A West Coast Kitchen Garden

An ever-evolving herb collection.

| August/September 1993

Southern California is the land of the perpetual garden. The climate is so gentle that the biggest problem herb gardeners can find to complain about is rampant growth. Most of us in the hinterlands can only fantasize about coping with the problems of a garden that is green 12 months a year.

Carole Saville, a long-time herb gardener from the Garden State of New Jersey, felt as if she were learning to garden all over again when she moved to California five years ago. Even now, the landscape continues to surprise her. Carole lives on a third of an acre situated on a scenic drive overlooking a canyon in the Hollywood hills. A few quick steps from the back door, she grows a lush array of culinary and ornamental herbs in an intricate kitchen garden only 20 feet square. For this free-lance writer and herb garden designer, the kitchen garden represents two lifelong loves—food and gardening. It is not just a sanctuary and playground but a place of constant learning, experimentation, and evolution.

Back east, Carole often visited the re-created monastic herb garden at the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and was charmed by the formal geometric plantings of utilitarian herbs. She began reading old herbals and was fascinated to learn how the herbs she used daily in her kitchen have endured through the ages. Later, she borrowed inspiration from these gardens of old for her West Coast kitchen garden, which is illustrated in detail on page 21.

The geometric structure of Carole’s garden serves as a fine foil for the informal luxuriance of culinary herbs. A 3-foot Korean box hedge frames the space on four sides, giving it a feeling of intimacy; a tiered brick planter showcasing herbal topiary marks the center. The original centerpiece plant was a delicate rosemary topiary Carole brought from New Jersey, but it grew into a huge balloon that threatened to eclipse the entire garden—Carole’s first lesson in Zone 10 gardening. She no longer grows any rosemary in her kitchen garden because four varieties of the herb grow all over the rest of her property. A tamer myrtle topiary now occupies the center spot, with variegated euonymus anchoring the four ­corners and white-flowered woodland straw­berries (Fragaria sp.) spreading a carpet of green between them. A path of river rock wraps the center bed, and the herbs spill out along the edges, softening the lines.

A Stroll Around the Garden

At any given time, up to 100 different­ herbs surround the central planting, reflecting Carole’s wide culinary interests and her newest gardening discoveries. With a plot of this size, Carole must make choices and play favorites, so the scenery is always changing. About three-quarters of the plants are perennial; the large plants are permanent features, ensuring that the background is always in scale, but the smaller herbs are often moved around or swapped for others less greedy for space.

As Carole walks around the garden, pointing out her favorites, it’s evident that each herb is special to her for one reason or another. Many are indispensable in the kitchen; some are unusual, rare, or part of an ethnic collection; others are of sentimental value. The layout reflects this blend of utility and beauty. For example, each of several cuisines, including Mexican, Southeast Asian, and Middle Eastern, has its own collection of representative herbs.

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