Q: I recently bought a small cottage in an older neighborhood, and because the back yard is shady, I plan to grow herbs along my front walkway, which is made of concrete. Many books suggest creeping thymes as walkway herbs, but I want more of a garden than an edging. What other ideas might work?
A: Because its primary purpose is walking, create a planting plan that does not make the walkway feel narrow and cramped. Flanking both sides of a walkway that’s narrower than 2 feet with robust plants can have exactly this effect. Also, edging the walkway with a single species won’t deliver much excitement, and if the plants fail, you will have an unsightly problem on your hands.
To maximize your gardening space without compromising your walkway, choose one side as your herb garden. Let the other side open into lawn, which creates a spacious feel and provides firm footing. Don’t worry that your yard will appear lopsided. You always can balance the visual weight of your herbs by planting a small tree or specimen shrub on the opposite side of the landscape. As long as both sides of a front yard landscape satisfy the eye’s craving for balance, they do not have to match like bookends.
The one-sided approach also provides expansion space (you always can make the bed deeper), and introduces a feeling of movement. Envision a finished herb bed that becomes broader as it nears the house, and gently flows into the shrubs that mask the house’s foundation. To try out various possibilities, lay a garden hose on the ground to serve as a marker for the bed’s rear edge, and use it to outline a simple fluid line.
You probably will have room for a dozen or more plants, but in front-yard gardens it’s a good idea to repeat at least one plant throughout the bed. Repetition creates a unified feel and makes it possible to weave in a variety of other herbs without ending up with a disorganized jumble.
Try repeating herbs with gray foliage, which are versatile, neutral partners for a huge range of plants. A sure winner is peppermint geranium, a sprawling mint-scented geranium that often grows 3 feet wide in a single season. It usually is killed by hard freezes, but you can pot it up and grow it indoors through winter. If you don’t want to go to this trouble, hardier lavender, sage or germander will serve well as frosty neutrals.
Contrast gray-leafed herbs with others with red, bronze or purple foliage, such as opal basil or variegated sage. Then add green-leafed herbs, which will turn your bed into a sea of varying textures. If the bed needs a focal point, slip in a tall container planted with a cascading herb, such as creeping rosemary or canary creeper nasturtiums.
Repitition Creates a Unified Feel and Makes it Possible to Weave in a Variety of Other Herbs.
As long as you set these and other herbs at least 12 inches away from the edge of your walkway, you still will have plenty of room to play with creeping thymes and other ground-hugging herbs. Using a single type of herb as an edging plant will make your bed appear quite tailored, but you can get a similar effect by repeating the same plant at regular intervals down the length of your walkway. For example, if you edge the garden side of the walkway with five mounds of wooly thyme, spaced three feet apart, you will have plenty of space between them for stepping stones, or for planting small, well-behaved herbs like curly parsley or globe basil. Reserve a space near your entryway for a tall herb that does not attract legions of bees, such as lemon verbena, which can be grown in a pot and moved indoors if you live in a harsh winter climate.
With so many fragrant herbs to touch and sniff, you may find yourself and your guests lingering a while before heading inside.
Barbara Pleasant is a contributing editor to The Herb Companion and author of several books about gardening, including The Whole Herb (Square One, 2004).