Mother Earth Living

Standing Tall

Gussy up your garden with herbal shrubs.
By Mary Fran McQuade
April/May 2003
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Place shrubs such as purple sage and rosemary around a focal point like a bench or garden ornament.
Rick Wetherbee

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Mention herbs and some people think of tidy, low-growing kitchen gardens or itty-bitty pot-and-seed kits sold in gift stores. But herb gardeners know herbs come in all shapes and sizes, even shrub- and tree-sized. Herbal shrubs that stand tall and proud broaden a gardener’s horizons within and beyond the traditional herb patch.

Growing a shrubby herb—one that develops a permanent woody stem and branches—adds height and mass to your herb garden. In colder climates, you gain winter interest from the plant’s architecture. An herbal shrub that is evergreen—as many are—is an added bonus during the barren wintertime. Herb-loving gardeners can indulge their passion locating herbal shrubs in areas other than just the kitchen garden.

Lavender, sage and wormwood, for example, all add dimension to a border of silver foliage plants. If you’re blessed with a mild climate and you want a low edging, why not put in fragrant rosemary?

Using herbs for their ornamental impact is an old trick of English gardeners. Every chic townhouse in central London seems to have a rosemary hedge or “lollipop” bay in its tiny front yard.

For city gardeners everywhere it makes good sense to get the most mileage out of limited space by making plants do double duty. For example, you can admire lavender’s cushiony shape and soft colors as they punctuate the shrub or perennial border. Then harvest the flowers and leaves for your favorite recipe, making a wreath, or perhaps for an herbal sachet. Just because you don’t have space for a separate herb garden doesn’t mean you have to do without.

For many gardeners, an interest in shrubs is a natural progression from growing herbaceous perennials and annuals. Shrubs bring structure and complexity to a garden, providing a mature and finished look that’s missing where everything dies off in winter. Shrubs have practical uses, too: as hedges and edging, screens, accent or specimen plants and hefty borders. Choose herbal shrubs for these situations and you have the added pleasure of scent and culinary or craft use.

The list of potential herbal shrubs is a long one. Sometimes it seems nearly every plant grown has had an herbal use of some sort. My own list stays close to classic herbs and herbal uses, but you might want to include more conventional ornamental shrubs like hydrangeas, beautyberry (Callicarpa spp.), Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.) and butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii).

Mary Fran McQuade is a writer and gardener who mixes herbs, shrub, and perennials in her city garden in Toronto, Canada.

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