An Herb for Every Spot

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Let’s face it–few people are blessed with perfect terrain for building a garden. Maybe some landowners are willing to spend enormous amounts of money and time to create a rocky incline for the creeping thymes (Thymus spp.) or a boggy niche to cultivate orris root (Iris germanica var. florentina) as a specimen plant, but not many of us.

A far better solution is to work with what you have, or as we say in Texas, “dance with the one who brung you.” Accept the spot you were dealt, with all its warts and foibles, and remember that the time and energy you invest will have an impact on the garden that emerges. Think of the problem areas as interesting challenges to overcome with study, preparation of the site, and realistic plant selection. That may sound simplistic, but surely some plant, tree, or shrub from that great maw of herbs will be happy as a clam there. Most plants will survive in less than optimal conditions, although they may not thrive. Take a chance, and see if it works.

Confront tough spaces

Let’s look at some typical landscape demons.

Shade. We get many questions on how to manage shady areas. First, provide as much light as possible by removing non-essential trees and underbrush. Take out lower limbs on large trees or trim the ends of the bottom branches. Curved, irregular beds rather than the usual geometric shapes are more naturalistic in shady areas; think of walking through a forest, in and out of large trees.

Full sun generates strong essential oils in culinary herbs but most will survive in high shade or dappled sunlight. Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium), costmary (Tanacetum balsamita), lemon thyme (Thymus ¥citriodorus), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor) and tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa) will do nicely here. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is happy in shade, especially in areas with long hot summers. Monarda species (bee balm and horsemint), as well as mints (Mentha spp.), will also grow well in high-shade areas.

Columbines (Aquilegia spp.), dead nettle (Lamium spp.), foxglove (Digitalis spp.), lady’s-mantle (Alchemilla mollis), and Primula spp. will provide color and texture. Violets and first cousins pansies and Johnny jump-ups are charming and make colorful borders in shady nooks and corners. If you have a small stream on your property, be sure to tuck in Florentine iris (Iris ¥germanica var. florentina) and sweet flag (Acorus calamus).

Several varieties of creeping golden oregano and pennyroyal work well as ground covers in shady glens, plant 6 to 8 inches apart in random patterns. Variegated pineapple mint will shine under trees, as will sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) with its tiny star-shaped white flowers.

Steep inclines. The rule is “divide and conquer,” so divvy up the space into smaller, more manageable bites. Create a curving pathway using small stepping stones or rocks. Form narrow landing places into terrace beds that can be used for special themes such as kitchen herbs, Shakespeare’s favorites, or silver plants. Be sure to include creepers such as small-leaved oregano, winter savory (Satureja montana), and thyme to spill down the hillside and soften the edges. Plant these tiny herbs around and under stones; they can protect other plants from harsh summer heat by keeping the roots cool and moist.

Fragrant, old-fashioned pinks (Dianthus spp.) will brighten the small beds. A creeping rosemary such as ‘Blue Boy’ will anchor the soil on a landing as it tumbles down the hill. Taller plants lift the eye but should not obstruct the view, so situate them in the rear of the garden. Here’s a place for clumps of chives (Allium schoenoprasum) to break up the creepers. Be watchful if your incline garden is in full sun, as the small beds will dry out quickly. This is where mulch can save on watering as well as weeding chores.

Small or odd-shaped spaces. Let’s think a bit on those garden spaces that seem too small or are just weird-shaped. Maybe you have a sunny two-foot-wide strip beside the garage before a walkway begins, or some empty space around the trash cans. Mound good potting soil on top of the hard-packed ground and fill with lamb’s-ears (Stachys byzantina). Or plant myrtle (Myrtus communis) and keep the bottom branches pruned above low-growing Thymus serpyllum.

The usually neglected narrow space between a walkway and garage or house wall can be bordered with curly parsley, tying together upright rosemaries spaced at 4-foot intervals. ‘Arp’, ‘Hill Hardy’, ‘Salem’, and ‘Tuscan Blue’ are favorites. If sunny, this would be a great place to alternate essential annual herbs, such as basil (Ocimum basilicum) in hot weather with cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) and dill (Anethum graveolens) in the cooler months.

A sunny but odd pie-shaped plot can hold the seasonings of an ethnic cuisine you have wanted to investigate. Ask your Asian, Chinese, or Indian neighbor what is in that stir-fry or soup that smells so good. Undoubtedly it’s cilantro, hot chiles, basil and a sweet mint. The Vietnamese soup called Pho requires gingerroot (Zingiber officinale) as well; fennel and mustard seeds are standbys for perfect curries.

Large open spaces. Large open spaces without trees or changes in elevation can be as much of a challenge as tiny spaces. Again, the trick is to divide into smaller plots and create separate garden spaces or “rooms.” Use taller herbs or shrubs as a background. Short pieces of interesting old fencing can form backdrops, or build a wooden rail or picket fence. The way you group your plants together can add structure to the garden.

Small areas allow the gardener to group herbs together by usage, color of flowers, or place of origin. If you want, give your plots amusing names to create interest for visitors.

An out-of-the-way spot. Because over-watering can be a problem for new growers in areas of the country with long, hot, and humid summers, save an out-of-the way spot–one that’s not convenient to a water hose–for gray-foliaged herbs that can survive with benign neglect. These herbs include gray plants such as sage (Salvia officinalis), santolina, gray lavenders, lamb’s-ears, some of the gray-leaved nepetas, dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus), many of the thymes, and silver/gray artemisias, particularly silver mound (A. schmidtiana ‘Nana’) and fringed wormwood (A. frigida). Even Silver King is bothered by hot humid weather and turns black at the base. These herbs all require good drainage and are difficult to grow in the South. So to begin with, plant them away from plants that require a great deal of water, such as basil, as they can survive with lots less.

Lack of space. If a lack of space is your challenge, many herbs will do nicely in containers, which solves drainage problems. Interesting groupings can be designed, stacking pots on top of upturned containers to create height. You can even make your own weathered troughs and pots with the hypertufa method.

Add herbs wherever you can

Herbs are easy to insert into the vegetable garden or alongside the foundation plantings that come with new homes, or anywhere they fit in. Frame a flower border with a favorite oregano for the kitchen, perhaps Origanum ¥majoricum pruned into small balls. Chives and garlic chives can define a border around flowering shrubs and perennials, the tasty flowers a bonus. A border of neatly trimmed southernwood can help protect tomato plants from damaging pests. Herbs can be good companions for every other plant, tree, or shrub in the garden.

Think creatively about how to handle offbeat areas, explore your plant choices, and if a plant now and then doesn’t make it or doesn’t thrive in that spot, move it and replant with another kind of herb. When you move plants around, you get to enjoy their fragrance and beauty up close.

— Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay are a mother/daughter team living, gardening, and cooking at the Festival Institute in Round Top, Texas.


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