With smart planning and season-stretching techniques, you can enjoy fresh flavors and scents year-round
A garden ornament, such as a sundial, serves as a year-round focal point among flowering teucrium and santolina at the herb garden of the UC Botanical Garden in Berkeley.
A good design will make your herb garden an inspiring place to visit every season of the year. As you plan your own design, use these strategies to create an herb garden that will thrive in your yard while pleasing the senses year-round.
1. Include structure plants. The best way to keep an herb garden from disappearing in winter is to structure it with a couple of shrubs or narrow, upright trees. Most herbs are relatively small plants that need full sun—so they can be overwhelmed by shrubs that grow more than 6 feet tall. In our design, we’ve balanced a 4-foot apothecary rose with a dwarf berry-bearing (and bird-friendly) native viburnum. You can achieve a similar effect with dwarf boxwoods, compact conifers or a passion vine trained to a pillar.
2. Use vibrant verticals. Too many rounded mounds start to look fuzzy without the visual excitement provided by spiky plants. In our design, fragrant spring-flowering valerian and late summer-blooming blue anise hyssop provide vertical contrast. In the foreground, chives catch the eye in spring; later, in summer, interest shifts to the bloom spikes produced by three different basils. Angelica, hollyhocks and even dill could be used this way, too. If your herb garden is too small for a large plant, consider including a simple garden ornament.
3. Unify with neutrals. You won’t need to worry about colors or textures that don’t quite connect if you include plenty of plants with grayish foliage, which has a cooling effect on the entire garden. Silvery plants, such as lamb’s-ear and culinary sage, also illuminate their neighbors, maximizing color from soft pastel flowers. Germander or gray santolina are ideal plants for this job in small spaces, and Russian sage could join the band in a more spacious site. Many herb gardeners love to weave a silver lining of curry plant (Helichrysum italicum) through mixed containers.
4. Plan for easy access. Don’t let anything—including design rules—get in the way of you and the herbs you use most often. Just as this plan lets chives and basil push at the bed’s edge, you might opt to give front-row placement to a compact dill, marjoram or Greek oregano. Use well-placed stepping-stones and always reserve accessible spots for lavender and other fragrant herbs that beg to be pinched and sniffed.
5. Celebrate small details. Quality culinary herbs that also feature interesting colors and textures can give your herb garden an exciting edge, whether you’re slipping in mounds of variegated ‘Tricolor’ or ‘Ictarina’ sage or flanking a purple basil with two green-leafed plants. Curly parsley’s deep green color and texture never go unnoticed, and a big container can become a focal point when filled with a tapestry of rosy, golden and sprightly green mints. In winter, choose a neat mulch material that pleases your tastes (and those of your herbs), such as pine needles sprinkled over rich, black compost.
A Five-Season Guide for Maximum Flavor and Fragrance
Use this seasonal checklist to fill your garden and home with herbal delights year-round. (Please note that these seasonal tasks will vary according to your region—gardeners in the warmest climates can plant in fall, then move inside for summer.)
• Unless you have a sunroom or bright south- or west-facing window, provide potted indoor herbs with supplemental light, such as a grow light.
• Feed indoor herbs every two to three weeks with dilute fish emulsion or compost tea.
• Plan your garden for the upcoming season. Order seeds and plants that are not easily available from local sources.
• Wait until late winter to thin shrubs and to prune back stubble from last year’s garden. The withered stems of many herbs still smell great as you carry them to your compost pile or use for crafts.
• Stretch the season with a simple cold frame: a growing bed framed with 2x4s and covered with a sheet of heavy plastic or old window sash. Sow seeds of parsley, dill, cilantro, chervil and other hardy herbs inside the frame. Remove the cover on warm, sunny days.
• Mound up compost or mulch over the bases of herbs you want to propagate more of from stem cuttings. The first stems to emerge from the bases of lavender, rosemary and sage often root remarkably well.
• Indoors, start seeds of calendula and other cold-tolerant annual herbs.
• Start seeds of basil indoors.
• Plant starts of perennial herbs and annuals that prefer cool weather. Keep mints in pots to prevent aggressive growth.
• Root stem cuttings taken from established perennial herbs.
• Set up supports for bee balm and other floppy plants.
• Finish pruning and shaping lavender, sage and rosemary to remove winter damage.
• In early summer, after weather has warmed, plant basil and other tender annual herbs.
• Pull weeds as they appear.
• Water first-year plants and annuals as needed if there has been little or no rain.
• Gather and dry herbs for cooking, tea or craft projects.
• In late summer, sow quick fall crops of dill and cilantro, as well as Asian mizuna, English watercress, arugula and other gourmet greens.
• Dig and pot up chives, rosemary, marjoram, and small parsley or thyme plants for indoor harvest through winter. Keep the potted plants outdoors for 3 to 4 weeks before bringing them inside, along with potted mints.
• Plant garlic or shallots where they can remain until harvest next summer.
• Edge your herb garden for a neater look through winter. Add off-season art pieces for visual interest.
• Mulch the garden with pine needles, shredded bark or other natural material to protect plant roots through winter.
• Extend the harvest of outdoor sage, thyme, winter savory, rosemary and parsley with a row cover.
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