Posted by: A Part of the Solution | December 10, 2010

Planning an Herb Garden

While I am better at thinning, pruning, cutting back and weeding than I am at propagating and multiplying and fostering, I intend to have an herb garden fully planned out before much more time has passed. Herb gardens are tricky. They are tricky because they are permanent. Many species self-seed, others are perennials, some are even trees.

The spot I select has to have good enough earth (but not too good, as many of the herbs do better with a little straining). The spot I select has to have good light (though not unrelieved, some herbs do better with partial–or even full–shade). The spot I select has to be large enough to supply not just the household, with guests and volunteers and interns, but also our commercial clients, and naturally the CSA membership as well.

I fancy that much of the back yard here on the farm would make a nice location for my herb garden. I intend that the garden be appealing to guests and a restful spot for anyone at all. I imagine it would be more delightful if it had a cleverly laid out plan–I’m thinking the labyrinth one sees on the floor of the cathedral at Chartres might make a good schematic for my herb garden. Obviously, I would want more space between the ‘aisles’ one walks–but otherwise it has a good deal to recommend it.

As to the herbs themselves, I have more call for culinary than medicinal herbs in my present trajectory of business development. While there’s a certain amount of crossover, I will continue to think of their uses in the kitchen more than their uses in the ‘still room’ where useful extracts, decoctions, unguents and salves were created in days of yore.

Last year, I had several kinds of basil, parsley and cilantro put into the vegetable garden. I will want as many kinds of basil (if not more) next year, though perhaps not in any greater total volume than what we produced–which was appalling large, drought and all. I will want more parsley, and flat leafed as well as curly. I will ensure we have more cilantro as well; I found it’s freshness really appealing.

More to the point, I want a minimum of four mints to go in this year coming: spearmint, peppermint, orange mint and a mint-to-be-named-later. I will want to get sweet woodruff going under the apple trees, along with chives to keep the bugs off, and marigolds too. Nasturtiums are tasty flowers in salads, and great at attracting aphid-eating insects–so I’ll have plenty of those.

Thyme is key in my own cooking and I love the varietals available in these enlightened times: minus thyme, which is tiny and grows wonderfully between paving stones; mother-of-thyme, which is larger than regular; German thyme which has a less subtle character and is great in sturdy winter soups and casseroles; and thyme itself, though I fancy I’ll put some lemon thyme in if I can find a good seed source for it.

I will need sage, naturally. And I would like to see the savories in my garden, too: winter and summer. They have an interesting flavor, and one which gives depths to finished recipes. I want to try angelica, which used to be popular preserved in sugar and decorating sweets at tea time. I will need marjoram and oregano, though they’ll want careful weeding to keep them from taking over. They’re worse than mint in some ways.

Then there’s dill and fennel–of course. They also want careful weeding as their seeds are prolific and readily fertile. I’ve seen what fennel can do already, and it was impressive. Lovage makes sense, since we’re almost too far north to get celery to maturity in our growing season. And then there’s the lavender and rosemary clan, which I quite long for. They’ll need a little shelter and cosseting until they’re established, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. And I want a few bay trees in pots. They will winter over indoors, and perfume the air in the warm months, while providing me with the astounding fragrance and flavor of fresh bay, which is nothing like the stuff in jars at the supermarket.

Oh, I’ll need tarragon–it almost goes without saying. And I wonder what else would grow if I only had the wit to stick it in the ground. I’m thinking nicotiana around some of the outside borders, since it’s so good at repelling destructive insects; but that won’t be for culinary purposes, only co-planting use.

If you can think of what else I should have, let me know. It’s going to be a big garden.



  1. Those three mints are my essentials as well. Sounds like a good list altogether. Often herbs in your garden happen because you come upon them, through a friend or an interesting source. It’s easy to miss a few good ones. But yours covers the basics, and really, an herb garden is something that is added to and edited all the time, so go with it.

    Consider putting the ramblers away from the herb-garden-proper, in a place where their spreading nature won’t beat up any neighbors. Then you can go and brutalize them every few years, and it’s all good.

    • Who specifically are you counting amongst the ramblers?

      • Specifically, all the mints, including the less-minty-mints, like oregano and marjoram.

  2. If you go with that design, it’s going to be enormous. Keep in mind the beds should be at least two feet wide. (Walking paths can be skinnier)

    And a few things I didn’t see in your list that you might consider – Pennyroyal (great for flea concoctions for the furrballs should they have need, but it’s a mint, so plant accordingly) And Catnip, too. It’s in the mint family as well, but I never have a problem with it getting too pushy with the neighbors.

    Echinachea – beautiful as well as useful.
    St. John’s Wort. ditto above
    Beebalm (bergamot) – ditto again

    Saffron (crocus sativa) – why not? It may or may not do well there, but plant a few and see, and you can add to the community as you go along. A fall-blooming crocus is an oddity, even without the saffron. (there are several fall-blooming crocus…you want sativa)

    Leek might be fun for the herb garden. And let one go to flower, and you’ll absolutely have a million spring babies, or I’ll eat my hat). Takes a couple years before they’re big enough to use…but you’ve got time.

    Maybe feverfew. Though it may self-seed a bit too vigorously for your taste.

    And a thought on the Rosemary. Since we seem to have parallel hardiness, I’ll let you know now that rosemary NEVER overwinters for me. And I’ve tried and tried and tried , with all of the “more cold hardy” varieties (’cause boy, that’s be nice!). Nada. However – it would be well worth growing in a large pot, and I think the breezeway to the spring suite would be perfect for winter quarters. Tons of light, but cold. That’s the only way I’ve ever made it happy in a pot inside. The house proper was too warm, it kept trying to grow and got leggy and weak and was begging me to just euthanize it and be done. But a cold room with plenty of light, and it bides its time until spring fairly well. And then, anywhere sunny in summer.

    • I was worrying about the rosemary. Lavender does OK here, at least the ones Trica planted have so far. But that sounds about like what would work–and I’d have to be doing that for the bay trees anyway. Thanks for the thoughtful advice. Yeah, I’m thinking the herb garden should take up at least the whole back yard if I can get it laid out according to plan. Maybe I’ll just put it over to the west side of the WWOOFing cabin where it would be easier to get the whole thing arranged (no trees, fences or preexisting borders over there).

      • I love the labyrinth garden, but consider the possibility of not trying to make it the herb garden proper. It would work much better, and tighter more uniform, with lower growing plants. Or maybe just the low-growing herbs. Taller ones inevitably flop or fall, making the pathways more maintentance heavy. And large variation in heights would distract from the design at a distance. Also, the labyrinth could be smaller if you only need one foot beds between pathways. Just something to think about.

        And yes, lavender will have no problem up on your plateau. It’s a tough bird.

      • Well get your parts out here and help me get both plotted.

  3. Count on it sometime this winter. Jan & Feb are wide open.

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