a delicate rosemary topiary Carole brought from New Jersey, but it grew into a huge balloon that threatened to eclipse the entire garden—Carole’s first lesson in Zone 10 gardening. She no longer grows any rosemary in her kitchen garden because four varieties of the herb grow all over the rest of her property. A tamer myrtle topiary now occupies the center spot, with variegated euonymus anchoring the four ­corners and white-flowered woodland straw­berries (Fragaria sp.) spreading a carpet of green between them. A path of river rock wraps the center bed, and the herbs spill out along the edges, softening the lines.

A Stroll Around the Garden

At any given time, up to 100 different­ herbs surround the central planting, reflecting Carole’s wide culinary interests and her newest gardening discoveries. With a plot of this size, Carole must make choices and play favorites, so the scenery is always changing. About three-quarters of the plants are perennial; the large plants are permanent features, ensuring that the background is always in scale, but the smaller herbs are often moved around or swapped for others less greedy for space.

As Carole walks around the garden, pointing out her favorites, it’s evident that each herb is special to her for one reason or another. Many are indispensable in the kitchen; some are unusual, rare, or part of an ethnic collection; others are of sentimental value. The layout reflects this blend of utility and beauty. For example, each of several cuisines, including Mexican, Southeast Asian, and Middle Eastern, has its own collection of representative herbs.

Flanking the entrance to the garden are rows of society garlic and chives. To their left rises a clump of sea kale (Crambe maritima), a recent acquisition. Carole uses the blanched spring sprouts as an odd and pretty addition to endive and arugula salads; later, the large, ruffled blue-green leaves are gorgeous in the summer garden.

Oreganos, thymes, and basils occupy one stretch of the square. Carole’s south-of-the-border herbs are planted here, among them two Mexican “oreganos” (Lippia graveolens and Poliomintha longiflora). Cuban oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus) is closely related to Swedish ivy but broadcasts more oregano scent than the true oreganos (Origanum spp.). Other herbs in this area include Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida), with its tarragonlike flavor; Chilean guava, a bush that hasn’t yet produced fruit for her; a slow-to-bolt cilantro; culantro (Eryngium foetidum); and Lippia dulcis, a curious herb that starts out tasting bitter on the tip of the tongue and is sweet by the time it reaches the throat. Hoja santa (Piper auritum), an herb that Carole planted a few years ago and then moved out when she realized how much space it would try to claim, reliably sends up volunteers each year.

Favorite basils include the ­intensely fragrant Genoa perfume basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Genova Profumatissima’) and African Blue basil, which is a cross between camphor and Dark Opal basils; the hybrid has a bitter-tasting but very ornamental leaf with dark purple veins. Farther down the path are the herbs Carole uses in Southeast Asian cooking; they include Vietnamese balm (Elsholtzia stauntonii), rau ram (Polygonum odoratum), and lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus). For Middle Eastern and Indian cooking, she uses the black seeds of nigella (Nigella sativa) and the glossy leaves of curry leaf (Murraya koenigii), stinky in the garden but wonderful for flavoring vegetables. She blanches the leaves, then steeps them in almond oil, canola oil, or light olive oil, which adds a toasty taste of bouillon to stir-fried dishes.

On the same edge, Carole groups together the salad herbs for easy picking—salad burnet, chives, nasturtiums, sorrel, purslane, and a Japanese parsley called mitsuba (Cryptotaenia japonica).

Carole is so fond of lovage that she grows black lovage (Smyrnium olusat­rum) along with the more familiar Levisticum officinale. While less pungent after blanching, it has the same celery flavor, and its larger, glossier leaves are an interesting contrast to those of regular lovage. Planting similar herbs together is a favorite technique; Carole likes the way they set each other off. She does it with parsleys and sages; pink-, blue-, and white-flowering hyssops are neighbors; blue borage flowers are in the same corner as an opalescent white-flowered cultivar. Carole remembers the day a package arrived from England in response to an inquiry she had made months earlier. It contained nine borage seeds carefully collected for her by the head gardener of ­Sissinghurst. She considers the white borage a treasure and she carefully harvests the seeds, replants them, and passes on a few to special friends.

Holding down one corner of the garden is a screen of bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare cv.). Carole groups a half dozen plants together so that when they reach their full height of about 5 feet, she can stand back and admire the coppery foliage waving in the breeze. “It looks like I’m growing fur,” she says with a laugh.

She grows black pansies just for the effect the petals give when sprinkled on vanilla ice cream with a green mint syrup. A pennyroyal came from a woman who immigrated from Poland carrying a snippet of it in her baggage. Along an edge is a rampion (Campanula rapunculus), the herb that inspired the name of Rapunzel in the Grimm fairy tale. Nearly every plant in this little garden is linked to a memory, a story, or a favorite dish that it ­flavors.

Lessons From the Garden

Carole finds her own landscapes to be fertile ground for ideas on herb garden design, which has become a part-time business for her. We asked her how her approach to herb gardening might benefit other gardeners, particularly those with limited space.

In designing herb gardens for ­others, she often sees a problem that she admits she suffers from herself—too much ambition. She gives free rein to her own passion for herb gardening, but she encourages her clients ­toward a calmer and more realistic approach.

The first question Carole asks a client is, Why do you want an herb garden? For ornamental value, cooking, fragrance, fun? All of those functions can be incorporated into a single small, simple kitchen garden, but it’s helpful to set priorities at the outset, no matter what size the garden will ultimately be.

Another important question is, How much time do you want to devote to your garden? How much energy and money can you spend on it? If you live in a drought-prone area such as Southern California, are you prepared for the cost of watering new gardens? Herbs are generally hardy, undemanding plants, but keeping the garden looking its best takes time and attention. Carole has had the experience of helping a client put in a beautiful herb garden only to return several months later to find it neglected and its owner discouraged by the time-consuming work of weeding, pruning, and other necessary garden chores.

Carole suggests that seductive color photos of established gardens in books and magazines may lead beginners to expect too much too soon. Patience is the gardener’s greatest virtue. Let the garden grow slowly as you learn; let it expand along with your interest and commitment. Start with a small kitchen garden; it may reach the fluid complexity of Carole’s within a few years, or it may remain a simple but satisfying pastime.

The biggest risk for those who succumb to the lure of the herb garden is finding themselves utterly hooked. Car­ole spends nearly every weekend in her own gardens, tending them all herself. She haunts nurseries, pores through stacks of seed catalogs, visits public gardens, corresponds with other gardeners, trades plants and seeds with friends, and tries to track down tantalizing unusual species.

She has kept a garden journal since her first day of gardening decades ago. The diary has become as important a tool for her as a shovel, and she recommends the habit to every gardener. Because she doesn’t like to label her plants (“It’s sort of like having braces on your teeth”), Carole commits their scientific and common names to her diary along with sources and dates. If she loses a cherished herb, she can consult her diary to find out where the plant came from. She files in its pages letters and mementos from people she meets and events she attends. The journal is her link from one season to the next, charting the progress of plants and reminding her of lessons she has learned. When she let the radicchio go to seed next to the hollyhock and both towered outside her bedroom window, she found the sight hilarious and recorded it in the diary.

California Style

Carole finds few drawbacks to growing herbs in Southern California. Nippy weather in December and January may slow the garden down some, but freezes are rare. She plants in the spring and again in October, but in every month of the year she can be found working in the garden.

Carole recognizes the various microclimates within her property boundaries, and she researches the growing requirements of each herb to find just the right location for it. For example, herbs that might be parched by the California sun go in the cool shade at the base of taller specimens. Sweet cicely has been a real challenge, but she hasn’t given up on it yet. It’s now surviving, if not thriving, in pots in a damp, cool spot. On the other hand, herbs such as chives and tarragon, which are reputed to need a hard freeze to thrive, seem to grow well with no special care in Carole’s garden.

That’s not to say that California gardening is problem-free. Snails dine on the sorrel, and occasionally a killer fungus will devastate a healthy santo­lina or rosemary. But the problems seem a small price to pay for fresh sage at Thanksgiving, live rosemary Christmas trees to decorate, fresh lavender in July for lemonade and again in ­December for jams. Carole’s not complaining.

Sources

The following mail-order sources carry a wide selection of the herbs Carole Saville grows in her garden.
Companion Plants, 7247 N. Coolville Ridge Rd., Athens, OH 45701. Catalog $2.
Glasshouse Works Greenhouses, PO Box 97, Stewart, OH 45778. Catalog free. Hoja santa (Piper auritum), Cuban oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus), Aztec sweet herb (Lippia dulcis).
J. L. Hudson, Seedsman, PO Box 1058, Redwood City, CA 94064. Catalog $1. Black lovage (Smyrnium olusatrum), nigella (Nigella sativa), Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida).
Logee’s Greenhouses, 141 North St., Danielson, CT 06239. Catalog $3.
Sandy Mush Herb Nursery, Rt. 2, Surrett Cove Rd., Leicester, NC 28748. Catalog $4.
Thompson & Morgan, Inc., PO Box 1308, Jackson, NJ 08527. Catalog free. Sea kale (Crambe maritima).
Well-Sweep Herb Farm, 317 Mt. Bethel Rd., Port Murray, NJ 07865. Catalog $2.