Create a Subversive Knot Herb Garden

| October/November 1995

  • A bit of horticultural heresy, Geraldine Laufer’s asymmetrical knot garden greets visitors as they round the deck and enter the garden.
  • After some trial and error, Geraldine chose the contrasting foliage colors of yaupon holly, crimson and golden barberries, and variegated privet to emphasize the individual ribbons in her knot garden.
  • Curlicues and diagonals mingle in this planting design adapted to a not-quite-square site.
    Illustration by Susan Strawn
  • Eleven years ago, newly planted boxwood, dwarf crimson barberry, and lavender liners were nearly invisible against the background of the soil.
  • Today, the low hedges of Geraldine’s updated knot garden are uniform and lively in color.
  • A bit of horticultural heresy, Geraldine Laufer’s asymmetrical knot garden greets visitors as they round the deck and enter the garden.

While modern gardeners rightly honor many old and venerable gardening traditions, I perceive a need for innovation and adaptation of his­torical garden designs to modern garden sites. A case in point is the Renaissance knot garden, an arrangement of low hedges tightly sheared to look like interwoven ribbons.

I have seen many traditional knot gardens in my travels, and the whole process of creating one intrigues me, so when I planned a new garden for our backyard in Atlanta, Georgia, I decided to include a knot. However, I didn’t want to just copy an old tradition; I wanted to update and personalize it and adapt it to my not-quite-square site. Thus I opted for an asymmetrical planting design, which I thought would provide a delightful surprise to visitors as they rounded the corner of the house. And the lack of symmetry, while a heresy of the Renaissance tradition, seemed better suited to our ranch-style house than a conventional knot might have been. So began what we jokingly call our “subversive” knot garden.

Nature Subdued and Directed

The knot garden has its roots in the Middle Ages, when fragrant shrubs such as lavender and rosemary were planted as hedges within castle walls and maintained with flat-clipped tops. Newly laundered clothing and linens were spread over the hedges to dry so that the herbs might impart their scent to the ­items. During the Renaissance, the patterns for these hedges became increasingly ornate, and the knot garden was born.

Accounts of payments to gardeners for “diligence in making knot” and for “clypping of knottes” appear in English records as early as 1502. Knots were popular with Elizabethans for at least 100 years and were viewed with satisfaction from the upper windows of Tudor cottages and mansions alike. It was only in the early decades of the seventeenth century that Francis Bacon scoffed at them as “toys” and the herbalist John Parkinson derisively called them “curious knotted gardens”.

Traditionally, knot gardens were square and bilaterally symmetrical, one half a mirror image of the other. They were edged with lead strips about 4 inches high, oak boards, tiles, or even the shank bones of sheep to “prettily grace out the ground”, according to Parkinson in Paradisi in Sole, Paradisus Terrestris (1629). Intricate planting plans appeared in many of the herbals and husbandry books of the period as guides for the gardener laying out a knot. The patterns might be copied or modified for a particular site.

Contrasting foliage colors were chosen to emphasize individual “ribbons”. For example, the silver of lavender and the bright green of green santolina stood out from the dark greens of boxwood and germander. Low, dense plants such as thyme, hyssop, thrift, gray santolina, rosemary, and—later—dwarf box, juniper, and yew also lent themselves to the formation of interlaced heraldic or geometric designs.

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