When many people envision their garden, they feel the need to choose between fashion and function -- Flowers or Herbs. Yet, little do they know, that the two can be combined to enjoy the best of both worlds. We tend to forget to appreciate herbs in our garden, focusing mainly on the end product- their flavor. So what does an herb offer for your landscape?
Herbs add depth and contrast to your existing flower gardens, by offering a myriad of verdant colors that enhance the color of your buds and blooms. By filling space around, between, and under your existing flowers, herbs allow the blooming colors to seem more vibrant. Essentially, they frame your flowers without detracting from their beauty. The many textures of their varying foliage also make your garden more interesting, and you can alternate from glossy, dark green Basils such as the Basil 'Italian Large Leaf', to the variegated leaves of the wonderful Thyme 'Golden Variegated', Thyme 'Silver Edge', Sage 'Tricolor' and Basil 'Amethyst' are just a few of the naturally stunning plants that add can compliment your flower garden, with little effort to maintain.
Many herbs themselves have beautiful blooms that often go overlooked or undesired if grown solely for their culinary benefits. Once an herb beings to bloom and goes to bolt, the flavor profile may change, so culinary herb gardeners tend to prune the flowering tops of these plants to preserve the herb's flavor intensity. If left to flower, most herbs display beautiful spires, clusters and sprigs of color that will continue all summer long. Rosemary, Basil and Fennel plants are just a handful of culinary herbs that may be best left un-snipped to allow their blooms to attract wildlife and lend beauty to your landscape. Other herbs not traditionally used to cook with that provide an array of color are Clary Sage, Joe Pye Weed, Sweet Woodruff and Rue.
Many herbs have natural insect and pest repelling properties that will actually help protect your neighboring flowers from outside attacks from unwanted visitors. Incorporating your landscape with these non toxic defenders will ensure a healthier garden and less stress for you, too. Herbs like Bergamot (Bee Balm) and Chives which will deter deer to Tansy which helps repel against Japanese Beetles. They all have wonderful blooms that will look great while safeguarding your other plants. Not only will these flowering herbs keep pests out, but their sweet scents will help entice valuable pollinators like hummingbirds, bees and butterflies to encourage the pollination and growth of your garden. Many herbs are havens for very specific types of butterflies, such as the Monarch Butterfly, which tends to favor Fennel flowers.
Planning Is Key
Gardening with herbs does not have to be complicated; with a bit of planning and a little imagination, you can either use herbs to transform an existing bed or start completely from scratch. In either case, it is important for you to do some preliminary groundwork. Determining the purpose for your garden is one of the first steps to enjoying it. Having an end use in mind will help dictate what and how you plant. For example, a kitchen garden might be best planted close to your back door for easy access to fresh herbs while you cook. You want those fresh flavors close at hand when you need a sprig of Tarragon and don't want to trek across your yard.
What space do you have to work with? Remember that your plants will mature quickly and flush out beautifully, so space needs to be a consideration when planning. I've made the mistake of planting starter plants too closely and they end up choking each other out. Save yourself the heartache and allow at least three to eight feet for a perennial herb and about one to three feet for an annual. The height and spread of each plant, are also important in terms of light. Make sure to plant your more dramatic, upright herbs closer to the back, leaving ample space for low lying, creeping herbs like Thyme closer to the front where they may still get plenty of light. Your herbs will need at least six hours of direct light a day, and if you invest in perennial plants, you'll have to plan for shifting sunlight as the days get shorter, moving into the Fall season.
The soil that you start your garden in, is just as important as the amount of light the area gets. Herbs need well draining soil, and some, like Lavenders are particularly fussy about "wet feet". Test your soil and plant accordingly. You may even want to add sand or organic compost to different parts of your garden, to cater to the specific needs of certain plants. That being said, study up on each plant. Even the "usual suspects". Knowing each plant's specific needs will allow you to provide for them and diagnose any unforeseen issues that may arise. (It's also a good way to make sure you are not planting unwanted plants like invasive species.)
It helps to plot out your garden on paper first, before you break ground. In the fall, decide where you want to 'fill in' and plant. This is also a wonderful way to spend your cold winter nights. Just curl up with some graphing paper and a pencil, with a cup of hot chocolate begin to dream and scheme about the spring. Thinking ahead will keep you company through the cold and you'll be ready to get started as soon as the ground thaws. This will save you a lot of trouble and it will ensure that each plant gets the proper attention and resources that it needs.
It's time to reinvent the way we look at growing herbs and remember to choose them for their colors, textures and blooms. Many herbs are perennial and will remain long after your flowers fade. Most need little water and don't prefer to be fertilized, making them very simple ways to round out your landscape for a more interesting look. So this fall, as you are buying plants and making plans for your yard, consider adding herbs not just for their flavor, but for the beauty the can bring to your favorite spaces.