Plants, like people, stay healthier when they are in a serene environment with pleasant company. A diversity of plant life—herbs sharing beds with flowers and vegetables—creates the healthiest and prettiest of gardens.
Plants growing together help each other in many practical ways: Herbs and flowers draw beneficial insects, such as bees, wasps and ladybugs, to pollinate and help keep down the pest population; others can lure pests away from more desirable plants to areas where they’ll do less damage. Floppy plants can lean on their neighbors for support; tall ones can protect the shade-lovers growing at their feet. But the greatest asset of crowded beds, with many different kinds of plants sharing the space amicably, is the visual impact—the clash and splash of unexpected color combinations, varying leaf shapes, sizes and textures, the serendipity of it all.
When designing and planting your garden, you’ll never know what works until you try it, so be bold. Keep in mind that contrast is the easiest way to make a bed exciting. Start with fun color combinations, not just in flowers but also in foliage. Don’t forget the gray-leaved plants, such as the artemisias and lamb’s-ears, and the dramatic purple-bronze leaves of such plants as bronze fennel, purple basil and perilla, as they provide contrast and set off the greens of the garden beautifully. Add in plants with variegated leaves. Use white flowers, such as feverfew, to brighten the softness of pastels. Then layer texture into the bed, juxtaposing fine, feathery foliage with big, rough, fuzzy leaves and surrounding big, sturdy, single flowers with masses of small, soft ones to create charming vignettes.
Close to the front door of my home I have an established bed that is beautiful all year long. There are five different types of rosemary, both prostrate and upright varieties, which I keep pruned low to allow the roses sharing this bed to grow through. The rose ‘Hacienda’ blooms from May to November, its scent harmonizing with the rosemary for a fragrance that delights everyone who passes by.
This bed is shared with irises, columbines, violets and ajugas, while lamb’s-ears hug the ground around low-growing miniature roses. The eye-catchers in this odd assortment are the two clumps of large-leafed sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’), the blue-green-grayish leaves contrasting beautifully with the other foliage.
All experienced gardeners know that garlic repels pests, such as aphids in the rose garden, and the same can be said of their Allium cousins, chives and garlic chives. In autumn I plant garlic around all my roses, four cloves per plant, simply stuck into the ground around each rose about 6 inches from the base. I’m able to harvest the garlic in early summer, and I hang garlic braids in the kitchen within easy reach. You also can plant garlic in the spring for a fall harvest. I grow dozens of hardy roses in my Zone 5 Milwaukee garden and in my garden in Rome, Italy.
One year I couldn’t find a place to plant a dozen little red pepper plants in my garden, so I put them in terracotta pots along my front steps that were already planted with cascading geraniums. The combination became a conversation piece. One by one, the decorative tiny green peppers turned to black and then ripened to red, and I gave most of them away to visitors.
Well-known garden companions are tomato and basil. They are a classic flavor combination in the kitchen, so having them together in the garden is convenient for harvesting, and both plants seem to excel when planted together. Adding flowers to this partnership only increases the beauty of the whole. I like to grow basil in my asparagus bed, to attract bees, and I find that a grouping of basil, asparagus and tomatoes is a happy threesome. Cherry tomato plants look splendid when paired with white zinnias, and both plants enjoy the hot days of summer.
Arugula is an herb sometimes overlooked by gardeners. You can grow it as a groundcover (harvest the leaves as you need them) and it produces delicate flowers. Its tangy leaves are tasty in salads, on a sandwich and or as a substitute for basil when making pesto.
A fantastic plant to use with herbs and flowers is rhubarb. Not only is it dramatic, but it supplies us with several pies and old-fashioned sauces each season. Rhubarb loves a cold climate and will come up each year to display its beautiful pinkish-red ribs and elegant crinkly leaves.
The rhubarb in my Milwaukee garden shares a bed with purple coneflower, phlox, milkweed and three types of roses, ‘Grootendorst’, ‘Thérèse Bugnet’ and ‘Eglantine’. Goldenrod, Virginia bluebells, harebells, lungwort and creeping sedum also contribute to the garden in different seasons. Asian lilies, including the fragrant white ‘Casablanca’, are planted here and there. The bed is covered in a thick blanket of violets. It is a wild, exciting bed.
The possibilities for mixed beds are limited only by your growing conditions. Often an unheard-of combination will open your eyes to further experimentation. Be daring. The results might surprise you. If by some chance you don’t like the combination, you can always pull it out and do something different.
Here are a few more suggestions for adding interest to your gardens by mixing herbs and other plants for maximum benefit, flavor and pizazz.
• Plant sweet peas, lupines and other members of the legume family to add nitrogen to your beds.
• Tuck any kind of pepper plant (sweet or hot) around citrus trees.
• Oregano and marjoram are welcome additions to almost any bed. They add cheer with their little leaves, bushy growth and attractive flowers.
• Promiscuous columbine will reseed itself and provide you with colorful surprises.
• Chrysanthemums blend well with other flowers and can repel insects.
• Try multilevel gardening: Bed petunias with beans, or cucumbers with sunflowers. This is an efficient use of limited gardening space because plants protect and shade one another.
• Let edible snow peas share a trellis with climbing roses.
• Tuck in chives, onions, garlic, leeks and shallots anywhere there is space. They are all beneficial to shared beds and have many culinary uses.
• Lettuce can be used as a bedding plant, adding texture and interesting shades of green and purple.
• Fancy cabbages make fine companions for begonias and also look beautiful with the silvery artemisias.
• Artichokes are elegant in the landscape, with tall flowers and large leaves that add color, texture and character to beds.
Helene Pizzi is a freelance writer, photographer and lecturer who divides her time between her homes in Rome, Italy and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.