Designing the Herb Garden

herb garden

A lush herb garden to spark your culinary endeavors.

There are herb gardens and there are ‘Herb Gardens’. Some, a humble little patch of ground in the corner of the garden to save us a gas-guzzling trip to the market, others, elegantly designed and laid out in beds with boxwood or germander hedges, that bear the formality of an 18th century ‘Physic’ garden. Our own gardens fall somewhere within the broad spectrum of the two. We’re not ‘foodies’, by any stretch, and so our herb garden is basically utilitarian, rather than than ‘au courant’. And, because we till our kitchen garden every year, we’ve found it to be more practical to grow perennnial herbs in a dedicated garden that won’t be disturbed. In our herb garden, we grow perennial herbs; sage, thyme, parsley, rosemary. tarragon, sorrel, winter savory, chervil, mint, horseradish (horseradish is invasive so we grow it in a large pot that we’ve sunk into the ground, as we do with mint), oregano, marjoram, chives, ..and, well, that’s about it, except for rhubarb, which is technically not an herb, but due to its perennial nature, we’ve located it in the herb garden, along with climbing roses and a perennial sweet pea, the last two to embellish the fence. We consider arugula to be a salad green and so that is grown in the Kitchen Garden, as are most of the annual herbs, including dill, fennel, cilantro. basil (3 kinds; Genovese, Lime, and Thai), and parsley. Bay is grown in a pot so it can be overwintered in the greenhouse, along with the rosemary, although, occasionally, we take cuttings of the rosemary and set the young plants directly in the ground. The one perennial herb missing from our garden which really ought to be considered indispensable is lovage; a tall, very hardy plant that combines the taste and texture of celery and parsley. Magnificent.

Things to keep in mind when designing an herb garden:

  • Grow what you’ll actually use. I still have no idea how to use Winter Savory, but it’s there in the garden and, well, why? Hopefully, we’ll have some expert chefs over some evening and they will wax ecstatic over it and tell us how to use it.
  • Research the plants and allow enough space for them. Sage can get very large, as can oregano. Thyme will also take up some real estate, if you allow it to.
  • Mint and horseradish are invasive plants. Confine them by planting them in very large pots, sunk into the ground so the rim of the pot is level with the soil. Mulching over this edge will disguise it.  We use 5 gallon pots that we recycle from trees or shrubs that we buy (yes, we’re landscapers so we have a steady supply of these from projects we’ve installed, but if you don’t have one, ask a nursery if you can purchase one from them. They’ll probably give you a couple for next to nothing).
  • Sorrel is a very special plant with which the French make an excellent soup. Alas, I seldom use it, but when I do, it’s specifically for a sauce to serve over poached fish. The large leaves melt under heat, and when sauteed with cream, and perhaps a shallot, the resulting sauce is superb. Sorrel is tangy, sourish, fresh like a lemon. Very nice to have in the herb garden, even though it bolts almost immediately. A savvy cook would plan a Spring dinner party and serve asparagus and poached salmon with a sorrel sauce.
  • Basil. We grow a row or two of it in the kitchen garden, practically a hedge of it, 20 feet long. Come July, we harvest pounds of it, hurl it into the Cuisinart along with garlic, good olive oil, toasted walnuts (Pine nuts have become far too expensive and the walnuts impart an even richer flavor), sea salt and Parmesan cheese (chef’s say not to add the cheese if you’re planning on freezing your pesto, but we’ve noticed no difference), and then we vacuum pack it into tubes, freeze it, and it refreshes us with it’s rich summer flavor all winter long into spring.  If it’s too overpowering, as it is for some, ourselves included, blend it with heavy cream or greek yoghurt, in a saucepan, if you’re using it as a pasta sauce. Straight-up, it’s great on cheese sandwiches, or mixed into an omelette.

Designing the Cutting Garden

annual flowers for bouquets

Classic ‘Cutting Garden’ flowers

Much of our gardening business work is designing residential ‘cottage’ style gardens. When we meet with new clients, we ask them to complete a four page questionairre, which provides detailed questions about their color preferences, allergies, lifestyle, as well as some multiple choice questions about their “dream garden”. One of these questions asks if the client would like a ‘Cutting Garden’ and this bears a footnote explaining what a ‘Cutting Garden’ is. ” A cutting garden is a garden area, arranged much like a vegetable garden, but the crop is flowers, with the purpose of providing material for floral arrangements. These are usually planted in rows to facilitate hoeing and weeding, as well as to accommodate effective staking configurations.”

Eight out ten times, the client writes YES, however, after all these years, we have only installed one cutting garden for a client. I suppose that when folks figure out that a cutting garden is somewhat labor intensive, not quite as labor intensive as a vegetable garden, but close enough, it discourages would be floral arrangers, from having one. It’s a shame, really, because, where a kitchen garden feeds the body, a cutting garden feeds the soul.

Why a separate ‘Cutting Garden’, people ask. Why not just tiptoe into your cottage garden or perennial border with a pair of secateurs and harvest some flowers for the house? Well, yes, many people do this, and if you have a very large garden it is an option, however, you’ll deprive the ‘borders’ of some of their floral beauty, and, anyway, many of the lovely bouquets you see at Farmer’s Markets, and particularly those that be associate with ‘Summer’ are composed of classic cutting garden plants, which are annuals; Larkspur, Cosmos, Dahlias, Zinnias, China Asters, Statice, Sunflowers, Bells of Ireland, and these need to be planted every year, which would mean leaving plenty of blank spaces in your perennial borders for the planting of annuals. Furthermore, that means leaving ‘open-ground’, that is, ground that is not mulched (the seeds won’t emerge from mulch) and this introduces some very nit-picky weeding. No. In my mind, it’s more efficient to have a dedicated cutting garden, and it’s easily done

Designing a Cutting Garden requires no greater skills or horticultural knowledge than common sense and a ‘back of the seed packet’ familiarity with the plants one wants to grow. Here at Stonewell Farm, we plan the cutting garden with rows that are running on a North-South axis. This way, the rows will all receive as much East-West sunlight as possible. This can get a little tricky if you’re growing very tall sunflowers, for instance, in which case, its best to plant them in a quadrant of their own so that they won’t cast too much shade on their neighbors. That said, we try to keep plants of similar heights in rows close together.

Classic Cutting Garden Plants:

richly colored dahlias

With blooms in nearly unlimited shapes, sizes, and colors, dahlias are the essence of a late summer bouquet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

glorious gladiolas

Gladiolas are ‘hip’ again, . There’s nothing dowdy or grim about these tall beauties, that shine in an arrangement.

 

colorful china asters

Few flowers are as cheerful and exuberant in an arrangement as China Asters in summer.

colorful larkspur

The annual Larkspur, Consolida ambigua, is so fresh, elegant and poetic, that it’s worth the extra effort to get these seeds into the ground early, when the soil is about 55 degrees F.

 

What makes you glad to be alive? Zinnias.  All the colors of the rainbow, (except blue) and with the so-called 'cactus-flowered' types as well, nothing could be simpler to grow than these horticultural twins of Prozac!

What makes you glad to be alive? Zinnias. All the colors of the rainbow, (except blue) and with the so-called ‘cactus-flowered’ types as well, nothing could be simpler to grow than these horticultural twins of Prozac!

 

 

sunflowers

Jam a few sunflowers into a cheap vase and it looks like a million bucks! Here, the goldfinches get to them before we do, but then, what’s the downside? Goldfinches and sunflowers is a win-win, here at Stonewell Farm.