Growing Herbs in the Herb Garden

Herbs in the Garden

There is no doubt that herbs have become of much greater interest in recent years. This is both fortunate and logical. Fortunate because their neglect makes a large number of very attractive plants unavailable (as is often experienced, plants not often grown become even less grown because nurseries rather naturally do not propagate what they cannot sell). Logical because many herbs have dual roles at least and so are particularly useful where space is limited. An initial confusion in nomenclature needs to be cleared up. Botanically a herb is a plant which is herbaceous; a plant which dies down to the ground each year and which is not, therefore, woody.

In the conventional vernacular it means something very different. A herb is a plant which has culinary uses, for flavouring or medicinal applications. By extension aromatic plants and those which have historical reputations or folk uses are commonly included. The range of herbs given this connotation is obviously very wide, going far beyond the herbs which most people can name on the fingers of one hand — parsley, thyme, sage, mint and marjoram.

Except for the enthusiast (and herb growing is apt to develop into a consuming interest unless kept under strict control) the herbs to be generally recommended are those which can combine their economic uses with visual appeal. There are plenty of these, and, as this website is more concerned with design and the use of plants in gardens, these are the ones to be concentrated upon.


Native Habitat

A large number of aromatic herbs are native to the hot, dry hillsides of the Mediterranean region and it seems likely that their scented, pungent leaves are designed as something of a deterrent to grazing animals — though, as anyone knows who has seen a flock of scraggy Grecian sheep in full champ, and has subsequently had the pleasure of eating a herb-impregnated chop, the deterrent is not very effective. To a gardener that habitat says much of what these plants — sage, rosemary, lavender, savory and many others — require from a cultivational point of view: maximum sunlight and perfect drainage at the root especially in winter. They are so happy in the thin chalky or limestone soils which are the despair of many gardeners that it is sensible to capitalise upon them there.


Herb Garden

herb gardenConventionally a herb garden is an enclosed area of formal beds and, as a conception, is still a valid and a charming one. Many of the shrubby herbs mentioned above as well as thyme, curry plant and several species of santolina make admirable dwarf hedges. All are easy to propagate and cuttings pushed into sandy soil under a cloche in August are usually rooted enough to line out, a foot apart, as a hedge the following late spring. The space thus enclosed can either be filled with a selection of less striking, but nonetheless interesting, herbs or filled solid with one of the low shrubs as ground cover in the manner of a I 7th-century parterre. Purple sage and variegated sage are both magnificent plants for this: the only trouble is that the difficult decision has annually to be made whether to let the purple form flower or not. The flower, a sea of colour, is splendid but comes at the expense of the equally splendid young foliage. Two plants, or two beds if there is space, provide an answer.

In practice the separate herb garden is not always possible but all of these plants are admirable (given their cultivational needs) edging a terrace lining a path or indeed in bays fronting higher shrubs. On a small scale a very adequate and surprisingly comprehensive herb garden can be made by lifting three or four flagstones from a terrace. The idea can be happily extended to make an easy-maintenance herb bed by laying paving on a chequer-board pattern. Much of the stone is soon covered by the growth of the plants yet access for weeding or gathering the herbs is always easy, even in the wettest weather. Most of the plants spread far out from their original spot. For this same reason they are admirable in raised beds where they will tumble over the edge. On a still smaller scale a window box will hold a surprising amount of herb growth.

If herbs are for use as well as ornament, convenience is important: the window box on the kitchen window sill and the herb bed close to the kitchen door are both desirable, so long as they get sun.


Raising Plants

The shrubby herbs are in many ways the easiest group to deal with. Others need more specialist treatment. Some are hardy annuals or are treated as such: borage, summer savory, dill, coriander, nasturtium, parsley. All are sown in situ in spring and are worth growing even if there is no certainty of need (it is comforting to know that the borage is there ready to go into the wine-cup — but how often is it used?). With others, need is continual and certain: it is virtually impossible to have too much parsley. Both the decoratively curled and the more flavoursome plain-leaved types make good edgings to beds in the flower and vegetable gardens and succession can be assured by making a spring and a late summer sowing. Germination, however, is depressingly slow.

Basil is perhaps the most difficult but it is extremely desirable. As a tropical annual it is very susceptible to cold and neither home-raised nor bought plants should be put out until June. There are now splendid purple-leaved forms with the true aromatic peppery flavour which are worth every effort.

Several of the umbelliferous herbs (relations of carrot and parsley) are striking plants in their own right. Angelica, whose delicious role of cake decoration seems now to have been largely replaced by mean little strips of green plastic, is one such.

Its great spherical head of lime-green flowers remains statuesque for weeks and dries beautifully. More delicate are the green and purple fennels, both a mass of filigree leaf throughout summer. These are happy in moist and even shady positions.

Certain herbs need the reverse of encouragement. Unless one is both an addict to its sauce and a glutton for hard work, horseradish is best excluded from all but the biggest gardens. Mints, too, are invasive but essential. They need constant moisture to maintain tender growth and a good way to deal with them is to plant the roots (really rhizomes) in large plastic pots or sleeves. These are then plunged into the ground with the rims just above soil level so that any clandestine running about can be controlled. This method also makes it possible to bring a pot into warmth to get some early growth and a taste of spring ahead of time. Where only a window box is available the variegated apple mint should be grown: it will not provide the same amount of mint shoots but at least it will not swamp the other plants.

Variegation is an attribute of many herbs which adds a further visual dimension to these invaluable plants. Golden marjoram makes splendid little tussocks, but is apt to scorch in full sun. Thymes come in both silver- and golden-edged forms, there is even a variegated horseradish.

11. May 2011 by admin
Categories: Gardening Ideas, Herb Garden, Types of Gardens | Tags: , | Comments Off on Growing Herbs in the Herb Garden


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