Starting a Herb Garden

Herbs are increasing in popularity every year and given that you have logged onto our website, I guess that you are one of the many with an interest in herbs!

Papyrus One of the most usual uses of herbs that immediately springs to mind is their role in cooking. However herbs are also used extensively in cosmetics and medicinally. Historically herbs have been used by man for a very long time. The first recorded use is by the Phoenicians, written on papyrus not paper in those days. They used much the same herbs as we use today - coriander, thyme, bay, sage etc - all with their medicinal uses recorded in history.

Firstly, when you are designing a herb garden you need to think about the position. Most of the popular culinary herbs, with the exception of mint, need a warm sunny spot with well drained soil. The soil need not be too fertile and rich, as many of our herbs such as rosemary and thyme, originate from dry mediterranean hillsides. If you are going to be using your herbs in the kitchen then a spot convenient to the house is best. It's fine in summer to stroll to the end of the garden for your herbs to add to your meal, but in winter you will not relish having to find boots, coat and a torch to find that necessary sprig of thyme!

Starting a Herb Garden 1 If you don't have suitable space near the house, or if you live in a flat with just a balcony, then herbs in containers are an ideal way to grow all of your favourites. Herbs really thrive when grown in pots, read our article 'Pots of Herbs' for some ideas.

A herb garden can be almost any size and shape. Basically the choice is between a formal (have a look at the formal gardens of Otley Hall, Suffolk or informal design, depending on which will most suit the garden as a whole and also the space which you are allocating to herb growing.

A formal herb garden is geometric and divided up into symmetrical areas, each outlined by paths, stepping stones or some form of dwarf hedge or edging. The garden as a whole can be any shape, rectangular, triangular, circular or even more elaborate. The overall shape is then subdivided into sections to make a pattern, for instance a circular bed divided up like a cartwheel with different herbs in each triangular section.

An informal herb garden is a more relaxed design and can be incorporated into an existing border if necessary. Depending on the herbs that you choose, the garden can resemble a cottage garden, herbaceous border and even have small rockery incorporated into it for height and contrast. Decorative effects are brought about by the grouping of different herbs and foliage types within the border. There are lots of books about herbs available, with detailed and exciting plans for herb gardens which you can consult for ideas. These would take up far too much space in this short article!

Having decided on your area, and with some idea of the final look and design of your herb garden, now comes the fun part. Deciding which herbs to choose! Generally the most popular herbs to be planted are the culinary ones. However you may be interested in plants for cosmetic or medicinal use, or choose to start a collection of a particular genus, for instance a bed devoted to thyme plants in their many and varied forms.

Assuming that you are looking at planting herbs to use in the kitchen, it is important to choose herbs which you like to use! This may sound an odd thing to write, but herbs thrive and look best when they are constantly pruned by removing sprigs for cooking. Make a list and draw up a rough planting plan based on the ultimate size of each herb.

Think about height, colour and texture combinations with your planting. Here are a few examples:

It's always nice to have some flowers in the herb garden, even if it is planted for culinary use. Cowslips flower early, as do the various types of rosemary.

Marjorams and oreganos will give you midsummer blooms along with all of the thymes and lavenders. A variety of thymes, planted in groups of 3, will give a longer flowering period. For instance, caraway thyme will flower first, followed by the creeping red and Pink Ripple thymes and finally Foxley and broad leaf thyme, giving a period of 6 - 8 weeks of flower.

Later in the season germander and echinacea will flower from August into the autumn. Remember to give herbs such as thymes a trim soon after flowering, and they will reward you with a second flush of flowers in early autumn.

Lots of colour can come from the foliage without any flowers at all! For culinary use, the purple and golden (Icterina) sages are just as good to cook with as the plain green herb, golden marjoram can replace green pot marjoram, and Oregano Country Cream is, if anything, better flavoured than the ordinary green variety.

Just two things important to consider when planning your planting. Some herbs do get very tall. Lovage, angelica and fennel are the most popular culprits. All three can grow to 2m in height. Whilst they are lovely architectural plants, both useful and attractive, they would overwhelm a small herb garden after a year or so. All of the mints can be very invasive. They are essential in cooking, and some like pineapple and grapefruit mint can be grown for their foliage or flowers as well as their culinary uses. They do however need to be grown in an plot, or a large container, where their spreading runners can be confined, otherwise they will swamp your newly planted herb area very swiftly.

Most beds and borders are enhanced by a neat edging or a low hedge. Have a look at our article 'Hedging and Edging with Herbs' for ways to give the final touch to your new herb planting.