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Design with Herbs

Question:
My herbs grow well enough, but they are not particularly pretty. How can I redesign my garden so it looks as good as it tastes and smells?

Answer:

Most herbs earn their places based on usefulness rather than looks, but this does not mean that an herb garden can’t be beautiful. Borrow a few ideas from flower garden design to create an herb garden that pleases all of your senses.

First, let’s consider a few practical points. Culinary herbs, in particular, need to be accessible because you shouldn’t have to tiptoe among other plants each time you want a few snips of basil or parsley. Edges are always the easiest places to reach, so the more edges you have, the better. This is one of the reasons why long, border-type gardens are so popular. Circular gardens are fun, too, with edges inside the circle as well as along its rim.

The precise shape doesn’t matter, but in the interest of neatness, all edges should be well defined. This can be done with plants, brick, stone, wood or low panels of hand-made wattle (slender green sticks woven between upright posts).

In a border viewed from one side, short or mound-forming plants should go in the front, with taller ones in the rear, so the plants are stacked into layers according to height. If the bed is more than 4 feet deep, include steppingstones inside the bed so you’ll be able to move around freely between your plants. In a round, square or rectangular garden, place the tallest plants in the center.

Most herbs are compact little plants, so it can be challenging to give an herb garden a strong vertical accent, which is important. If the garden is seen from one side, a few panels of picket fence along the back will do the trick, or you can structure the back with evergreen shrubs. In a non-linear garden, you can get vertical drama by installing a trellis planted with a climbing rose or a vigorous vine, such as passionflower, in the center. In very small gardens, a stone pedestal topped with a gazing ball, sundial or statue draws the eye upward. The goal is to get some kind of vertical action going, which creates more visual excitement than a knee-high sea of plants.

The next task is to create order, which is easily done by repeating one plant in a predictable, rhythmic pattern. Parsley is invaluable for this job, but any herb that grows remarkably well for you can be used to create unity in the garden. Simply repeat the plant at regular intervals so it becomes the garden’s “beat.” The important thing is to repeat the plant at predictable points within the design, such as at corners of a square or in the middle of matching sections of a circle.

Now think about color and contrast. Most herbs are either green or gray-green, and few herbs produce brightly colored flowers. Jazz things up by adding color plants like red basil, scarlet-stemmed chard or orange nasturtiums. Be bold because the sunny exposures herbs prefer are no place for extra pastels, which disappear in bright light. To sharpen the contrast, place plants with red leaves or bright flowers next to frosty gray foliage; for example, place red basil alongside helichrysum. Rich red petunias or geraniums do wonders for clumps of lavender.

ALWAYS TRY TO GET SOME KIND OF VERTICAL ACTION GOING, WHICH CREATES MORE VISUAL EXCITEMENT THAN A KNEE-HIGH SEA OF PLANTS.

You can put texture to work to great advantage, too. For example, plants with grassy foliage, such as chives, garlic and lemongrass, have a very different texture from leafy lemon balm, which in turn is quite unlike salad burnet in both texture and hue. To make the most of these texture changes without creating a mess, grow like plants together in clumps or drifts, so that one texture gets a fair turn saying “look at me” before the eye moves on to the next subject. Keeping like plants together also simplifies pruning, dividing and other maintenance chores.

We’re almost done, but we still need a few showy plants that will work as focal points — pretty curiosities such as variegated horseradish or tricolored sage. Look for plants that keep their good looks for a long season because these are your spotlight dancers. In a pinch, a warren of cute concrete bunnies will do.

Play with your design ideas on paper, which is easier than doing it in the dirt.

It’s also wise to keep your design as simple as possible because highly structured planting plans, for example knot gardens, limit the types of plants that can be used, and demand constant upkeep. Above all, remember that your design is a plan, and like all good plans, it should include a bit of flexibility. Herb gardens change constantly, so they are always a work in progress.

Barbara Pleasant is a contributing editor to The Herb Companion and author of several books about gardening, including The Whole Herb (available in our online Bookshelf at www.herb companion.com).