Herb Garden Design 101

Designing a garden can be great fun as you consider potential plants and plant combinations, plant placement, and hardscape features {such as walls, pathways, and steps}. The design and planning phase of a garden are also critical to its success so take the time to do it thoughtfully. It’s a lot easier, and less expensive, to make changes on paper than in the garden.

Measure your garden site, then transfer the outline to graph paper, making the layout scale. {Perhaps 1 foot can equal 1 inch on your graph paper.} Mark trees, buildings, and other obstructions, and note which direction is north. Be sure to leave enough space for comfortable paths, and keep your beds narrow enough to work in – 4 to 5 feet across maximum – but wide enough to look both seductive and effective.

After you have established a design, choose the herbs that will bring it to life. Consider not only plant color, form, and texture but also bloom time and mature height, as well as the conditions of the site. When planning where to place your plants, remember that herbaceous plants usually look best {and most natural} when planted in groups of a given type. Individual plants get lost, creating a blurred, jumbled effect, but masses of plants stand out and create a more unified design. The noted Brazilian landscape architect and artist Roberto Burle Marx once described plants in a garden not only as individual species, but also as “a color, a shape, a volume, or an arabesque in itself.”

In your design, arrange plants so that taller and larger ones won’t hide smaller ones. If your design features a border backed by a wall or fence, plant the tallest herbs in the back and the lowest herbs in front. If you’re planning an island bed, put the tall plants in the center and the low plants around the edges. Include a focal point, such as a large shrub or birdbath, to help anchor the planting.

Good design also considers perspective. For instance, if you’re planning a knot garden – make sure the garden “floor” contrasts with the knotted edging or the pattern will be lost. If your design is meant to be viewed from a distance, use plants that will grab the viewer’s eye – large ones with bright flowers or silver foliage.

Finally, a few words on maintenance. All gardens require some work but keep in mind that the most formal your design and the larger its scale, the more weeding, clipping, mulching, and watering you’ll need to do. Herb gardens, like any others, look best when the plants are full and lush. This is vital when a herb edge or solid block of plants is integral to a design. It’s a good idea to grow extra plants in a nursery area or greenhouse so you’ll always have spares to fill in gaps.