Herbs in the Southern Garden

Designing for all seasons

| April/May 1999

  • Pansies glow against the leaves of ‘Osaka Red’ mustard and colorful lettuces.
    Photograph by Tom Peace
  • In high-contrast plant­ings, perilla and silver ­plectranthus make good bedfellows.
  • Golden feverfew takes a starring role among a chorus of dianthus, violas, and catmint.
  • Dependable echinacea brightens many southern gardens.

 10 Great Herbs for Southern Gardens 

Gardening in the South definitely pre­sents certain challenges, but it is not without its rewards. Compared to the cooler climates of the North, the hot and humid weather that we garden in down south is both a blessing and a curse. Even here there are degrees of heat and humidity as Gulf Coast residents will attest, dividing the region into two separate realms of Upper South and Lower South. The best part, of course, is that we get to grow year-round, and enjoy the expanded palette of cool-season plants during winter as well as those that thrive in our summers.

Regardless of climate, the tenets of garden design apply, even if the choice of plants differs. Foliage plays a major role as combinations of texture, form, and color weave themselves into a rich, delightful tapestry. Floral panache can be used to contrast or harmonize, depending on the designer’s intentions, as herbaceous perennials and annuals and shrubs complement the surrounding foliage.

Ulimately, the most importance aspect of choosing plants for the garden is what work and what survives.

Using herbs in garden design

While garden design includes many herbs, for me their involvement is based solely on visual aesthetics and resilience. I rarely harvest for consumption except for the occasional bunch of rosemary for oven-roasted potatoes or a handful of cilantro for a Mexican dish. Culinary and medicinal herbs, along with edibles, have been in the hands of American ­gardeners for centuries (in particular the South) and have passed the test of time. Ultimately, the most important aspect of choosing plants for the garden is what works and what survives.

In my USDA Zone 8 garden in south-central Texas, I plant for both the summer and winter seasons, although some herbs maintain a year-round presence. Subshrubs such as culinary sage, oregano, rue, lavender, and thyme are among these permanent players. With the exception of the rosemary, however, these plants are best used only in gardens with excellent drainage and some distance from the Gulf since they are prone to summer rot in torrid climates. Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Arp’ is particularly cold hardy and succeeds where others may fail. Year-round herbs can set a softer garden mood. In summer, sage, lavender, and rosemary contribute varied greens and grays; in winter, they form a soft, silvery backdrop to the rest of the garden.

I welcome a break from monotonous green. The yellow-variegated rosemary ‘Golden Rain’ contrasts brightly with purple-leaved sage and the chartreuse leaves of golden oregano (Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’). These and the silvery-leaved lavender and lavender cotton make excellent foils to showcase flowers in any season. As these herbs thrive in lean gritty soil, drought-tolerant summer annuals like white, pink, or lavender Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) and similarly colored globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa) help brighten the scene. During the cool season, the same role can be played by such annuals as toadflax (Linaria maroccana), bachelor’s-buttons (Centaurea cyanus), stocks (Matthiola incana), and soft-­colored phlox (Phlox drummondii).

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