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.