Garden Spaces: Spice Up Your Life with Bold Mexican Herbs

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This four-square garden contains all the bold flavors that have made Mexican food so wildly popular in recent decades. Click the Image Gallery, then "next" for a planting key for this garden design.
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This four-square garden contains all the bold flavors that have made Mexican food so wildly popular in recent decades. Click the Image Gallery, then "next" for a planting key for this garden design.

If you’ve been contemplating a new garden bed, consider applying some tidy geometry. A simple framework, such as this four-square garden, complements the free-form beauty and abundance of the herbs, vegetables and flowers within its boundaries. Its rigid lines and sharp corners help balance and contain the soft, mounding forms that by season’s end might otherwise sprawl in a riotous fashion.

A four-square shape is ideal for gardens that will be harvested regularly because it provides easy access from all sides. And for children or newcomers to gardening, it is one of the least intimidating shapes to plan and plant.

This Mexican four-square garden contains all the bold flavors that have made this cuisine so wildly popular in recent decades. With a steady supply of tomatoes and tomatillos, along with the tang of cilantro and the punch of peppers, all you need for a hot summer night is a minty mojito in your hand and salsa music in the background.

A potted lime tree anchors the center of this garden. Its fruit is essential to many Mexican dishes, and the container allows you to move the tender plant to a protected patio or greenhouse for the winter. Onions and garlic, which add depth of flavor to Mexican dishes, can be tucked through the squares wherever they fit. In addition to the required cilantro, I’ve included useful flat-leaf parsley for those who don’t care for cilantro’s distinctive flavor. Jalapeños are just the start for the pepper-heads among us; add a habanero (you know you want it), serano or other sweat-popping pepper, and keep the less-daring happy by including a milder banana or Anaheim pepper.

Get It Ready

Late summer to early autumn is a great time for digging and preparing a new garden bed; come spring, all you need to do is plant. Mark out the boundaries of the garden in a location that gets full sun. Then, take a pitchfork to the area, removing all rocks, grass, weeds and large roots. (If you’re starting with turfgrass, you might need to use a tiller.) Dig the pathways down a few inches, mounding that dirt onto the garden squares to raise them slightly, or transfer the excavated soil to another part of your yard.

To ensure the crisp lines and sharp corners needed for this design, use brick or paving stones to line the outer frame, pathways and center diamond.

Take time now to amend the soil with plenty of compost and other organic matter, as well as any necessary soil nutrients. (After you’ve planted the perennials next spring, you won’t want to disturb their roots by digging.) When you’ve finished your soil work, mulch the beds with shredded leaves, pine straw or other organic materials.

Garlic (and perhaps a fast crop of cilantro, if you like) should be planted this fall. Everything else will be planted in spring after the frost-free date. Give the Mexican lime tree a brightly colored pot and a good, fast-draining potting mix. You’ll probably be moving the lime to a protected location each winter, so consider using one of the large, lightweight plastic pots with a faux finish. The mint for mojitos also will be planted in a container to control its rampant nature; you can tuck that pot in among your other plantings wherever you have a bare spot.

This bed will need moderate watering, especially during dry spells. Also be sure to feed the tomatoes, peppers and basil regularly with an organic fertilizer, such as a foliar spray of compost tea (compost steeped in water). Go easy on high-nitrogen fertilizers, though; too much nitrogen can reduce fruiting.

The size of this garden is flexible; 8 to 12 feet per side would work nicely. If you grow tomatoes in a separate vegetable garden, the 8-foot length should do just fine. Choose the plants that you and your family enjoy most, but try a few new ones, too. You might find that this little garden spawns fresh culinary adventures.

Plants for a Mexican Garden

  • Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum). Plant in the fall or spring, then let some plants set seed for subsequent seasons.
  • Flat-leaf parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. neapolitanum). Grow this biennial as an annual or let one plant flower and set seed the following season to provide a steady supply.
  • Garlic (Allium sativum). Plant cloves in fall and harvest the following summer after the tops die back.
  • Mexican lime (Citrus aurantifolia). This shrubby tree will need winter protection in most climates.
  • Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida). Grow as an annual in colder climates. Use foliage to flavor Mexican vegetable dishes; bright yellow flowers appear in late summer.
  • Onion (Allium cepa). Tuck sets (starts) wherever there’s space.
  • Oregano (Origanum spp.). Buy a plant with a flavor and fragrance you like, or try Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens), a tender shrub.
  • Peppers (Capsicum annuum). Start with the useful jalapeño for poppers.
  • Spearmint (Mentha spicata). Spreads easily; harvest often or confine in a pot.
  • Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum). Plant lots of this versatile annual herb.
  • Tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica). Also called husk tomato; tart fruits are used in Mexican green sauces. Harvest when husks begin to open.
  • Tomato (Solanum lycopersicum). Stake or cage taller varieties. Look for transplants of flavorful heirloom varieties.

— Kathleen Halloran is a freelance writer and editor living in beautiful Austin, Texas.

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