From The Herb Garden: Sunny Gardens

From The Herb Garden

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The year was 1911. In Great Britain, George V had just assumed the throne following a graceful, lighthearted Edwardian decade. The Great War was not yet on the horizon; the Titanic was soon to be launched. Peace and prosperity reigned. Gertrude Jekyll was approaching the height of her influence as a garden designer, espousing soft color, rhythm, and texture over the showier ­effects of the Victorian floral border. Travel to the Continent was common, stimulating a new appreciation of the fragrant, hardy Mediterranean herbs.

Frances A. Bards­well, an amateur garden writer in the finest sense of the term, joined with two amateur watercolorists, Isabelle Forrest and the Honorable Florence Amherst, to produce a cheerful, practical, enthusiastic volume on herb gardening. Only 3000 copies were printed, each illustrated with delicate color prints inserted by hand.

Join us, in an excerpt from this charming volume, as we step through the gate of an English cottage into a haven of sunny, fragrant, well-tended herbs. And see how little has changed in more than 90 years in the peaceful world of gardening.

To flower and plant and tree, the ­garden is a cloistered refuge from the battle of life.

The Making of the Herb Garden

The one thing most needful for the herb garden is sunshine. Without it, there will be neither virtue nor fragrance; the plants will exist, but will neither be happy themselves nor make us so.

Any good garden soil suffices to satisfy most herbs, but the same soil will not suit all equally well. Some are naturally rock or mountain plants and do not mind how dry the ground is. Others, like the family of mints, love moist places; one or two, like rue and fennel, absolutely thrive in poor soil, while others demand good living. No doubt the old superstition that plants are apt to ­quarrel among themselves, and that some are absolutely antipathetic to others, originated in the first instance in the fact that there are great differences of opinion among them as to the soil in which they like to live. Rue will not grow near basil, it was believed, but rue and the fig tree are in league. Dill, coriander, mallows, and chervil love to be “set or sowne” together, while radish and hyssop are at enmity, and refuse to have anything to do with each other.

Yet sometimes in a small garden, in spite of the likes and dislikes of the plants, we are obliged, for want of space, to ask the different families to dwell side by side. It is wonderful how a little management gets over difficulties. The mints can be well nourished at the roots, and so kept in a good temper, and the lovers of rocky places can be given nooks and corners amid edgings of stone along the borders. Thus, all are satisfied. As a rule, herbs demand a somewhat dry soil and perfect drainage.

As to aspect, it does not matter what that is exactly so long as there is enough sunshine. Southeast or southwest are both excellent aspects. The site must be absolutely clear of trees, but the shelter of a wall, or hedge, or bank is good.

Our own herb garden looks mainly to the southwest. The most southerly and hottest border is filled with marjoram and several sorts of thyme that creep and spread among the stones along the edges. A bank with a hedge on the top of it protects the enclosure all the way round, and protection is needed, for behind it comes a field and then the wild North Sea. Certainly, herbs like plenty of air, and air in movement; they drink it in as if with joy, and breathe it out again in fragrance.

Very often, a piece of kitchen garden is portioned off to make the herb garden. If possible, this plot should come between the flower and kitchen gardens, where it will be a sort of debatable land between the purely useful and the purely ornamental. The sunniness of it would suggest a sundial. At the foot of the sundial, thyme of different sorts might be planted. It is an excellent plan, where there is room for it, to arrange one side or end of the garden with ups and downs, like a rock garden, so that the rock-loving herbs can root and spread about as they do in nature. A good depth of earth must be given them, quite 3 feet of it, into which the roots can dive.

The size and shape of the garden are points which no one but the owner can decide. It may be said, however, that no herb garden is too small to be interesting and none too large to be easily filled. A garden of herbs—there is savoriness in the very name. And yet, often the most unsatisfactory things in gardens, especially small ones, are the herbs. Scattered here and there all over the place, they have mostly a ragged, neglected look, and are very often not to be found when wanted; and if they are, time and patience are probably exhausted in hunting them up when wanted in a hurry for flavoring. Quite a pleasing feature might be made in even a small garden of the herbs were they only brought together and arranged in order.

The best position for herbs is in beds, and these may be made 2 or 4 feet wide, with foot alleys between them, and the length at the least one-third more than the width. This disposition in beds is so much more convenient and better in appearance than rows at regular intervals, Enclosed and special gardens are now a fashion of the day.

“The garden,” says the writer we have quoted at the head of this chapter, “should be something without and beyond nature, a page from an old romance, a scene in fairyland, a gateway through which imagination, lifted above the sombre realities of life, may pass into a world of dreams.” More than any other kind of garden does the herb garden lead us into a region of romance, of mystery and sweet remembrance, yet withal there is a common-sense side to it whose usefulness is not to be denied.

In the matter of when to plant, I should like to add that, in spite of what the books say, and in defiance of all the grammars of gardening, no one need be afraid of planting anything at any time, if only sufficient care is taken. I have done the rashest things myself with perfect success. For instance, you see some plant you covet very much in a neighbor’s garden. “‘I will send you a root of that in the autumn—no use moving it now.” This is what is said to you as a small sprig of it is handed over just to look at. “Take care of that little bit and plant it,” is our advice. Ten to one, a morsel of root is clinging to it; anyway, most likely it will grow. In this way, we have secured many treasures. This is how I got my precious plant of pure white thyme, that survived a week of hotel life in London, and was given me (the tiniest scrap of it) at Midsummer, while the plant was in full bloom.

Flowers in the Herb Garden

One cannot easily forget lovely borders [of herbs], the unassuming charm of their soft coloring, the dainty sweetness of their scent. Over them, in the warm summer sunshine, brown bees drowsily hum, and silken wings from flower to flower flutter—from pink to white, and then to pink again. Those who wish to have colors in their borders may be glad of the following list of plants that generally have a ticket of admittance to the herb garden. Every one of them is good for smell or cure as well as for ornament. Among them are hyssop, bergamot, and sweet woodruff. Besides these herbs with gay flowers, we can look to the culinary herbs for the brightness of catmint.

Hyssop is a handsome evergreen shrub with purple-blue or mauve flowers, which, if not exactly gay, are lively-looking enough to have a footing in some flower gardens. Along with catmint, hyssop makes a charming border, their soft indistinct blues going well together. It was Miss Jekyll, I think, who first introduced catmint and hyssop into our flower gardens. There is one garden of her designing I know very well where two broad beds on either side of a broad gravel walk are planted entirely with these two herbs, whose gentle hues blend admirably. At the back of the borders, bushes of rosemary and lavender are planted; a gray stone wall and comfortable wooden bench complete the scene, which is full of repose and good for heart and eyes. The flowers [of hyssop], like those of the catmint, go on blooming all the summer through, which makes the plants an ornament from June to October.

Bergamot provides flowers of crimson and makes a lovely patch of color in any garden. An old-fashioned name for the plant, bee balm, is enough to prejudice anyone in its favor.

Sweet woodruff, with its dainty little white flowers and clustering foliage of bright green, is a plant more often seen in cottage gardens than the ­gardens of the rich. People never seem to know where to put it. In the flower garden, it is a little weedy; in the rock garden, it is almost too quick a spreader; but let the pretty creature have its way somewhere, and no one will begrudge the room it takes.

In Praise of Fragrance

Considering how large a part the visible plays in our enjoyment of gardens, it is not a little surprising to notice how much of their charm also depends upon the invisible. Grace of movement, as the wind sways and the sun flickers, and glory of color, as the flowers come into bloom, are so associated in our minds with the delight of gardens that we forget to recognize the part that is played in them by that which we see not. But is there not something almost more wonderful and subtle about the unseen gift of fragrance than about the more striking gift of color? Scent is less explainable, less definable, and its wonders have been less explored.

There are few better places for the study of scents than the herb garden. Here, fragrance depends more on the leaves of plants than on the flowers. One secret is soon discovered. It is the value of leaf scents. Flower scents are evanescent; leaf odors are permanent. On the other hand, leaf odors, though “ready when sought”, do not force themselves upon us, as it were, like flower scents, which we must smell whether we will or no. Leaf scents have to be coaxed out by touching, bruising, or pressing; but there they are. After all, that is the great point, and long after the summer flower scents have departed, we can enjoy the perfumes of the sweet-leaved herbs.

Among the bushy herbs that are invaluable for the permanence of their leaf odors are rosemary, lavender, southernwood, and balm.

Rosemary, so long beloved by English people that some say it was here before the Norman Conquest, was valued for such a number of different reasons that in early times every wise matron and good manager took care to have it in her garden. There may have been some sense in the old saying, “Where rosemary flourishes the woman rules.” Rosemary is a plant that wants a little looking after. It came originally from the southern seaboard, and will not grow just anywhere. It likes a well-drained, somewhat sandy soil, and is never happier than when trained close to a wall or allowed to throw its long wands over sunny stone where in winter’s dearth of outdoor green the lovely color of its foliage, green lined with silver, is truly welcome.

And do we not all know lavender by heart, and love its spikes of azure bloom? It is one of the herbs we must grow generously. It is so pleasant to be able to gather as many of its sprays as we like, to keep and dry for our own use or to give away. There are several kinds of lavender. We may have the broad-leaved or the narrow-leaved; the latter is considered the hardier. All the different sorts should be grown: the Munstead Early, the Dwarf, and the charming White-flowered, which is as sweet as any and far more uncommon. Lavender water is perhaps the cleanest smelling of all refreshing scents, and it is pleasant to know that better lavender for the market cannot be had anywhere than that produced in our own breezy English lavender fields.

Many a young child has learned the alphabet of smelling in our herb garden, and there is no plant they enjoy the smell of so much as the strongly scented southernwood. This is not surprising when we remember that the human race in its infancy enjoyed perfumes of a much heavier kind than would be tolerated in these days.

Balm, with its delicious lemon scent, is by common consent one of the most sweetly smelling of all the herbs in the garden. We like bushes of it everywhere so that it is always at hand; and handled it must be before it shows how sweet it is.

Modern research has proved that ozone is developed when the sun shines on most kinds of fragrant plants, such as scented flowers, fir and pine trees, and sweet herbs generally. This makes the hours we spend in sunny, fragrant gardens more delightful than ever.

In Closing

Nothing would be easier than to add long lists of plants which might go into the herb garden, but what we put into it is really a matter for individual choice. Some like to fill their garden with curiosities; some are mostly concerned in making it as beautiful as possible; others think that a herb garden should be kept entirely for such things as strike the eye at once as herbs. No two people would furnish their herb garden alike. Let each one please himself. One of the best things about gardening is its infinite variety.

It seems to be agreed that the growing of herbs has been neglected for many a long year. Is there going to be a revival now? Signs of this are not wanting.


Excerpted and adapted from The Herb Garden by Frances A. Bardswell. With permission of the publishers, A&C Black and Macmillan and Company.