GREEN PATCH: Design with Herbs

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Question:
My herbs grow well enough, but they are not particularly pretty.How can I redesign my garden so it looks as good as it tastes andsmells?

Answer:

Most herbs earn their places based on usefulness rather thanlooks, but this does not mean that an herb garden can’t bebeautiful. Borrow a few ideas from flower garden design to createan herb garden that pleases all of your senses.

First, let’s consider a few practical points. Culinary herbs, inparticular, need to be accessible because you shouldn’t have totiptoe among other plants each time you want a few snips of basilor parsley. Edges are always the easiest places to reach, so themore edges you have, the better. This is one of the reasons whylong, border-type gardens are so popular. Circular gardens are fun,too, with edges inside the circle as well as along its rim.

The precise shape doesn’t matter, but in the interest ofneatness, all edges should be well defined. This can be done withplants, brick, stone, wood or low panels of hand-made wattle(slender green sticks woven between upright posts).

In a border viewed from one side, short or mound-forming plantsshould go in the front, with taller ones in the rear, so the plantsare stacked into layers according to height. If the bed is morethan 4 feet deep, include steppingstones inside the bed so you’llbe able to move around freely between your plants. In a round,square or rectangular garden, place the tallest plants in thecenter.

Most herbs are compact little plants, so it can be challengingto give an herb garden a strong vertical accent, which isimportant. If the garden is seen from one side, a few panels ofpicket fence along the back will do the trick, or you can structurethe back with evergreen shrubs. In a non-linear garden, you can getvertical drama by installing a trellis planted with a climbing roseor a vigorous vine, such as passionflower, in the center. In verysmall gardens, a stone pedestal topped with a gazing ball, sundialor statue draws the eye upward. The goal is to get some kind ofvertical action going, which creates more visual excitement than aknee-high sea of plants.

The next task is to create order, which is easily done byrepeating one plant in a predictable, rhythmic pattern. Parsley isinvaluable for this job, but any herb that grows remarkably wellfor you can be used to create unity in the garden. Simply repeatthe plant at regular intervals so it becomes the garden’s “beat.”The important thing is to repeat the plant at predictable pointswithin the design, such as at corners of a square or in the middleof matching sections of a circle.

Now think about color and contrast. Most herbs are either greenor gray-green, and few herbs produce brightly colored flowers. Jazzthings up by adding color plants like red basil, scarlet-stemmedchard or orange nasturtiums. Be bold because the sunny exposuresherbs prefer are no place for extra pastels, which disappear inbright light. To sharpen the contrast, place plants with red leavesor bright flowers next to frosty gray foliage; for example, placered basil alongside helichrysum. Rich red petunias or geraniums dowonders for clumps of lavender.

ALWAYS TRY TO GET SOME KIND OF VERTICAL ACTION GOING,WHICH CREATES MORE VISUAL EXCITEMENT THAN A KNEE-HIGH SEA OFPLANTS.

You can put texture to work to great advantage, too. Forexample, plants with grassy foliage, such as chives, garlic andlemongrass, have a very different texture from leafy lemon balm,which in turn is quite unlike salad burnet in both texture and hue.To make the most of these texture changes without creating a mess,grow like plants together in clumps or drifts, so that one texturegets a fair turn saying “look at me” before the eye moves on to thenext subject. Keeping like plants together also simplifies pruning,dividing and other maintenance chores.

We’re almost done, but we still need a few showy plants thatwill work as focal points — pretty curiosities such as variegatedhorseradish or tricolored sage. Look for plants that keep theirgood looks for a long season because these are your spotlightdancers. In a pinch, a warren of cute concrete bunnies will do.

Play with your design ideas on paper, which is easier than doingit in the dirt.

It’s also wise to keep your design as simple as possible becausehighly structured planting plans, for example knot gardens, limitthe types of plants that can be used, and demand constant upkeep.Above all, remember that your design is a plan, and like all goodplans, it should include a bit of flexibility. Herb gardens changeconstantly, so they are always a work in progress.

Barbara Pleasant is a contributing editor to The Herb Companionand author of several books about gardening, including The WholeHerb (available in our online Bookshelf at www.herbcompanion.com).