Illustrations by Susan Strawn Bailey
Now that I’ve bought my first house, I’m thrilled about planting the herb garden of my dreams in its spacious, sunny backyard. At the same time, all that space has made me appreciate the good old low-maintenance days of my previous 4- by 6-foot balcony container garden. I always had plenty of herbs, but I also had time to enjoy using them in the kitchen because I wasn’t constantly mowing, pruning, weeding, edging, and raking as I do now.
Be careful what you wish for, the old saying goes. At least one lesson from my smaller garden remains with me: Make use of the space that you have, and be mindful of the time you have available for tending a garden. Below are some of the strategies I’ve used for sneaking herbs into my life and my schedule.
Using space that’s already dug
If space is not available for a bed of herbs that’s separate from other garden spaces—or you just don’t want to take the time to break new soil—consider incorporating herbs into existing plantings that receive full sun and have fertile, well-drained soil. Yarrow, wormwood, and bee balm fit well in a bed of ornamentals while sage, thyme, and rosemary are attractive as front-of-border plants in foundation plantings. Dill and fennel add an interesting feathery texture to flowering herbaceous perennials.
A low hedge of purple basil along my neighbor’s front sidewalk defines her walkway and provides an abundance of basil for cooking and flower arrangements. If you use basil or other culinary herbs as a hedge, pinch out the branch tips frequently to keep the plants bushy and tidy in appearance. Other good low-growing herbs for hedges are germander, lavender, and santolina; for larger hedges, try shrub roses or bayberry.
Many herbs grow happily in the cracks between patio or walkway stones or in the crevices of a stone wall; their tops seek the sun while their roots remain cool and moist. Thyme and chamomile can tolerate some foot traffic and release their fragrance at every step. In addition, their texture visually softens the hard appearance of paving.
To create a planting nook in an existing walkway, put on safety glasses and heavy gloves, grab a stonemason’s hammer, and chip away at a section until you have a planting pocket at least 3 inches deep. If an older surface has already started to chip, you may be able to remove a piece of it with a shovel or trowel. (Try this only on your own garden paths, not public sidwalks, of course.)
To loosen the soil in the bottom of the pocket for better root penetration, repeatedly hammer in a narrow metal spike partway and wriggle it around. Mix the following ingredients in a bucket or wheelbarrow: one part compost, one part sand, and one part good garden soil. Moisten the mixture and fill the nook half full. Tuck in young herb plants and fill the nook to the level of the paving. Water to settle the soil and add more soil mix if necessary. Water the plants frequently as needed until they are well established.
The yield of a small bed of herbs can be maximized—and weeds suppressed—by setting the plants close together. A raised bed that’s at least 1 to 2 feet high and no more than 4 feet wide is convenient and eliminates the soil compaction that might otherwise occur as you work around your plants. I like to use the system roughly based on square-foot or grid gardening, in which the plants or seeds are arranged in blocks instead of rows (eliminating rows can almost double your available space for planting). To plant oregano, rosemary, thyme, chives, and two kinds of basil in a 6- by 3-foot bed, for example, I mark the bed into six 3-foot-long sections with string, then plant each kind of plant into one section or part of a section. I situate taller plants at the north side of the bed so that they don’t cast shade on shorter ones and work in a slow-release granular fertilizer after planting.
A large terra-cotta strawberry pot enables you to grow a dozen herbs—of the same kind or different kinds—in one container. A smaller pot has room for six to eight plants. Good choices for the side pockets include chives, spearmint, dwarf basil, marjoram, dwarf lavender cotton, and creeping thymes. Fill the space at the top of the pot with English lavender, nasturtiums, parsley, garden sage, and/or scented geraniums. Leave room between plants for future growth or plan to remove some of them when they get crowded.
To plant a strawberry pot, mix two parts soilless potting mix with one part perlite and fill the pot with this mixture to the top of the lowest pocket. Shake off the loose soil from the root ball of the herb to be planted. With a chopstick, spoon, or your fingers, reach in through the top of the strawberry pot and make a depression in the planting mix to accommodate the roots.
Poke the herb out through the pocket opening, spread the roots out in the depression, and cover them with planting mix. Water lightly to settle the mix. Add more mix up to the next pocket and plant the next herb. Continue until you have filled all the pockets. Add planting mix to within an inch of the top of the jar and plant the remaining herbs as you would in any large container.
If the mix washes out of the pockets during watering or when it rains, replenish it right away so that the roots don’t become exposed.
The elegant espalier
A showy espalier—a plant trained to grow in a pattern along a wall—may take several years to achieve, but the effort is well worth it. Two simple patterns to create are a “Y” or “V” shape.
To start an espalier, select a flat surface in a sunny location (six or more hours of sun a day) where you have a wall, trellis, or fence. Then decide on a shape. Create the pattern by using wire attached to the wall or fence, or use freestanding posts with eye screws. Be sure there are at least 4 to 8 inches between the wire and a wall or fence so there will be air circulation around the plant. Choose a young, supple rosemary or myrtle and plant it where it is to grow at the base of the wire “V” or “Y.”
After planting, prune the shrub to start training it to grow in the desired pattern. Remember three important rules about pruning your espalier: prune often and carefully; prune only actively growing areas; and never prune more than 30 percent of the plant. Don’t forget to fertilize your espalier.
If you’ve selected a “V” shape, look for two good main branches that could form the “V.” Prune out branches that are below and above the two branches and snip off any small shoots or branches growing off them except the bud at the tip. As the two main branches grow, gently attach them to the guide wires using twine, and pinch off side shoots that develop along the main branches.
For a “Y”-shaped espalier, begin the initial pruning by selecting a good main leader branch to form the lower part of the “Y.” Prune out all other branches on the plant. Gently attach this leader to the wire so it is trained to grow straight. Allow this leader to grow until it reaches a few inches above the desired height of the bottom of the “Y.” Snip off those few inches just above a node where the lateral branches will come out, which will encourage their growth. Once lateral branches form, select your two main branches that can be trained to continue growing in a “V” shape. Continue pruning this espalier as directed for the “V” shape.
Maureen Heffernan just completed a new herb garden as part of the Hershey’s Children’s Garden at the Cleveland Botanical Garden.
W. Atlee Burpee & Co, 300 Park Ave., Warminster, PA 18991. (800)888-1447. www.burpee.com. Free catalog.
Gardener’s Supply Company, 128 Intervale Rd., Burlington, VT 05401. (888) 833-1412. www.gardenerssupply.com. Free catalog.
Lily of the Valley Herb Farm, 3969 Fox Ave., Minerva, OH 44657. (330) 862-3920. Free catalog.
Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 Old Salem Rd. NE, Albany, OR 97321-4580. (866) 408-4851. www.nicholsgardennursery.com. Free catalog.
Richters, Goodwood, ON, Canada L0C 1A0. (905) 640-6677. www.richters.com. Free catalog.