Growing Herbs in Urban Landscapes

| August/September 1994

People have always valued herbs. For that reason alone, herbs merit inclusion in urban landscapes or anywhere people congregate, meditate, pause, or pass by. They can lend an intimacy and a restful ambience to the hurried and often impersonal atmosphere of cities and suburban developments. Herbs can animate lifeless areas and stimulate the senses with their beauty and fragrance. Many are highly ornamental, especially appreciated for their interesting leaf textures, foliage colors, and softly beautiful flowers.

Opportunities abound for enriching developed areas with herb plant­ings. The traditional geometrical herb garden motif, for example, can be easily translated to many situations within the architectural fabric of a city—restated or reinterpreted in courtyards, townhouse plots, and terraces to create interesting patterns. Residential and public spaces can be enlivened by herbs in street-level plantings, raised beds, window boxes, and containers. Parks and residential properties are excellent settings for naturalized plantings using native herbs, which can be a refreshing alternative to the annuals commonly used for seasonal-interest beds.

Creating suitable growing conditions can be a challenge. Trees and buildings may obstruct direct sunlight. Wind turbulence patterns can dehydrate or batter plants. Paved areas may impede drainage and also limit the availability of moisture. Frost pockets and stagnant air spaces can form in the canyons of the city or even around townhouse courtyards. Chemical pollutants, compaction, and rubble make the soil inhospitable to plants. Severely polluted soils may even need to be replaced. But with careful site analysis, proper plant selection, and adequate soil preparation, herbs will adapt well and become a practical and beautiful landscaping option.


Many popular herbs in American gardens trace their origins to the hot, dry, gravelly slopes of Mediterranean Europe, and these conditions can be approximated in many urban and suburban environments here. A great number of herbs need heat and bright light to thrive, but others do remarkably well in various amounts of shade. Many native woodland herbs perform well even in deep shade. For a list of herbs that prefer or will accept shade, see page 36.

When assessing a site’s light conditions, pay careful attention to obstructions in or near the planting area. Buildings, tree canopies, walls, hedges, and trellises all can affect how much light gets through to the plants. A fine-foliaged tree or a trellised vine with small leaves and an open branching habit will allow more light through than canopies with larger leaves and a denser habit. A building can totally block direct sunlight, but it can also ­reflect light, depending on its texture, color, and surface material. Dark, highly textured surfaces absorb light; smooth, light-colored surfaces are ­better reflectors. Sometimes the patterns of reflected light produce a beautifully subtle effect, but glaring ­reflected light in garden spaces should be avoided.

Because a plant’s health and vigor are influenced by many factors, its adaptability with regard to a given factor depends on all the others. Light, moisture, and temperature are intrinsically related. For example, a plant that receives a little more light than is optimal may perform well if it is watered more frequently. It may do well if the microclimate is cool but may suffer from heat buildup in a heavily paved area. Use a holistic approach to site analysis.



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