Design with Herbs
My herbs grow well enough, but they are not particularly pretty.
How can I redesign my garden so it looks as good as it tastes and
Most herbs earn their places based on usefulness rather than
looks, but this does not mean that an herb garden can’t be
beautiful. Borrow a few ideas from flower garden design to create
an herb garden that pleases all of your senses.
First, let’s consider a few practical points. Culinary herbs, in
particular, need to be accessible because you shouldn’t have to
tiptoe among other plants each time you want a few snips of basil
or parsley. Edges are always the easiest places to reach, so the
more edges you have, the better. This is one of the reasons why
long, border-type gardens are so popular. Circular gardens are fun,
too, with edges inside the circle as well as along its rim.
The precise shape doesn’t matter, but in the interest of
neatness, all edges should be well defined. This can be done with
plants, brick, stone, wood or low panels of hand-made wattle
(slender green sticks woven between upright posts).
In a border viewed from one side, short or mound-forming plants
should go in the front, with taller ones in the rear, so the plants
are stacked into layers according to height. If the bed is more
than 4 feet deep, include steppingstones inside the bed so you’ll
be able to move around freely between your plants. In a round,
square or rectangular garden, place the tallest plants in the
Most herbs are compact little plants, so it can be challenging
to give an herb garden a strong vertical accent, which is
important. If the garden is seen from one side, a few panels of
picket fence along the back will do the trick, or you can structure
the back with evergreen shrubs. In a non-linear garden, you can get
vertical drama by installing a trellis planted with a climbing rose
or a vigorous vine, such as passionflower, in the center. In very
small gardens, a stone pedestal topped with a gazing ball, sundial
or statue draws the eye upward. The goal is to get some kind of
vertical action going, which creates more visual excitement than a
knee-high sea of plants.
The next task is to create order, which is easily done by
repeating one plant in a predictable, rhythmic pattern. Parsley is
invaluable for this job, but any herb that grows remarkably well
for you can be used to create unity in the garden. Simply repeat
the plant at regular intervals so it becomes the garden’s “beat.”
The important thing is to repeat the plant at predictable points
within the design, such as at corners of a square or in the middle
of matching sections of a circle.
Now think about color and contrast. Most herbs are either green
or gray-green, and few herbs produce brightly colored flowers. Jazz
things up by adding color plants like red basil, scarlet-stemmed
chard or orange nasturtiums. Be bold because the sunny exposures
herbs prefer are no place for extra pastels, which disappear in
bright light. To sharpen the contrast, place plants with red leaves
or bright flowers next to frosty gray foliage; for example, place
red basil alongside helichrysum. Rich red petunias or geraniums do
wonders for clumps of lavender.
ALWAYS TRY TO GET SOME KIND OF VERTICAL ACTION GOING,
WHICH CREATES MORE VISUAL EXCITEMENT THAN A KNEE-HIGH SEA OF
You can put texture to work to great advantage, too. For
example, plants with grassy foliage, such as chives, garlic and
lemongrass, have a very different texture from leafy lemon balm,
which in turn is quite unlike salad burnet in both texture and hue.
To make the most of these texture changes without creating a mess,
grow like plants together in clumps or drifts, so that one texture
gets a fair turn saying “look at me” before the eye moves on to the
next subject. Keeping like plants together also simplifies pruning,
dividing and other maintenance chores.
We’re almost done, but we still need a few showy plants that
will work as focal points — pretty curiosities such as variegated
horseradish or tricolored sage. Look for plants that keep their
good looks for a long season because these are your spotlight
dancers. In a pinch, a warren of cute concrete bunnies will do.
Play with your design ideas on paper, which is easier than doing
it in the dirt.
It’s also wise to keep your design as simple as possible because
highly structured planting plans, for example knot gardens, limit
the types of plants that can be used, and demand constant upkeep.
Above all, remember that your design is a plan, and like all good
plans, it should include a bit of flexibility. Herb gardens change
constantly, so they are always a work in progress.
Barbara Pleasant is a contributing editor to The Herb Companion
and author of several books about gardening, including The Whole
Herb (available in our online Bookshelf at www.herb