As a landscape designer, I view most perennial culinary herbs as small, versatile plants that I can dress up or down and include in almost any decor or color scheme. I use them in both formal and wild-looking gardens, use them to adorn hillsides, add them to flower and vegetable borders, and interplant them among low-growing evergreens. I use thyme and creeping winter savory among stepping stones. I like to shear rosemary, lavender, thyme, and some sages, forming them into small hedges or topiaries.
The Right Herb for the Right Design
The culinary herbs fall into two categories: those neutral enough to be used as background plants and those useful for accents. Herbs with small green-to-gray-green leaves and a mounding habit-namely, Greek oregano, sweet marjoram, French thyme, creeping winter savory, common sage, tarragon, and spearmint-work well as background plants that complement brighter colored flowers.
Herbs with unusual colors and forms-such as common chives, with its tubular, grasslike foliage and lavender flowers, and Chinese chives, which has straplike leaves and white flowers-make showy accent plants. I'm especially partial to one of their relatives: society garlic, which has straplike leaves and bears tall spikes of lavender flowers from May through October. This plant is bulletproof in my Los Altos, California, garden (USDA Zone 9), and its flowers taste great in salads. I also gravitate toward the ornamental sages 'Icterina,' 'Tricolor,' and 'Purpurascens', which make lovely stand-alone plants .
My favorite herbs-Greek oregano, thyme, dwarf lavender, winter savory, common sage, tarragon, and spearmint-have as many uses in the garden as they have in the kitchen. These are mounding plants that have green or gray-green foliage and grow between 6 inches and 2 feet tall. All of them fit nicely among annual flowers, perennials, vegetables, and even evergreens. Here are attractive mates for herbs.
My favorite way to grow culinary herbs is in containers. I can change the look of the garden by rearranging plants and varying the combinations as the fancy strikes me. Containers are also the perfect answer for gardeners with heavy soils. With pots, you can provide a more ideal growing medium for your herbs. Container herbs do need a little more care than those grown in the ground, however. I fertilize mine every two weeks with liquid fish fertilizer and shear them every six weeks to keep them within their bounds.
Rosalind Creasy-writer, photographer, and landscape designer-is author of The Edible Herb Garden (Periplus Editions, 1999) and many other books.