A tiny, carefree culinary herb bed can satisfy a family.
Compactness is sometimes the only option for the urban herb gardener, but it is also frequently the choice of busy people balancing time and priorities, no matter what the size of their yard. Just because you like fresh herbs in the kitchen doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily willing to give up fly-fishing or quiltmaking to have them. One little bed of culinary herbs may be all you want and all you need.
But you may be astonished at how much pleasure and good flavor you can derive from an herb garden that’s not much bigger than a baby blanket. It doesn’t take a lot of space to ensure a steady supply of snippings and clippings for salads, garnishes, and flavorings as well as small harvests to preserve for winter use.
Mike and Kate Eagleton, two commercial artists who live in an urban neighborhood in Denver, Colorado, mix a lot of herbs into their perennial borders, but they’ve concentrated some favorites in one small raised bed. Close and convenient to the kitchen door, this carefree culinary herb garden is an excellent example of what anyone can do with a very limited space.
Their lot is a standard size on the block, measuring 50 by 128 feet, but the fenced, lushly planted yard wraps around the house to create an oasis of privacy and peace. Mike and Kate both love to garden, and they started adding trees, shrubs, and flowers to the yard when they first bought their home in 1987. The culinary herb bed was one of their first projects.
Within a few feet of the back door was a sturdy planter made of wooden timbers and measuring about 81/2 feet long by 21/2 feet wide and 2 feet deep. It was home to some low-growing evergreen shrubs,
but the Eagletons dug these out and replaced them with herbs. The resulting garden is a small fraction of the total green space in their backyard, but it is probably the most used and appreciated part. It provides the view from their kitchen table, and it’s the first stop on the tour they give friends who come to visit.
“We’ve turned a lot of people on to herbs. Kids, especially, love to touch and feel and smell,” Mike says. “The herb garden is interactive.”
Most of the lot is shaded by a canopy of deciduous trees, but Mike keeps their lower branches trimmed off to let in as much light as possible. The importance of the culinary garden to the Eagletons is reflected by its position in one of the few spots that receives full sun most of the day.
Its dainty dimensions notwithstanding, the bed is home to about two dozen hardy herbs, including most of the kitchen classics. Several kinds of thyme mingle with parsley, a few different lavenders, oregano, sage, basil, chives, and garlic chives. Heliotrope and a few scented geraniums add variety and fragrance. Feathery bronze fennel stalks reach up, and prostrate rosemary spills from the sides. The bed is full to overflowing, and accents of color and texture appear through the summer as the herbs bloom.
A planter like the Eagletons’ combines advantages of both container gardening and planting in the ground: it gives the plants good soil and enough room to spread out and grow robustly, yet it brings the herbs up to a level where they’re easy to cultivate and pick and very fragrant for anyone sitting on the nearby deck. Low-growing herbs like the thymes are within easy reach. Further, the planter provides excellent drainage compared to the hard clay soil typical of the rest of the yard.
The soil already in the planter when the Eagletons bought the property had the texture of potting soil and was a big improvement over the native soil. Since that first gardening season, the back-door garden has cost them very little time or trouble to maintain. Most of the plants are hardy perennials, and in the spring, they add tender herbs such as basils and rosemary, which they buy as plants from a local nursery.
Mike and Kate have chosen culinary herbs that stay a manageable size and scale. They feed the bed occasionally during the growing season with a liquid all-purpose fertilizer. The cuttings for the kitchen are all the pruning most of the herbs need, with the exception of the vigorous oregano, which they cut back hard at least twice each season. They also patrol the perimeter for runners. The annuals and tender plants are pulled out after the first frost.
Each year, Mike considers getting rid of the oregano and giving the other herbs more room, but so far he hasn’t done it. One year, he tried tarragon, but it grew so big so fast that it was quickly banished from the culinary garden. Pineapple sage was likewise relocated. He would never even consider introducing a mint, with its well-known proclivity for invasiveness. Bronze fennel, which reaches mammoth proportions in other gardens, doesn’t grow to full size in the planter, but the Eagletons get enough to use and enjoy; they pass over other umbelliferous herbs, such as dill, as unsuited to a bed this size.
Mike and Kate maintain a relaxed attitude about the garden. Slugs are the only pests, and the Eagletons would rather give up a basil plant or two than fight them.
“If a plant dies, it dies,” Mike says; they just replace it or try something new. Colorado’s cold, sunny winters, with their frequent freeze-thaw cycles, are tough on dormant plants. The Eagletons water during winter dry spells, and sometimes they mound snow over the thymes and golden sage to insulate them from wind, hail, and temperature extremes.
The pretty little garden provides not only as many fresh herbs as the family needs, but also plenty of leftovers for Kate to dry and add to the herbal wreaths that she often makes for their home and as gifts for friends.
A culinary garden, whether it’s in a roomy planter or the ground, can be made in any shape that fits the available space. The Eagletons’ is long and narrow, but to show you another of the possibilities, we have designed a round one with roughly the same area and the same herbs (see page 59). A small round or oval garden can float prettily in a stretch of sunny backyard lawn. A semicircle of herbs can curve around behind a bench. A square kitchen garden can sit alongside a back patio, and a triangular one may fit an odd corner. A couple of whiskey barrels cut in half can be grouped together to provide garden space right outside the kitchen door. The idea of this kind of garden is simplicity and convenience, so take a clue from the Eagletons: use what you have and don’t worry about what you don’t have.
Give your culinary bed its best chance to succeed by starting with good soil that drains adequately. Even if the existing soil seems fairly good (and especially if it’s not), work a couple of inches of compost, peat moss, or other organic matter into the top foot or so of soil.
Any work you put in when establishing the garden—preparing the bed, planting, nurturing the herbs until they settle in, perhaps adding a mulch to keep the surface from drying out too readily—will be repaid manyfold the following spring when the perennials come back bigger and stronger. Once established, it will make few claims on your time beyond watering during dry spells.
A true test of restraint may come if you enjoy the herb garden so much that you want to expand it beyond what’s reasonable for your life and your yard, not to mention your fly-fishing hobby. Or maybe you won’t face that test. The Eagletons, juggling two careers and a new baby, don’t want a bigger garden. “Any more and we’d be overcommitted,” he says.
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