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Welcome Perennial Culinary Herbs Into your Landscape
As a landscape designer, I view most perennial culinary herbs as small, versatile plants that I can dress up or down and include in almost any decor or color scheme. I use them in both formal and wild-looking gardens, use them to adorn hillsides, add them to flower and vegetable borders, and interplant them among low-growing evergreens. I use thyme and creeping winter savory among stepping stones. I like to shear rosemary, lavender, thyme, and some sages, forming them into small hedges or topiaries.
The Right Herb for the Right Design
The culinary herbs fall into two categories: those neutral enough to be used as background plants and those useful for accents.
Herbs with small green-to-gray-green leaves and a mounding habit-namely, Greek oregano, sweet marjoram, French thyme, creeping winter savory, common sage, tarragon, and spearmint-work well as background plants that complement brighter colored flowers.
Herbs with unusual colors and forms-such as common chives, with its tubular, grasslike foliage and lavender flowers, and Chinese chives, which has straplike leaves and white flowers-make showy accent plants. I’m especially partial to one of their relatives: society garlic, which has straplike leaves and bears tall spikes of lavender flowers from May through October. This plant is bulletproof in my Los Altos, California, garden (USDA Zone 9), and its flowers taste great in salads. I also gravitate toward the ornamental sages ‘Icterina,’ ‘Tricolor,’ and ‘Purpurascens’, which make lovely stand-alone plants.
My favorite herbs-Greek oregano, thyme, dwarf lavender, winter savory, common sage, tarragon, and spearmint-have as many uses in the garden as they have in the kitchen. These are mounding plants that have green or gray-green foliage and grow between 6 inches and 2 feet tall. All of them fit nicely among annual flowers, perennials, vegetables, and even evergreens. Here are attractive mates for herbs.
- Annuals: alyssum, dwarf nasturtiums, calendulas, zinnias, and marigolds.
- Perennials: coreopsis, purple coneflowers, and all sorts of dianthus, geraniums, and yarrow.
- Vegetables: peppers, eggplants, and bulbing fennel.
- Evergreens: low shrubs, such as germander, and dwarf forms of boxwood, myrtle, and barberry.My favorite way to grow culinary herbs is in containers. I can change the look of the garden by rearranging plants and varying the combinations as the fancy strikes me. Containers are also the perfect answer for gardeners with heavy soils. With pots, you can provide a more ideal growing medium for your herbs. Container herbs do need a little more care than those grown in the ground, however. I fertilize mine every two weeks with liquid fish fertilizer and shear them every six weeks to keep them within their bounds.
Integrate Different Herbs in the Garden
Herbs take up very little space in the garden and do not need to be planted in a special herb garden or area set aside from the main garden. Nor do herbs need to be relegated to fanciful and difficult to maintain knot gardens or parterres.
Herbs can be planted in flower beds, hanging baskets, in borders and vegetable beds, in pots and containers for patios, terrace, and deck.
Just like any other plant, garden herbs come in a range of different foliage colors from green, gray, bronze, purple, and yellow to variegated. And with their full spectrum of flower colors, shapes and textures herbs are at home just about anywhere in the garden.
In fact, it’s probably easier not to treat herbs as a separate group of the plant. Because different herbs have different cultural requirements gathering them all together in one place doesn’t make much sense.
For example, many Mediterranean herbs such as thyme are drought tolerant and need full sun and fast-draining soil, whereas most varieties of mint prefer cooler conditions and a moisture-retaining soil. These two plants do not combine well in the same place but both are very useful culinary herbs.
However, both can be grown successfully in pots and moved around the garden as required. Mint, in particular, is best kept in a pot and should not be planted out in the garden as it is a rampant grower and just wants to take over the planet.
So whilst the culinary herbs you use most may appear in areas not far from the kitchen door or in pots on the patio or terrace, it’s fun to experiment and to discover many other places in the garden where herbs can play a role.
In addition, the varied texture and shape of herbs that are grown more for their leaves than their flowers can make a strong contribution to the garden throughout the changing seasons.
Herbs have much more to offer than cooking with or garnishing salads. Herbs can also be used to soothe burns, scratches, coughs, and colds. You can make teas with them, perfume your home with them, put them in your bath water, weave, spin and dye with them, make lotions and potions with them, and even use them to cast spells.
And of course, dried and fresh herbs can be used in all sort of craftwork or simply picked and put in a vase of water. The role of herbs in the garden is really only limited by your imagination.