Saras Secrets  »   Herb Garden Design  »  

Designing An Informal Garden

These are gardens with minds of their own actually. It's OK if chamomile seeds itself in the pathway. I don't mind that the thyme creeps all over the place or the spearmint spreads like crazy. A little bit wild, a little bit untamed, but, for the most part, a really nice mix of textures, foliage colors, heights, and varieties.

We find this style in reaction to the rigid, pompous, and unnatural formal garden style. The change reflects the change in attitude of the period, which is at the heart of Rousseau's attitudes to nature and to society-one good, and the other corrupt. The dividing line between formal and informal is attributed to a technological advance called a ha ha. Intrigued? So was I. In the development of the landscape garden, the destruction of walls for boundaries and the invention of fossés (ditches) caused those suddenly coming upon the ditches to express their surprise with an exclamation: Ah Ha! Before the ha ha, fences, walls, and hedges prevented the gardener from seeing how his garden could become part of nature. It prevented him from seeing how all parts of nature, the rough and the smooth, could be considered fit elements of a garden. Ancient ruins also figure prominently in these landscapes.

Anyone interested in visiting a medieval herb garden ought to visit The Cloisters in New York City. The herb garden in the Bonnefont Cloister is one of the highlights of the museum. This garden has been described in a handsome and very readable book by Tania Bayard entitled Sweet Herbs and Sundry Flowers: Medieval Gardens and the Gardens of the Cloisters. Here is an excerpt:

The plants….are labeled and grouped in 19 beds, according to uses. …..The labels give some idea of the variety of ways in which herbs were employed in the medieval household. ….The Bonnefont Cloister contains only species of plants known in the Middle Ages." Bayard includes a list of plants, which follows: Bed 1-aromatic plants: lavender, meadowsweet, lemon balm. Bed 3 & 12-medicinal plants: germander, mallow, comfrey, St. John's wort, celandine, dead nettle, bistort. Bed 6 & 8-culinary plants: sage, hyssop, pot marjoram, common thyme, winter savory, leeks, red valerian. Bed 7-dye plants: madder, weld, woad.
The beds are arranged symmetrically around a 15th century wellhead which bears grooves left by ropes that drew buckets over its sides hundreds of years ago. A well, spring, pool, stream, or other water source was necessary for any medieval garden (remember the Persian garden influences.)

Designing an Informal Garden

It's still a good idea to pay attention to mature heights and spreads. After all, even Mother Nature makes a little bit of order in a chaotic world. Try to use silver and variegated leaves among the green ones, and mix ferny-type leaves with broader ones. This will make it interesting to look at as well as useful. Start small with big thoughts for future additions. As you get more knowledgeable about what you want in the herb garden, you probably won't have to move anything around in this type of garden in order to add a sage here or an oregano there. Live it up!

This type of garden works really well as a theme garden devoted to culinary uses, potpourri mixes, or even a tussie mussie message garden. See if your friends and family can break the code! Other types of theme gardens concentrate on just one color, an all white garden or one with only shades or purple, yellow, red. Or what about themes around use of herbs: one for growing herbs you use in vinegar, or Italian cooking herbs, or a garden just for pressed flowers, or herbs just for the respiratory system, or herbs for relieving stress, or edible flowers and salad gardens. Your imagination is the limit.

In Coventry, Connecticut is Caprilands Herb Farm. Though the owner has died recently, Adelma Grenier Simmons has left not only the farm, but also a record of her work in a book entitled Herb Gardening in Five Seasons. In it, she set out plans for six gardens, which I consider theme gardens. Her butterfly garden is not just made up of herbs that attract butterflies, but takes the shape of a butterfly with the head and middle section made of stones, the lower body of grass, and the wings delineated by various varieties of thyme, filled out in various herbs: lovage, tarragon, basil, pineapple sage, lemon verbena, and burnet to name a few. Plan 2, consisting of herbs for cooking, is arranged in an ell shape and is called the dooryard garden. Plan 3, called the "Herbs for Drying Garden", is 10' by 14' and contains four groupings for medicine, bees, fragrance and cooking. The "Wheel Garden" is an elaboration of plantings between spokes of a wagonwheel. It is 20' by 24'. The spokes are made of lavender and variegated sage, and in between, are separate beds of green santolina and common sage. In another garden are only scented geraniums: one section for citrus varieties, one for rose varieties, one for fancy leaved varieties, one for oak leaved varieties, and in the center, are strawberry and nutmeg geraniums. There is a stained-glass window garden, which is actually a knot garden, that gives the effect of a Gothic stained-glass window. The last garden is for herbs that can go wild: thymes, oregano, tansy, mullein, wild bergamot, woad, artemisia, and Jerusalem artichoke. Caprilands is well worth a visit, if you are in the area.

There are herbs for all conditions. If your area is hot and dry, consider planting Mediterranean herbs such as lavender, thyme, sage, rosemary and artemisia. If you have shade, the following herbs are suitable: elderberry shrub, any of the mints, valerian, foxglove, sweet cicely, sweet woodruff, angelica, and lady's mantle. Herbs and flowers are beautiful together. You might consider flowers of only one color-a white garden or a magenta garden. If you are mixing annuals with perennials, you might want to group all annuals together to make taking care of them easier.

Another choice is a mixed border. Consider the height of the plants, the color, and the texture. A piece of garden sculpture can be used to create a focal point—a statue, urn or sundial— in the center of some grass with herbs and flowers encircling it. Another possibility is creating a formal garden around this focal point with an informal border around the formal garden complete with benches and trees.

Herbs are especially suitable for rock gardens, which are very informal, because so many of them are low growing. Here are some plants to start with if you have a suitable area: common chives, garlic chives, Roman chamomile, bush basil, wild ginger, alpine strawberry, dwarf oregano, dwarf sage, winter savory and the creeping variety, all the thymes-creeping red, pink and white, wooly, golden lemon, purslane, and saffron. For color, there are low growing violas and species tulips, and for shade, there is sweet woodruff. Corsican mint, pennyroyal, prostrate rosemary, golden marjoram, lady's mantle, parsley, chives and saffron crocus are good rock garden subjects, also. Choose indigenous rocks to your area and dig them in so they look like Nature left them that way.

If garden space is very limited, containers and windowboxes are also a possibility. Of course, containers can also be a part of any garden. I have seen some stunning medicinal herb combinations in a little book entitled Herbal Remedies in Pots by Effie Romain and Sue Hawkey. The horseradish/trailing nasturtiums pot for winter chills is magnificent as is the one for pregnancy containing German chamomile, raspberry, horehound, and pot marigold.

With the wealth of garden design of the past, there is a garden plan for anyone wishing to grow herbs. I like to incorporate herbs with flowers and vegetables. Many of the herbs are perennials, and it is convenient to keep them in the same garden. But there is always a little space in between for some colorful annuals -nasturtiums, gem marigolds, and calendula. Many of the low growing herbs-creeping thymes, pennyroyal, Corsican mint, curly chives, trailing soapwort, English daisies, and Roman chamomile, add interest to any border garden along the house or paths.

Sara's Garden

My kitchen garden is right at my door. It is in a rock garden where I grow the perennials I use most often-Greek oregano, chives, garlic chives, parsley, spearmint, sage, burnet, thyme, lemon verbena, and rosemary. To the side of the house, there is a large garden where I grow most of the annual herbs—basil (sweet, lemon, red rubin, cinnamon, and Thai), dill, chervil, borage, and sweet marjoram. Bordering the annual garden is a patch of lemon thyme and next to it, I grow winter savory and spilanthes because their colors blend so well.

I grow the lanky herbs that are not so attractive out of sight-lovage, comfrey, and sorrel. I hide my two propane tanks behind hops, valerian, mugwort, motherwort, and milk thistle. Purple coneflower (Echinacea) is so beautiful that it is planted in four areas around the house. The roots are good medicine, and the flowers are gorgeous cut flowers. Mullein seeds itself, and so far, it has chosen a good spot to grow without any help from me. Interspersed are violas, chickweed, purslane, and other volunteers that I use and do not weed out. One year, my pink cleome and borage reseeded themselves, making a truly lovely combination that I have recreated ever since. I have red beebalm next to gloriosa daisies under the bird feeder, and behind it are three poles tied together at the top to act as a climber for morning glories and red runner beans. Applemint has taken over a spot near the purple bee balm.

Near my little formal garden with the sundial, there are a few stepping stones bordering a small semicircle of Echinacea, southernwood, and lamb's ears, providing a perfect spot for an allee of lavender, which I make longer each year. I never have enough lavender. Under the eastern window is elecampane, lemon balm, orangemint, and sweet cicely. They all prefer dappled shade. Each year, I expand a little at a time. I often find deer prints in the beds, but fortunately, they are not fond of herbs, though they did like my Asiatic lily buds, and I got no flowers from the bed closest to the wood's edge. My garden will never be finished. It's a life's work. I strive to use the resources at hand to create a little beauty around me, and I hope for you the same.