Many herbs are grown more for their foliage than for their flowers, and frequent harvesting prevents or delays blooming, so the traditional herb garden often has a limited range of color beyond shades of green. But it doesn’t have to be that way! If you’re after a more colorful, more cheerful garden scene, all it takes is a little strategic planning. Like a well-planned perennial border, an herb garden can bloom gloriously from spring through fall.
This is the goal I’ve set for my backyard herb garden this year. My herb garden is the focal point at the far end of my backyard. It is productive in providing me with lots of wonderful herbs for cooking and scents, but because in the summer I spend a lot of time on the deck and in the kitchen, which overlooks the garden, I’ve decided to improve the view by planning for more consistent blooms throughout the growing season. Herbs and flowers. . . I want it all.
I’m as guilty as the next gardener of planting haphazardly after impulse buying at the garden center, so sometimes my garden is a bit chaotic. I enjoy its carefree informality, but the garden can go for long stretches without good color, and the plants bloom unevenly in the beds, filling one side with color but not the other. I realized I needed a new garden plan that took into account the size, shape, and duration of blooming herbs.
The best way to start planning is to sketch out your existing garden area or draw the shape of a new herb bed you’d like to create. Measure out the area and draw a sketch of it to scale. It doesn’t have to be exact: just draw the general shape and note the measurements of the sides.
Now play around on paper with different-sized planting areas around the yard, spread out so that the garden looks balanced when viewed from the house. If you have enough room, plan for natural drifts or sweeps of color, which are created by filling in areas with one kind of plant or one flower color. If you want to create a formal herb garden design, use geometric or straight-lined areas within the bed.
How many planting areas you create depends on how much room you have and what you want to plant. When you’re happy with the size and shape of the garden areas you’ve planned, write down a list of herbs that you must have in your garden, including those culinary staples such as basil, oregano, dill, parsley, and others. Decide how many of each plant you’ll want, note their mature sizes, and then draw circles to represent these plants in your garden plan, spreading out the green clumps and being sure not to overcrowd them. The empty spaces that are left on the plan will be filled with flowering herbs you’ll select later.
When you’re ready to start assigning plants to the beds, consider whether you’d like a certain color scheme—perhaps blues and purples, or yellows and oranges, or shades that match or complement the color of your house? If so, select accordingly. A color scheme isn’t necessary, however, because so many herbs bloom in harmonious shades of lavender, purple, yellow, white, blue, pink, and mauve that they’re almost foolproof.
A good way to start the plant selection process is to select a “backbone” or focal plant for each season. These are larger plants with bright, long-lasting blooms and attractive foliage. Backbones are especially important for smaller gardens to ensure at least one striking bloom for each season. For example, a backbone herb for early summer could be a dazzling yellow yarrow, while a fall backbone could be the brilliant scarlet pineapple sage.
Now that you have placed the “must haves” and focal point plants in their spaces on your garden plan, fill in the remaining planting spots with other herbs, based on their colors, bloom season, shapes, heights, and foliage textures. Color repetition is what ties the different areas of the garden together, so spread different shades of a single color throughout the garden area. A large blue-flowering catmint on one side could be balanced by a clump of Russian sage on the other side. Remember to spread the colors out seasonally as well; you don’t want all the spring-blooming plants, for example, clustered together at one end.
Use the plant list in this article as a starting guide for selecting plants by bloom season, color, and size. While this list is by no means a comprehensive one, it contains many of the most beautiful and reliable plants for color in an herb garden. Once you’ve selected plant possibilities for your long-blooming garden, read more about the plants you’re not familiar with to be sure they have similar growing requirements in terms of moisture, soil, and sun exposure, which can be crucial to a plant’s successful flowering.
Use sheets of tracing or vellum paper, one for each season of bloom. Place one sheet at a time over your garden sketch. Start with spring and use colored pencils to color in the flower color (or foliage color) of plants that will be blooming in spring. Then do the same for the other seasons.
If you have space in your plan for fifteen plants, the spring sheet may show three flowering plants; the early summer sheet may have four or five blooming plants, and so on.
As you color in each season on a sheet, you can see how each season will look and evaluate if you have enough color, if you like the color combinations, and if color is balanced throughout the bed. If not, go back and rearrange planting areas or select new ones.
It helps to also color in on each sheet all of the green herbs you may have selected to get an idea of how the whole scheme works together.
Are you having fun yet? Planning a great garden is like completing a three-dimensional puzzle. Experiment with different combinations and placements until you have a scene that pleases you. Take your time. Use a few good herb catalogs and books with color photographs of plants’ flowers and foliage to help select plants and cultivars.
This time will be worth it when you can look out at your herb bed at any time from spring through fall and see a splash of happy color.
Maureen Heffernan is the director of public programs at Cleveland Botanical Gardens. She is a freelance writer and herb lover who lives and gardens in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.