Friday, May 19, 2017

Creating An Ornamental Herb Garden

Why grow herbs?

The dried herbs that come in those little glass bottles might be convenient, but chances are they aren't particularly fresh. Dry some homegrown herbs yourself and you'll immediately see the difference. Even the herbs in the fresh produce department of the grocery store may have travelled miles since they were first picked. They never taste as fresh as the herbs you pick from your own garden.

Herbs are uniquely versatile plants.They not only have culinary uses, but medicinal and decorative uses as well. With herbs, you can brew some homemade tea, season a dish, add them to salads or dry them to make fragrant wreaths. 

Herbs are also easy to grow. Some of the Mediterranean herbs can be a bit fussy about drainage, but if you get the growing conditions right, they are pretty undemanding plants.

The main inspiration for this post is the ornamental herb garden at the Agricultural Campus of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. 

The garden was designed by Carol Goodwin and is laid out in a formal "four-quarter" design. Two of the quadrants have a blue, mauve and pink flowers. The final quadrants are white and gold flowers. 

Starting on the top left: Chervil, Basil, Thai Basil. Bottom: Rosemary, Dill and Thyme.

 A few key Culinary Herbs:

Rosemary, Rosmarinnus officinalis (annual or perennial depending on your zone): I like to sprinkle fresh rosemary (or dried depending on the season) on parboiled potatoes just before I roast them. Mixed with a dijon mustard and a little black pepper, rosemary is also makes a great seasoning for roast pork. Rosemary isn't hardy in my garden zone. It's slow to grow, so I like to buy a generous size plant each spring. In late summer, I harvest what's left in the garden and dry it. Rosemary likes a hot, sunny spot with excellent drainage. USDA zones: 6-10.

Thyme, thymus vulgaris (perennial) is another Mediterranean herb that's easy to grow providing you get the growing conditions right. It likes poor, pebbly soil that has excellent drainage. Planted in fertile soil or in anything less than full sun, thyme won't be happy. Thyme can be used to season eggs, biscuits, vegetables and meat. USDA zones: 5-9.

Sage, Salvia officinalis (perennial) is a classic herb that is used to flavour poultry, soups and stuffing. With a little protection, sage overwinters in my garden quite nicely. Each spring I simply prune the plant hard to encourage fresh growth. If your starting from scratch this spring, buy a small plant at a local nursery or garden centre. Plant it in a sunny, dry spot with good drainage. USDA zones:5-8.

Basil, Ocimum basilicum (annual) is great paired with mozzarella and fresh tomatoes. It's also nice in summer salads and makes a delicious pesto for pasta, pizza and sandwiches. Basil likes heat, so it is best to plant it around the same time you plant tomatoes (Basil and tomatoes make great companion plants). USDA zones: 2-11.

French Tarragon, Artemisia dracunculus (annual) is used in soups and with chicken or fish. Purchase small nursery plants in the spring and plant them in a sunny spot that is dry and well-drained. USDA zones: 4-9.

Cilantro, Coriandrum Sativum (annual) Not everyone is a fan of cilantro, which has quite a strong flavour. It's nice in curries, in Thai noodle soup and guacamole. Cilantro likes cool weather, so sow your seeds early in the season or in the late summer/early fall (depending on your zone). Full sun to part-shade. Cilantro grows quickly and can bolt into flower, so shear off the foliage with a pair of scissors as soon as your plants are a few inches tall. If you want the spice coriander, allow the plants to flower and then harvest and dry the seeds. USDA zones: 2-11.

Herbs best grown in Containers:

There are two reasons I can think of to consider growing herbs in containers. The first is convenience. Last summer I had a pot of herbs by the back door and I found it was nice to have them close at hand when I was in a rush to get dinner ready.

1. Golden Lemon Thyme 2. Oregano 3. Sage 4. Parsley  5. French Tarragon  6. Purple Basil
7. Vietnamese Basil 8. Silver Thyme

My container planting for this year is pretty full, but it's a generous pot and I will routinely harvest from it throughout the growing season.

Oregano with Sage in behind it.

Aggressive plants are the second reason for growing herbs in containers. For example:

• Oregano, Origanum (perennial) is a Mediterranean herb that thrives in sunny, dry conditions in poor soil. It spreads quickly so it's a good one to plant in a container. The fresh and dried foliage is a key ingredient in Italian, Greek and Spanish cooking. USDA zones: 3-11.

Mint, Mentha (perennial) is a spreader, but it's a nice herb to have for tea and flavouring summer drinks. Mint doesn't seem to be particularly hardy in my garden, so I replace it every spring with a new plant from the garden centre. Full sun. USDA zones: 5-11

Lemon Balm, Melissa officinalis (annual) is a member of the mint family and has the same spreading habit. Fresh leaves are nice in fruit salads, in tea and on fish. Full sun, USDA zones: 8-11.

Tansy, Tanacetum vulgare (perennial) has yellow, button-shaped flowers. Tansy spreads by creeping rhizomes and also self-seeds vigorously, so consider carefully how and where you plant it. Tansy is said to repel insects and dries well for use in fall arrangements. Part shade. USDA zones: 4-8.

Sweet Woodruff, Galium odoratum (perennial) is a great groundcover for shade, but can be a nuisance if planted in the wrong place. Sweet Woodruff can quickly colonize a good-sized area. The dried leaves and flowers have a fresh, hay scent that makes them great for potpourris. Part-shade to full shade. USDA zones 4-8.

Mediterranean Herb Garden

I keep hearing the experts recommend that you replace the soil in your container plantings every year. It makes sense that soil nutrients will get depleted over time, but what do you do with the old soil?

I remember hearing one gardening expert saying that she "throws the old soil out." I have often wondered what she means. Does she dump the soil in the garbage? Out back somewhere? 

1. Silver Thyme, thymus vulgaris 2. Rosemary 3. Lavender 4. Golden Lemon Thyme 5. Penny Violet

It's got me thinking. Why not reuse the soil?

Mediterranean herbs love poor soil! Of course you may have to improve the drainage by mixing in a little fine gravel or maybe some perlite, but the herbs like thyme, rosemary and oregano thrive in poor soil and hot, baking conditions, so why not reuse that old soil for them? Nasturtiums are another example of a plant that would also be fine with soil from last season's containers.

Bee Balm, Bergamont or Monarda

Flowering Herbs:

A herb garden can be just as colorful as a standard flower garden. Flowering herbs not only add an ornamental quality to the garden, they are often edible. Many herbal flowers have cosmetic uses as well.

Chives, Allium schoenoprasum (perennial) couldn't be easier to grow. Chives form grass-like clumps and produce round, mauve flowers in spring. The hollow leaves have a mild oniony flavour. The flowers can be eaten as well or used as a garnish. Full sun and average garden soil are fine for this plant. Chives are prolific self-seeders, so cut back the foliage hard to a few inches above the ground before the blooms set seed. The clump will look bedraggled for a week or two and then you should see nice, fresh growth. USDA zones: 3-10.

Pot Marigold, Calendula (annual) is easy to grow from seed. Calendula is sometimes known as "poor man's saffron". Fresh flower petals have a number of cosmetic uses and is nice in salads. Full sun and average garden soil. USDA zones: 3-9.

Bee Balm, Bergamont or Monarda (perennial) is native to eastern North America and has a history of being used by Native North Americans as a medicinal plant. Monarda has somewhat crazy looking mop-head flowers in shades of pink, red, white and lavender. The main reasons for growing Monarda is its aromatic foliage that smells a bit like mint. The fresh leaves can be brewed to make a nice tea. Monarda likes rich, moist soil and a sunny spot. It's also a plant that butterflies and hummingbirds adore. USDA zones: 4-9. 

Dill, Anethum graveolens (annual) is one of my favourite herbs. I love it mixed into mashed potatoes, sprinkled on salmon and used in cold summer pasta salads. Even the flowers are pretty and delicate. The seeds have a use in pickles and vinegars. Dill likes full sun and good, rich soil. It gets tall, so grow it in a spot sheltered from winds or stake it as needed. USDA zones: 2-11.

Fennel with the blue flowers of Love-in-the-Mist, Nigella in the foreground.

Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare (perennial) resembles dill in appearance and has fine feathery foliage and floral umbels. The bulbs, stalks and seeds are all edible. Full sun. USDA zones: 7-10.

German Chamomile, Matricaria recutita (annual) is another herb that's easy to grow from seed. German chamomile grows about two feet tall, and when dried, the flower petals make a soothing tea that promotes sleep and soothes an upset stomach. As well as tea, chamomile has cosmetic and culinary uses. A word of warning: German chamomile reseeds itself readily. Full sun. USDA zones: 3-10.

Betony, Stachys officinalis (perennial) forms a low mound of green leaves and has mauve or pink flower spikes mid-summer. The uses for this plant are both culinary and medicinal. This is one flowering herb that will tolerate part-shade. USDA zones 4-8.

Lavender, Lavandula (perennial) Good drainage is absolutely essential when growing lavender. Cold won't do them in, but wet and soggy ground in winter will cause them to parish. If you have clay soil, amend it with sand and small pebbles to increase the drainage. Another enemy of lavender is the wind. Plant lavender in a sheltered, sunny spot, where they are protected from harsh winter winds. Full sun. USDA zones: 4-8.

Notes on extending the seasons of bloom:

Incorporating a range of flowering plants should insure your herb garden has color all season long.

Spring Flowering Herbs:

Chives- mauve flowers
Foxglove-magenta-pink, white or peach flowers
Sweet Woodruff-white flowers

Summer Flowering:

Echinacea- pink, magenta,yellow, orange and orange-red flowers
Nigella- blue flowers and lovely ferny foliage.
Thyme- tiny pink, mauve or white flowers
Nasturtium- a range of colors including yellow, orange and red
Monarda, Bergamont- pink, white, lavender, purple, red and maroon flowers
Calendula- yellow and orange
Camomile- white daisy-like flowers with a yellow centre
Geranium- a range of colors including pink, white, mauve and magenta
Lavender- white, purple and dark purple flowers
Sage- blue flowers
Rosemary- small pale-blue flowers

Late Summer/Fall

Anise Hyssop, Agastache foeniculum-blue flowers
Calendula– yellow and orange flowers
Garlic Chives– white flowers mid-to-late summer

Marigold flowers can be used as a dye.

Love-in-the-Mist, Niegella

Planting a herb garden provides you with something that is as beautiful as it is practical. I hope this post encourages you to try growing your own herb garden this spring.


  1. This is an outstanding and extremely informative post Jennifer and your captures of Carol's gardens are absolutely gorgeous! Herbs are wonderful to grow and there is nothing like fresh basil out of the garden and right into the kitchen!

    1. Thanks Lee! It is a great treat to go out and pick something like herbs that add so much to a meal.

  2. great post! Have a happy long weekend!

    1. Thanks Anne! Hope you had a nice long weekend too!

  3. Comme toujours un post bien intéressant, de jolies photos. Je vois que les jolis pots en céramique font partie de la mondialisation : nous avons les mêmes en France ( pourvu qu'ils ne soient pas fabriqués en Chine 😣)
    Bonne journée

    1. Merci! J'adore les potots et je leur ai bien compris une collection.

  4. What a timely post for me, Jennifer!
    I have never grown herbs before, but while out an d about yesterday, I came across a small flat with 6 different herbs in it. It was so sweet, I couldn't resist. So home with me it came, and I separated each into clay pots. For now, they will be inside on my windowsill, because the nights are still pretty cold here. I am going to try to keep them going year-round. We'll see...
    As always, thank you for such an informative post.
    Have a great weekend!

    1. I think you'll enjoy having your own herb garden. I started off with one raised bed and am expanding into a second. Rosemary, parsley and dill are my absolute favourites!

  5. What a fabulous posting, Jennifer! You give an abundance of useful information illustrated with stunning pictures. The first photo is my favorite -- who wouldn't want a garden like that? My herbs are not always as successful as yours -- probably because I use a soil that is too rich. I've planted my herb garden already, but I wonder if it would help if I add some old potting soil to the potting mix in the planter at this late date? Great posting! P. x


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