During nearly a quarter-century of work, Gayle Engels has gotten her hands dirty in many herb gardens. The director of development of gardens at the American Botanical Council has worked on children’s herb gardens, gardens for herbs that benefit body systems, healing herb gardens and raised-bed herb gardens accessible to people in wheelchairs, among others. Engels’ current focus is an herb spiral in a 15-by-15-foot space in a Beaverton, Oregon, community garden.
“Really, it’s more of a question-mark shape,” she says. “It starts with culinary herbs and then moves to medicinal herbs, with an apothecary rose (Rosa gallica) in the center.” Engels is pretty proud of that find; the old-time variety used in medicinal preparations such as glycerates can be difficult to find. “Around the rose are six species of lavender; I make my own medicine, so I like to see what species do best.”
If you aspire to a creative, well-planned design like this but worry that you won’t get it right, don’t fear. Engels ensures that with a little forethought and planning, you can create an herb garden you love, and one that will provide a variety of medicine and spices to your household for years to come.
Take Time for Visioning
Although it might be tempting in the throes of winter to go crazy at a nursery, don’t buy a lot of plants before you have a place to put them. It’s too cold to work the soil, but it’s the ideal time to create your vision for the garden. As you begin, know that no single, right way exists to design an herb garden. With that pressure gone, you’re more likely to have some creative fun.
“I really like aesthetics—part of the joy of the garden is to enjoy the fruits of your labor—so I like things that blend with the surroundings,” Engels says of her design approach. “If you have a garden with a nice curvy border around the fence line, you may not want to drop a big 6-by-6 garden in the middle of your space.”
Consider your space and what works for you. Do you prefer the neat and tidy structure of a rectangular bed, or do you want your herbs to blend into the landscape? Is your soil well suited to growing herbs in the ground with just a few amendments, or is it best to raise the bed and haul in new soil? Your options are plenty, and experimenting with ideas can be fun.
You won’t build your herb garden and then be done. Rather, think of it as a perpetual work in progress. Find the joy in the journey of working the soil, experimenting with plants and sculpting the landscape to suit your desires.
Pick the Right Spot
Location is crucial with an herb garden. Place it to maximize your use and enjoyment of it while also ensuring the plants reach their full potential. As long as the garden is situated to get plenty of sunlight—six to eight hours a day is ideal for most herbs—you don’t have many other restrictions.
However, Engels recommends taking a cue from permaculture and keeping your herb garden close to your house. The closer it is, the more a part of your life it is. You can easily notice when an herb looks unhappy or needs harvesting. You can pick a few weeds every day as you pass by. What’s more, your herbs are close by when you’re in the middle of cooking a recipe.
Attack Weeds Early
Once you’ve chosen a garden location, continue to contain your desire to purchase a bunch of plants. First take some time to get weeds under control. If you don’t, you’ll battle unwanted plants in your garden space for years to come.
Because herbs are used for medicinal or culinary purposes, and often serve as habitat to beneficial insects, it’s wise to limit chemical weed suppressants. Instead, Engels recommends getting to the root of the matter—literally.
“Dig out all of the weeds by the roots,” she says. “This may be the hardest work you do,” but the extra effort will be worth it in the long run.
First, mark off the garden space with string. Then, after digging up the weed roots, Engels recommends double-digging the soil and using a spading fork to loosen and aerate the plot. Finally, lay well-rotted chicken or turkey manure to add nutrients to the soil. “Don’t till, because it makes weeds worse,” she says.
Once you’ve finished this important and time-intensive step, then you’re ready for the fun part.
Set Realistic Expectations
Most new gardeners are eager to plant all the plants, but, as Engels says, this is a surefire way to become quickly overwhelmed.
“You’re learning a lot—when to grow, when to harvest, how to use the herbs,” she says. “That’s a lot of information to take in if you get too many plants.”
You’re also getting to know your garden space—what weeds to fight, the quality of your soil, and so on—as well as how this new hobby fits into the time constraints of your daily life. Allow yourself time to become an expert of a small space, and, as difficult as it can be, allow yourself room for failure. As you better understand your space and your abilities, branch out with more plants when you have the time and desire.
“Remember there’s always next year,” Engels says. “You never plant a garden and—ta-da!—it’s done. Start small with a few herbs and a small space, and figure out how it fits in your lifestyle.”
Prune Your Plant List
Starting a garden with five to 10 herbs helps keep your efforts manageable. While this can be a challenge for the zealous beginner, focusing on herbs you love and know you’ll use helps keep you from going overboard with baby plants. Maybe you have a ritual of winding down at night with a lemon balm tea, or the secret ingredient in your homemade lip balm is skin-soothing calendula. Perhaps no dish you make is complete without at least a little dash of dill, or maybe you simply love seeing a swath of purple echinacea flowers blooming in summer. These are the herbs you need to focus on first.
Once you list the herbs you use regularly, research their cultural requirements before purchasing plants. If a certain herb grows larger than your garden space allows or doesn’t thrive in your USDA hardiness zone, cross it off of your list.
“There are good books for specific regions — Southern Herb Growing and Northwest Herb Lovers Handbook, for example” Engels says. “Look for what grows well in your region.”
Finally, stick to species herbs if you plant a medicinal herb garden. While cultivars have their place in certain garden settings, species plants have more concentrated medicinal constituents. Look for officinalis in the Latin name of the plant, or consult a horticulturist or experienced herbalist if you’re unsure about a plant you’re considering.
Plot Out Your Planting
The last step before starting seeds or purchasing plants is to map out your garden on paper. This helps you determine how many plants you need, ensures you have ready access to each plant, and keeps you focused.
“Draw it out on graph paper,” Engels says. “Make each square represent a square foot … and then draw plant space in with pencil because it’s not going to be perfect the first time.”
Engels recommends initially allowing a 3-by-3-foot space for each plant. This gives you a good starting point, and you can adjust the spacing over time as you learn the growth habits of each herb. “Remember, certain plants, like milk thistle, will not stay in the boundaries you set,” Engels says. Taking care not to crowd your herb starts allows room for this natural flux.
Attention to spacing is particularly important if you plan to include annuals and perennials in your garden. “Mixing them together is perfect,” Engels says. “You can add colorful annuals, like nasturtiums, that break up some of the green of perennials.”
However, you need to account for the expansion of perennials. “I have to remember that if I prune, it is going to come out another foot from where it is at the end of season, so I can’t plant anything too close to the perennials,” she says. In this case, keeping a garden journal where you can record how herbs behaved, as well as keep an updated garden map, can be particularly helpful.
Finally, pay careful attention to how you’ll move throughout the garden space. The average person can easily reach 2 feet to harvest, Engels says, so you might need to include paths or stepping stones in your plan if your plot is too wide to reach all the plants from the edges of the garden.
What you do with your garden is meaningless if you don’t love what you’re doing. “I heard someone say at a garden conference once, ‘Find something that breaks your heart open,’” Engels says. In other words, let your passions be your guide when selecting plants and laying out your design.
If you have kids and want to get them involved with the herbs, plant a children’s garden. If you have a special place in your heart for honeybees, research herbs that bees will pollinate. Engels recalls a moonlight garden she planted with various white, night-blooming plants that shined under the full moon. “It was fabulous to watch at night,” she says.
Your dream herb garden is limited only by the scope of your imagination. With a little planning and work on the front end, you could be on your way to planting a garden you’ll enjoy for years to come.
Here are a few common herb gardening techniques to get your gears turning.
This design, pictured above, uses bricks or stones to form a compact and vertical spiral shape that pays careful attention to space, water use and various microclimates to create a self-sustaining garden that is light on resource inputs while hosting a wide range of herbs.
This intensive design is typically circular with raised stone walls and keyhole indentation on one side so a compost pile can be kept at the center.
Adapted from Native American culture, this round garden is separated into four quadrants, with the spokes pointing in the four cardinal directions (north, south, east and west) and a stone at the center. Each quadrant has symbolic significance, typically connected to dimensions of health or cycles of life.
This is a loose guide that allows you to focus on your particular passion: a love of herbal teas, pleasing fragrances, culinary herbs or pollinator plants, for example. They can take on any shape and size.
This story originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.