Imagine a small child hunched motionless over a plant, peering through the foliage at a tiny bug as it treks over the shaded ground below. To a child, the tiniest variation in terrain becomes colossal as the bug traverses dirt clods large and small, a fallen twig, and seemingly impenetrable vegetation; even a miniature herb plant can appear gigantic.
Miniature herbs fascinate me. Like that child, I often find myself hunched over some tiny specimen, spellbound by the precision of nature’s scale, feeling as though I’m looking through a telescope the wrong way. I believe this fascination is my inspiration for growing miniature herbs; sometimes I think it’s a prerequisite, along with a little patience in locating the plants.
Finding Miniature Herbs
Miniature herbs can be elusive; not all herb nurseries stock them. Nurseries specializing in alpine or rock garden plants are often good sources. (The mail-order nurseries on page 54 carry a selection of the herbs mentioned here.) Be prepared to ask for these plants by their Latin names, because many have no common name or may not be listed by common name.
You’ll find miniature herbs in only a few public gardens, usually in a raised bed or rockery. The Edinburgh (Scotland) Botanical Garden’s excellent collection of Origanum species, noted for its dittany of Crete, is displayed in a rockery constructed conveniently at waist level. Most miniatures, however, are just too small to be fully appreciated or even viewed by a large audience. Because of the special attention needed to display them effectively, you’ll most likely find them in private gardens or an occasional herb nursery, often grouped in a trough or raised bed that’s separate from the main garden.
Your own collection of miniature herbs might begin with a specimen plant grown in a pot or container. That’s the way mine started. I took these garden misfits—those out of scale with the rest of the herb garden—and placed them in their own little world, creating lilliputian landscapes in broad terra-cotta planters. These have rewarded me and others with countless hours of enjoyment. Of course, not all of the miniature herbs mentioned here will stay in a terra-cotta planter; though small, some grow quite vigorously.
The Miniature Herbs
My first specimen was Blue Boy rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Blue Boy’). Its form is unique among the prostrate rosemaries because, although its branches are contorted like those of other prostrate forms, it is extremely compact and its small foliage is very dense along the branchlets. I had trouble placing it in the herb garden because it was so small—only 7 by 15 inches—that visitors and resident dogs frequently stepped on it. It’s less hardy than most other prostrate rosemary varieties, and it would die back every winter, perhaps because its dense foliage retains moisture and later freezes or is more susceptible to disease. My stock plants in the greenhouse always were superior in growth, health, and appearance. I heartily recommend this herb for growing indoors as a topiary or bonsai subject. With good blue flowers amid 1/2-inch-long needlelike leaves, it makes a beautiful specimen plant, and its culinary usefulness is a bonus.
One of my favorite miniatures is Majorcan germander (Teucrium majoricum). It forms a compact mound 6 to 8 inches tall and has proven perfectly hardy here in northwestern Oregon (Zone 8). Its attractive blue-green foliage is covered with ringlets of bright pink flower heads, so small and delicate that I can envision them catching the eye of a fairy, who might wear the flowery circlet as a crown. This plant is somewhat difficult to propagate because, if drainage is not excellent, its roots will rot. However, its long blooming period and the sweet fragrance of its foliage are well worth the effort.
I’m an avid lavender collector, and when I heard that a friend had a small, white-flowered lavender, I thought it must be dwarf white lavender (Lavandula angustifolia ‘Nana Alba’), which grows 10 to 12 inches high until, in its third year, flower spikes add 3 to 5 inches to its height. But the plant turned out to be L. ‘Alpine Alba’, which is not yet commercially available but soon will be showing up in nursery catalogs. The start I received was only about 2 inches tall, and after five years in a sunny location with the best care I could supply, it’s still only 4 to 5 inches tall, towering to 7 inches when in bloom. It’s what I would call a “miniature dwarf” lavender and is an excellent choice for the trough or rock garden. I suspect that the short-stemmed flowers would be fine in a tussie-mussie or nosegay. This lavender grows on the edge of my greenhouse border, but the bigger and bolder herbs tend to steal the show.
Another good silver miniature herb is the dwarf curry plant (Helichrysum italicum ‘Nana’). This plant forms a tight, erect bush 8 to 10 inches high with dense, short foliage and tiny mustard-yellow flowers. It produces more of the silver foliage than the standard curry plant does, yet retains the characteristic currylike fragrance. It requires better drainage than the larger curry plant, though it seems less hardy here, often suffering winter damage.
Even lamb’s-ears (Stachys byzantina) boasts a miniature relative, S. candida. This evergray, compact subshrub grows only to 5 or 6 inches and produces tiny, round, woolly, silver-gray fragrant leaves. Its pale yellow flowers are delicately decorated with a double maroon stripe down the center. This plant is a gem for the rock or alpine garden.
Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus) is another superb choice. I plant it in a terra-cotta pot which evaporates away any excess water, providing the excellent drainage so essential for this herb. The plant is a mound of gray leaves that resemble little woolly mouse ears, and the pink-tinged flower bracts that form when the summer gets hot (June in our area) hang like hop flowers and persist for a few months.
Having no formal training in the art of bonsai, I’ve been doing what I jokingly term “faux-bonsai”: I place a specimen herb in a terra-cotta dish, add a few jagged rocks, and underplant with Minus thyme (Thymus praecox subsp. arcticus ‘Minus’). Presto! an instant miniature garden with the effect of bonsai, but with little pruning and no fuss. Spurred by the success of my first humble efforts, I went on to experiment with different specimen plants and plant combinations. Cat thyme (Teucrium marum), a tiny silver-leaved germander with pink flowers, contrasts pleasingly with the green matlike Bressingham thyme (Thymus ‘Bressingham’), which fills in quickly and complements the cat thyme flowers with its own bright pink blossoms. However, the former does attract cats with its pungent fragrance and is no match for an overzealous cat. Teucrium subspinosum, a diminutive, compact shrublet 5 to 6 inches high, is another miniature and cat attractant whose name gives you some idea of its prickly nature. It sits in the garden like an evergreen sea urchin and is topped with minute pink flowers in summer. Unfortunately, those little spines do little to deter the cats.
Tuffet thyme (Thymus caespititius ‘Tuffet’) first forms a tight, bright green mound that is graced in summer with a crown of reddish pink flowers. After the flowers fade, leaving temporary holes, the plant begins to radiate outward as a mat of light green, needlelike foliage. The original mound eventually fills in but will not flower again; a new mound forms a short distance away. The whole process then begins again, but now the plant covers a much larger area.
I can easily imagine Little Miss Muffet eating her curds and whey on one of these tuffets. When she gets sleepy, she can lay her head on a dark green pillow of elfin thyme (Thymus ‘Elfin’), an extremely slow grower which needs excellent drainage and rarely reaches 4 inches in either height or breadth. If the sun gets too hot, Miss Muffet can move into the shade of a nearby Greek miniature basil (a variety of Ocimum basilicum), whose usual globe shape is reminiscent of an air balloon, ready to take Miss Muffet on a delightful, fragrant ride.
Imagination can run rampant in planning miniature herb displays. A friend of mine with a wonderful sense of humor has planted a concrete head with moss thyme (Thymus praecox subsp. arcticus ‘Albus’) so that it resembles hair. This implies, he says, that the gardener is “ahead of his thyme.” Another grower friend planted her herbal miniatures in the shape of her nursery’s logo, a barn owl. The outline is an 8-inch hedge of closely spaced dwarf santolina (Santolina chamaecyparissus ‘Nana’) filled in with a fast-growing creeping thyme (Thymus ‘Doone Valley’). Two plants of Dianthus simulans form two big round eyes. All of these plants are evergreen (the santolina is evergray) and can be enjoyed all year to Zone 5. An occasional trimming keeps the thyme within the outline and shapes the santolina hedge while preventing it from blooming. (The flowers would disrupt the color scheme.) The dianthus needs only deadheading; the plant remains a tight mound of clustered blue-green needlelike foliage.
Juxtaposing miniature and larger-scale herbs can raise some tricky design problems, but many miniatures can be attractive when standing alone. Lady’s-mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris), whose scalloped leaves capture dewdrops that sparkle like diamonds in the early morning sun, is commonly planted in herb gardens. There are several miniature forms of this herb: A. faeroensis var. pumila is the smallest I know of, but it is difficult to find. More readily available are A. glaucescens, A. alpina, and A. erythropoda. All three form neat mounds of gray-green foliage 4 to 5 inches tall—A. alpina has an eye-catching silver edging on its leaflets—and are effective planted in the flagstone patio, out of the way of direct foot traffic. A. ellenbeckii is a true ground cover that spreads quickly by continual layering. It appears to tolerate quite harsh drought conditions, but it prefers some light shade from intense summer heat. Its brilliant red stems and minute, heart-shaped leaves are quite attractive.
The possible uses of miniature herbs are virtually unlimited, determined by local climate and the personality and interests of the gardener. Pot gardens, edgings, trough gardens, knot gardens, dollhouse gardens, and underplantings for bonsai or topiary are just a few examples. An intriguing application is in landscaping small-scale model railroads (see Herbs along the Railway, at left).
Andy Van Hevelingen operates Van Hevelingen Herb Nursery in Newberg, Oregon.
André Viette Farm • Nursery, Rt. 1, Box 16, Fishersville, VA 22939. Catalog $3.
Canyon Creek Nursery, 3527 Dry Creek Rd., Oroville, CA 95965. Catalog $1.
The Flowery Branch, PO Box 1330, Flowery Branch, GA 30542. Catalog $2.
Logee’s Greenhouses, 141 North St., Danielson, CT 06239. Catalog $3.
Rice Creek Gardens, Inc., 11506 Hwy. 65, Minneapolis, MN 55434. Catalog $2.
Shepherd’s Garden Seeds, 30 Irene St., Torrington, CT 06790; or 6116 Highway 9, Felton, CA 95018. Catalog $1.
Siskiyou Rare Plant Nursery, 2825 Cummings Rd., Medford, OR 97501. Catalog $2.
Well-Sweep Herb Farm, 317 Mt. Bethel Rd., Port Murray, NJ 07865. Catalog $2.