Big is Beautiful: Grow Big Herbs for a Beautiful Garden

| December/January 1999

Most people, especially city folks, seem to be suspicious of any plant that dares to grow higher and wider than a marigold. Trees may be exempt; nevertheless, they are usually grown in isolation surrounded by plenty of short, safe turf.

Large plants—be they trees, shrubs, or large herbaceous perennials—too often are at the mercy of homeowners’ loppers. Why anyone would prefer a naturally graceful, billowing bridal wreath trimmed into the shape of a light bulb remains a mystery to me. Tall and bulky herbs suffer a similar fate.

Many gardeners apparently prefer tiny borders no deeper than 2 or 3 feet. Perhaps they believe that a shallow border will be easier to manage. There’s plenty of room for smaller herbs such as basil, calendula, chives, and thyme, but a big one—perhaps angelica or Joe-Pye weed—will look like Gulliver among the Lilliputians. No wonder it gets hacked backed mercilessly in a vain attempt to make it fit in.

• Chart: Big Plants for a Bold Garden 

Room to Grow

A skimpy 2-foot-wide border just can’t produce the dramatic effect you admire in books and magazines. Large beds, on the other hand, open the door to a whole range of plants that don’t fit into tiny, tidy beds. Big borders are made for big plants. I freely mix perennial ornamentals and herbs in my borders; after all, many of the ornamentals have traditional herbal uses. Tansy, yarrow, costmary, globe thistle, bee balm, bugbane (Cimicifuga racemosa), angelica, Joe-Pye weed, monkshood, and plume poppy (Macleaya cordata) need space to be shown to advantage. Even such annuals as sweet Annie, sunflower, lion’s-ear (Leonotis leonurus), tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis), and castor bean can attain the height of small trees in a short time. Tropical plants such as papyrus, cannas, and bananas are blockbusters, even in temperate gardens.

The key to making a successful big bed is to plan for the ultimate size of its inhabitants. This can be tricky as the information on nursery tags seems intended for gardeners in Pittsburgh or Peoria or Paducah, not my semiarid climate, where the drought and cold winters and clay soil limit the growth of many plants. The best thing to do, wherever you live, is to study how a plant grows at a local botanical garden or in your neighbor’s yard before placing that kind of plant in your own garden.

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