Round Robin: Herb Gardening in Rows

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Get tips on herb garden design from Jo Ann Gardner.

WESTPORT, New York–When we started our adventure together nearly 50 years ago, my husband Jigs was the head gardener and I was the helper. I dutifully sowed, covered seeds with a light kick of soil as Jigs taught me, weeded and hoed. I had little interest in the garden except as a source of food for our growing family.

Even though I was not yet a true daughter of the soil, I was not exactly an ornament. I was very absorbed in giving birth (four times), caring for babies, learning to make their clothes from my old ones, learning to bake bread, learning to stretch the limits of a meager income and so on.

In mid to late May, horehound, borage, catnip, marjoram, basil, parsley, chamomile, thyme, summer savory, winter savory, lovage, salad burnet, dill, cress, sage and sunflowers were planted in the garden in straight rows.

Our records from those days are scanty compared to others we’ve kept for more than 30 years, but we do know that in 1969 we made 121/2 quarts of savory juice, so we had a use for the parsleys.

Although the growing season in Vermont is short, our harvests were huge. I recall evenings spent stripping the dried herb bunches that hung from wooden beams in our kitchen.

As a teacher of literature, Jigs had a fondness for literary herbs, which explains the rows of horehound and borage, the patches of calendula and pennyroyal by the back door, and the stand of elecampane and hyssop by the front door.

As I became a liberated daughter of the soil, I became more aware of garden crops and all growing things. And when Jigs no longer had time for his literary herbs, I took them over, as well as the assorted kitchen herbs. While he continued to sow parsley and dill in rows, I gradually abandoned the row crop motif. I found it more fun to grow herbs wherever they looked best. I discovered containers and the art of grouping them into an instant garden.

I soon became more absorbed in design and considered row crops plebian. A straight strip of vegetation seemed boring compared to the exciting possibilities of integrating herbs into a container or flower garden. But here in the Adirondacks, where soil and climate are more encouraging, it makes more sense to sow the most useful herbs — basil, marjoram and sage — in rows where they are easy to cultivate, harvest and grow better than in a pot.

With a much wider experience, I now have an appreciation for the practical and aesthetic dimensions. Well-grown herbs in straight lines are beautiful in their own way. In our vegetable garden horehound, thyme, chives, lavender and borage grow in a surrounding low-rock border. This is the best of all possible worlds for me: row crops in a decorative setting. Last season, ‘Silver King’ artemisia in the circular rock border and dark-red beet tops in a straight row just beyond provided a striking color contrast that stole the show by fall. I wonder what it will be this year.

Jo Ann Gardner is an herb gardener, whose perseverance has produced an oasis in the wilderness, and author of The Heirloom Garden, on growing old-fashioned ornamentals.

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