Mother Earth Living

Design a Brightly-Colored Herb Garden

Learn how to choose herbs that will make your garden strikingly colorful.
By Elisabeth Sheldon
April/May 1997
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The neutral background of cedar fencing in the author’s “hot garden” lets good gaudy plants such as ‘Gardenview Scarlet’ bee balm, daylilies, dahlias, and lilies fight it out among themselves.
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We don't usually think of herb gardens as vibrating with flaming color. Quite the contrary. Silvery gray santolinas, lavenders, and sages, the varied greens of alliums, mints, and thymes, the small yellow, purple, or white blossoms of feverfew, summer savory, and hyssop—are all very quiet stuff whose appeal lies in their fragrance, texture, and muted tones. The softness of an herb garden calms us with its soothing, cooling appearance.

Lately, I’ve been working with hot colors, devising gardens with incendiary orange, scarlet, vermilion, strong red, and yellow—colors that have the opposite effect, stimulating, arousing, almost intoxicating the viewer. That’s easy enough to achieve with flower gardens, but I wondered whether I could create such a garden using only herbs. I found, to my great satisfaction, that I could, and I’ve rounded up an assortment of medicinal, culinary, and dye plants that I think would make a splendid hot-colored herb garden.

Handle with care

There are several traditional ways of handling hot colors in a flower border. Strong yellow, orange, and scarlet tend to clash with or overpower the gentle pinks, lavenders, blues, whites and pale yellows preferred by many gardeners, and so ways to minimize or absorb their impact are needed. A common solution is to surround a bit of hot color with a mass of cool or neutral color. For ­example, you can wrap a clump of fiery Maltese cross in a white froth of baby’s-breath or phlox, or the gray foliage of ‘Lambrook Silver’ artemisia, or cool ­violet-flowered veronicas. Gertrude Jekyll, the great English horticultural authority of the turn of the century, worked out a system of placing cool colors at each end of a long border, then orchestrating the colors so that they would grow slowly but steadily stronger and hotter, eventually making a fine bonfire in the center of the border. In a border 20 feet wide and 300 feet long, it must have been a magnificent sight.

I, having failed for years to integrate hot colors into my long mixed border successfully, ended up making a separate garden for hot-colored flowers—one where the brighter a blossom is, the better, where gaudy is not garish but glorious, a garden where all the colors are from the same side of the color wheel and so work harmoniously together: strong yellow next to orange, then vermilion, scarlet, and cadmium red. Plants that only caused trouble in the border are now valued contributors as they raise strong, clear voices in the loud hallelujah chorus that is sung by this small garden.

With such a garden, the idea is to heighten the impact of the vivid colors, not to lessen it. For this reason, and also to prevent its colors from interfering with those of the border, I’ve enclosed the area, which measures about 22 by 30 feet, with a tall cedar fence that provides a neutral background. I must open the gate deliberately and enter the garden, where I sit in the midst of the flaming colors until I’ve had all the stimulus I can stand.

My hot garden includes all manner of flowers, but I’ve also designed an herbal counterpart. Although a garden dedicated solely to herbs will not be quite as brilliant as one with a broader focus, it will still be bright enough to require a separate location, away from the pastels and neutrals, perhaps on the other side of the house or beyond the hedge. A place where its boundaries can be defined and where it will have the background of a wall, fence, hedge, or building would be ideal, but it should also be readily visible for when your spirits need a boost. It needn’t be a large area to serve its purpose.

Plan it out

Let us say you have found such a spot in full sun, where the soil is adequate and well drained. You’ll have to dig down a foot or more and remove all the weeds, roots, and large rocks. If the area hasnt been cultivated before, I suggest that you do this work in the fall, then spend some time over the winter drawing up a plan for your garden on grid paper.

As you think about where to put the plants you want to grow, keep in mind that to create a garden that is satisfying to the eye, you need to repeat the colors, shapes, and textures throughout the garden rather than simply plunking in one of this and one of that. These repetitions may be provided either by the same plant or by plants that are similar in a way that will serve the same purpose: the orange of a daylily flower can be repeated by that of a calendula; the flat-topped yellow flower heads of tansy, by those of fern-leaf yarrow; the purple of a dark bee balm, by slender purple spikes of vervain. The viewer’s eye travels through and around the garden, drawn by the repetition of colors, and comes to rest on the dark areas of purple flowers and wine-colored foliage, which enrich the color combinations and create a sense of calm.

Rear view

To plan this garden, start with plants for the back. A red castor bean plant (Ricinis communis ‘Carmencita’) would be stunning—perhaps two, one on each end, if you have room (and if you don’t have young children who might nibble on its pleasant-tasting but very poisonous seeds). Castor bean is an annual that will grow nearly 6 feet tall, but it deserves all the space it takes up with its elegant, corrugated brown-red leaves, red flowers, and spiky, round crimson seedpods. Tall sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), elecampane (Inula helenium), and purple monkshood (two lovely cultivars with deep violet flowers are Aconitum ‘Bressingham Spire’ and Newry Blue’) could fill in the remaining back-of-the-border space. If your soil and climate will permit, several Scotch brooms (Cytisus scoparius) could replace the elecampane and sunflowers. Brooms require light soil on the acid side and perfect drainage. They grow to more than 6 feet tall and bloom in May, earlier than the other plants. You might like their rich yellow flowers as a herald of joys to come.

In my search for colorful herbs, I was delighted to find that Native Americans and early settlers used sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), one of the best tall perennials, as a medicinal plant, which allows us, I think without cheating, to include great clumps of yellow and red ones in the back of our garden, where they’ll make a splendid show. There are lots of good yellow cultivars; as for reds, look for ‘Moerheim Beauty’ and ‘Baudirektor Linne’, especially the latter with its rich, deep red ray flowers and dark disks.

Middle ground

Massed in front of these imposing individuals, you could have red bee balms such as Monarda didyma or the cultivars M. ‘Cambridge Scarlet’ and ‘Gardenview Scarlet’, as well as the rich violet M. ‘Prairie Night’. Clumps of tiger lilies (Lilium lancifolium), with their orange recurved petals decorated with dark mahogany spots, would look marvelous among the bee balms.

The common daylily (Hemerocallis fulva), a Eurasian medicinal plant that has become naturalized in America, has a good orange flower. There are literally thousands of hybrids and cultivars; I especially like a double one that has red streaks in its throat. You could plant it with the thistly-looking annual safflower (Carthamus tinctorius), a handsome plant that produces orange-­yellow explosions in late summer. The flowers of this herb add considerable drama to dried arrangements. The shorter purple bee balm ‘Thunder Cloud’ would complement these orange midborder plants. It’s a lovely thing. I saw it in a garden last summer, growing next to my favorite purple coneflower, Echinacea tennesseensis (whose flowers would unfortunately be too pale for this garden).

Vervain (Verbena hastata) is another purple-flowered candidate for the midborder, although its contribution won’t be very powerful. Vervain used to wave above the roadside weeds near our house until it died at the hands of highway maintenance spray crews.

Another wildling is butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), known to herbalists as pleurisy root. Its clusters of tiny but vivid orange flowers would be much enhanced by the colors of the vervain and bee balm flowers. Put the butterfly weed where it is to stay, for it will send down a deep taproot and will not tolerate being moved.

Rudbeckia hirta, one of the native black-eyed Susans, is a cheerful, reliable, and long-blooming plant that ­provides thousands of orange-yellow flowers for many weeks without ever looking exhausted. The large-flowered ‘Marmalade’ and the indefatigable R. fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’ would look especially nice in this garden.

Zinnias are sometimes used as dye plants, and the rich colors of their flowers fit well into this garden. Tall, medium, and short ones in scarlet, orange, and gold, shaggy to button-shaped will blaze away all summer and fall. Calendulas, or pot marigolds, are also a godsend. Choose the species, Calendula ­officinalis, or any strain that is deep ­orange; avoid seed mixes that contain pale yellow and buff shades. The paler blooms are lovely but are not the colors we’re looking for here.

Dyer’s coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria), native to the American prairie, is a medicinal herb as well as a dye plant. It’s an annual that stands 3 to 4 feet tall and produces abundant yellow, dark red, or bicolored flowers with dark red centers. It would work well with the calendulas and marigolds and would probably self-sow like the calendulas. Until you see how it behaves in your climate, you could gather some of the seed to replant in case it doesn’t self-sow. Try the dark crimson ‘Atropurpurea’ and the double yellow ‘Florepleno’.

The 21/2- to 3-foot annual opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) has smooth gray leaves and bears 3- to 4-inch cups of various colors, including red. You can sprinkle the seeds over the ground in the fall for flowers in early summer and in the spring for blooms in late summer. They are enthusiastic self-sowers, but it’s easy enough to pull up the ones you don’t want.

Front line

In the foreground of this imaginary garden are marigolds (Tagetes patula), whose bright flowers are used for cul­inary purposes only in parts of Africa and India, where they also have a part in religious ceremonies. In this country, we use these plants mainly to brighten our gardens or sometimes to discourage insects and soil nematodes. They are pungent enough to repel any insect with a sensitive nose. I’d use only the single and semidouble Disco or ­Favorite Hybrids, ‘Paprika’, or ‘Scarlet Sophia’ for this garden; I think that the big round puffy types look too man-made for an herb garden.

Among these brilliant orange and yellow blossoms, variously striped or flecked with red, you might want to plant purple perilla (Perilla frutescens), whose ribbed, dark smoky mahogany leaves make a wonderful foil for either hot or cool ­colors. The wine red leaves of ‘Purple Ruffles’ basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Purple Ruffles’), by contrast, have a glossier surface that glistens in the sun. The colors of the perillas and basils in the ­foreground will echo that of the castor bean plants in the rear.

Perilla has two drawbacks. First, when it begins to form seed, its beautiful cordovan leaves begin to turn splotchy and an unattractive green. You can slow the process by snipping off the flower and seed heads, but perilla, bent on procreation, won’t be thwarted for long, and you’ll soon have to pull it up and toss it on the compost pile. Second, you’ll have hundreds of volunteer pe­ril­las each spring, which saves having to replant but can be annoying when they come up in the middle of perennials.

Of the hardy lavenders (Lavandula angustifolia), only ‘Hidcote’ has blossoms of a deep enough purple to work as a cooler in this garden of hot colors. If you can bear to shear it immediately after its first flowering, it will bloom again in late summer in time to echo the color of the monkshood.

If your climate is not so hot that it will fry their foliage, you can use nasturtiums. I plant them in pots, which I place in full sun in the spring and fall but move to spots where they’ll be shaded by taller plants during the hottest part of the summer. You may not have to resort to such devices. ‘Empress of India’, with its wonderful velvety red flowers, outshines all the others.

In parts of your garden that are ­lightly shaded, you can sow seeds of the native red-and-yellow columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), which, once off to a good start, will see to its own reproduction. Burgundy wake-robin (Trillium erectum) would be a nice neighbor for the columbine, as would cardinal flower and Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica), although they’ll bloom at different times. Cardinal flower will also self-sow if it’s happy enough. If I were you, I’d try hard to make it happy, for surely there is no more gorgeous red in nature than that of its spires of closely packed tubular blossoms. Indian pink, one of the most elegant plants I know, displays its funnel-shaped, yellow-throated red blossoms on top of slender stems. I was surprised to learn that Shaker herbalists used it as a vermifuge. I suppose I should be glad to know that something so beautiful can also be useful.

Most of these plants are easy to find in garden centers. Look for special cultivars in mail-order catalogs or ask your local nursery to find them for you.


 Elisabeth Sheldon is a garden writer and l­ecturer in Lansing, New York. She is the author of The Flamboyant Garden, just out this spring from Henry Holt and Company.


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