Herbs are easy to grow as most of them are generally undemanding, requiring just enough light and adequate soil to produce well. They are useful to the homesteader, both as culinary and medicinal plants. But in a time when you can find almost any herb at a grocery store, why bother growing your own? One of the best reasons is that organically grown herbs make up a very small percentage of the herbs available for sale in the United States. Ninety percent of the herbs sold in the United States are grown in third world countries, where regulations regarding the use of chemicals and herbicides do not exist. Growing your own herbs is the best way to ensure you are not consuming harmful chemicals.
Before you decide on a design for your herb garden, think about the type of herbs you want to grow. This will help when deciding where to plant them. One of the important things to consider is how many annuals and how many perennials you want to plant. Perennials can be grown successfully from seed but they take longer to germinate than annuals. Once they do get started, it is extremely easy to increase your supply by dividing or taking cuttings. Once perennials are well-established in your garden, they need virtually no help and many, such as chamomile, feverfew, lemon balm, and winter savory, will self-sow forever. Annuals require a little more investment in time and resources. Dill is an annual that will self-sow, but most need to be replanted each year. Some annual herbs to choose from are basil, chervil, cilantro, dill, parsley, summer savory, and sweet wormwood.
When we think about herb garden design, it is easy to think of the formal herb garden. These formal gardens, with their neatly trimmed geometric designs, are beautiful but they are not for everyone. They require strength, time, and resources to keep them looking great. Knot gardens are often an integral part of the formal herb garden. A knot garden is a design in which miniature hedges in different textures and colors are planted to create the look of intertwining strands. Planting a knot garden is like working a puzzle—a terrific challenge to the analytical, a terrific frustration to others. If you want to try your hand at one of these classic features, start small. Plants that don’t make it through the winter will need to be replaced. Constant trimming and shaping are necessary to keep the knot looking its best. By starting with a small knot design, replacements and maintenance will be less overwhelming.
If you like the formal look but do not want to commit to an entire formal garden design, an herb standard is a perfect compromise. A standard is a plant that has been trained to a single stem, with branches and leaves only at the top. Standards are traditional accents in formal herb gardens. The plants that will grow into healthy, beautiful standards are those with a stem sturdy enough to support a full, rounded head. Some good choices are rosemary, bay, or scented geraniums.
To make a standard choose a young, single-stemmed plant and a container that you want for the life of the standard. Fill with potting soil and insert a slim stake into the soil until it is at the desired height. Cut all the side branches below the desired height to 1 1/2” . Any leaves that are growing from the main stem may remain. Tie the stem to the stake with raffia at 2” intervals. Although the stem will thicken as the plant grows, keep the standard tied to the stake in order to protect it from any accidental damage. Clear the tips of any new shoots that appear on top of the plant to encourage branching. This will help create a bushy head. Pinch off the top shoot and remove the lower leaves and branch stems 4” from the top once the standard has reached the desired height. Use clippers to shape the head into a rounded shape.
If formal gardens aren’t for you, don’t worry. There are as many ways to incorporate herbs into your landscape as there are herbs to choose from.
Some of the easiest herb garden designs are informal. One idea is to create a perennial border against a wall, fence, or hedge. Depending on your style, you can define this bed with curvy or straight lines. A second informal herb design is an island bed. Simply build up a garden bed in an organic, free-form shape. Start in the middle with your tallest plants and work your way out, ending with your smallest herbs along the outside edge.
The most accessible design for daily use is a kitchen garden. This is just a small herb garden close to your kitchen. It is a great garden for commonly used culinary herbs such as basil, thyme, parsley, oregano, and French tarragon. It is also a nice spot for mint, just remember mint is invasive. If you are growing it close to other herbs, you may want to plant it in a bottomless sunken bucket to keep it from crowding out your other plants.
If you want to get more ambitious, consider duplicating a colonial garden. Not only would this be a beautiful and useful design, but it could easily be incorporated into a homeschool curriculum. A colonial garden is similar to a kitchen garden except it grows the medicinal and culinary herbs our forebears relied on. Instead of cilantro, basil, or French tarragon, you would grow familiar plants such as parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, and lavender, as well as tansy, madder, walnut, and bayberry.
Traditionally, herbs have been grown in gardens specifically for them alone and if you are growing herbs in quantity, this may be your best bet. To care for and harvest a large amount of herbs it may be easier to grow them in beds or rows. If you like the way a traditional garden looks, consider planting herbs as companion plants in your vegetable garden. Science has proven that certain plants can aid vegetable growth and deter common garden pests. The important thing to consider when companion planting is the type and function of the plant. Some plants are heavy feeders. These plants will do better with plants that do not require as many nutrients. Plants with shallow roots do best near deep-rooted companions.
Another very simple way to incorporate herbs in your landscape design is to plant them in containers. A potted herb container garden adds cheerfulness to any sunny porch or balcony, making it great for those short on space. Maintenance chores, other than watering, are all but eliminated in this herb garden design, making it easy on gardeners with limited time or stamina.
All herbs are candidates for containers, but you may want to start with tender herbs that need to be overwintered in pots anyway. These include sweet bay, lemon verbena, pineapple sage, and rosemary.
The last herb garden design, an herb spiral garden, gives the gardener a lot of bang for the buck. In addition to being a beautiful garden feature, herb spiral gardens have a multitude of benefits:
- The mounded spiral ramp of an herb spiral allows you to grow more plants in less space.
- Herb spirals create a range of micro-climates, accommodating plants that require different growing conditions to thrive.
- This garden feature will work anywhere. You can even build one on top of concrete.
- Herb spirals are convenient. All areas of the spiral are easily accessible, making planting, maintenance, and harvesting manageable for homesteaders with limited mobility.
- Herb spirals are a low-maintenance garden design. Once constructed, minimal maintenance is required.
- Herb spirals are a great way to practice good water management. For those who live in an area that receives a lot of rain, this design maximizes drainage. Gardeners who live in a dry climate will benefit from the moisture retained at the base. A pond pump can be installed at the bottom of the spiral to recirculate water back to the top.
- Herb spirals are inexpensive to build. Use any materials you have on hand that can be used to retain soil.
- Finally, spiral gardens are a simple way to create a diverse habitat in your yard. It won’t take long until beneficial creatures such as toads and lizards move into the water feature at the bottom of your spiral.
An herb spiral is an energy efficient vertical garden design. It can be built on a base as small as 1m in diameter but is typically 5-6 ½ feet wide in diameter, ascending 3 1/2 to 4 feet, with the center of the spiral at the highest point. A spiral is a classic permaculture design. It is useful because it maximizes the natural force of gravity and allows water to drain freely and seep through all layers. The pavers or stones used to build the spiral retain heat during the day and insulate the garden at night. If you want to incorporate a water habitat, simply create a small pond or bog garden at the bottom of the spiral. For more efficient water management, orient the spiral so it is built in the same direction as water flows down a drain. This will maximize moisture by reducing evaporation.
To make an herb spiral you will need:
- cardboard without any ink or tape
- long stake
- 1m piece of string and a small stick
- soil with organic material
- pavers (stones, bricks, rocks)
- herb seedlings
- pond materials (optional)
First, select a site that receives a minimum of five hours of sunlight each day. Once you decide where you want your spiral to be, hammer the stake at the central point. Attach one end of the string to the stake and tie the other end to the small stick. Stretch out the string and use the stick to mark out your full circle in the dirt. Spread out the cardboard so that it covers the entire area of the circle. Overlap the edges of the cardboard; this will help reduce weeds. Soak the cardboard with a water hose.
To create the spiral, lay pavers on the outer edge and work your way inwards. Lay stones on top of each other, overlapping for stability, and adding soil as you go to provide support. Once you have the base laid out, start adding the second tier of pavers. The outer wall will only need to be two pavers high—just enough to retain the soil. When your spiral is the desired height, top off with more soil and plant the herb seedlings in the micro-climate they need to grow well. If you are adding a water garden, dig out a hole at the bottom of the spiral and line with black plastic.
Notice that your spiral gives you different growing conditions in different areas. The top of the spiral is sunny and dry. Some good herbs to plant in this area are bay, rosemary, lavender, sage, oregano, and tarragon. Descending the spiral, the next micro-climate is shady and dry. Nasturtiums, parsley, yarrow, thyme, and oregano can be planted there. In the middle of the spiral where it is moist, plant cilantro, sorrel, chives, spring onions, strawberries, or bergamot. Continuing down the spiral where it is shady and moist, you can plant sorrel, strawberries, chamomile, and borage. The next area, sunny and wet, is a great place for mints. Finally, mints, lemon balm, and cress can be planted in the shady and wet area. Water plants can be used in your water feature.
These are just a few of the ways to add herbs to your garden. It is worth finding a way to grow the herbs you love in a design that showcases your personality. Not only are they functional and beautiful, but they are easy to incorporate into your garden design.