Design a Brightly-Colored Herb Garden

Learn how to choose herbs that will make your garden strikingly colorful.

| April/May 1997

  • A bold nasturtium, a delicate love-in-a-mist, and the leaves of a scented geranium are the components of this vivid garden vignette.
    Photography by Dency Kane
  • This ‘Torch’ zinnia in a field of German chamomile is a dazzling sight in the afternoon sun.
  • The neutral background of cedar fencing in the author’s “hot garden” lets good gaudy plants such as ‘Gardenview Scarlet’ bee balm, daylilies, dahlias, and lilies fight it out among themselves.
  • Signet marigolds, oregano, and calendula—boom!
  • Perilla is a foil for the glowing ‘Pinwheel Orange’ zinnia.
  • Cardinal flower, so very red.
  • A bold nasturtium, a delicate love-in-a-mist, and the leaves of a scented geranium are the components of this vivid garden vignette.

We don't usually think of herb gardens as vibrating with flaming color. Quite the contrary. Silvery gray santolinas, lavenders, and sages, the varied greens of alliums, mints, and thymes, the small yellow, purple, or white blossoms of feverfew, summer savory, and hyssop—are all very quiet stuff whose appeal lies in their fragrance, texture, and muted tones. The softness of an herb garden calms us with its soothing, cooling appearance.

Lately, I’ve been working with hot colors, devising gardens with incendiary orange, scarlet, vermilion, strong red, and yellow—colors that have the opposite effect, stimulating, arousing, almost intoxicating the viewer. That’s easy enough to achieve with flower gardens, but I wondered whether I could create such a garden using only herbs. I found, to my great satisfaction, that I could, and I’ve rounded up an assortment of medicinal, culinary, and dye plants that I think would make a splendid hot-colored herb garden.

Handle with care

There are several traditional ways of handling hot colors in a flower border. Strong yellow, orange, and scarlet tend to clash with or overpower the gentle pinks, lavenders, blues, whites and pale yellows preferred by many gardeners, and so ways to minimize or absorb their impact are needed. A common solution is to surround a bit of hot color with a mass of cool or neutral color. For ­example, you can wrap a clump of fiery Maltese cross in a white froth of baby’s-breath or phlox, or the gray foliage of ‘Lambrook Silver’ artemisia, or cool ­violet-flowered veronicas. Gertrude Jekyll, the great English horticultural authority of the turn of the century, worked out a system of placing cool colors at each end of a long border, then orchestrating the colors so that they would grow slowly but steadily stronger and hotter, eventually making a fine bonfire in the center of the border. In a border 20 feet wide and 300 feet long, it must have been a magnificent sight.

I, having failed for years to integrate hot colors into my long mixed border successfully, ended up making a separate garden for hot-colored flowers—one where the brighter a blossom is, the better, where gaudy is not garish but glorious, a garden where all the colors are from the same side of the color wheel and so work harmoniously together: strong yellow next to orange, then vermilion, scarlet, and cadmium red. Plants that only caused trouble in the border are now valued contributors as they raise strong, clear voices in the loud hallelujah chorus that is sung by this small garden.

With such a garden, the idea is to heighten the impact of the vivid colors, not to lessen it. For this reason, and also to prevent its colors from interfering with those of the border, I’ve enclosed the area, which measures about 22 by 30 feet, with a tall cedar fence that provides a neutral background. I must open the gate deliberately and enter the garden, where I sit in the midst of the flaming colors until I’ve had all the stimulus I can stand.

My hot garden includes all manner of flowers, but I’ve also designed an herbal counterpart. Although a garden dedicated solely to herbs will not be quite as brilliant as one with a broader focus, it will still be bright enough to require a separate location, away from the pastels and neutrals, perhaps on the other side of the house or beyond the hedge. A place where its boundaries can be defined and where it will have the background of a wall, fence, hedge, or building would be ideal, but it should also be readily visible for when your spirits need a boost. It needn’t be a large area to serve its purpose.



September 12-13, 2019
Seven Springs, Pennsylvania

Fermentation Frenzy! is produced by Fermentation magazine in conjunction with the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR. This one-and-a-half day event is jam-packed with fun and informative hands-on sessions.


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