Ready to plant an herb garden? Whether you are growing medicinal herbs or planning a kitchen herb garden, herb garden design is a wonderful medley of traditional garden design and vegetable garden design. It uses both perennial and annual plants decoratively, but with a plant palette selected for usefulness.
In our herb garden primer, we touched on combinations of herbs that have similar light and soil moisture requirements and can be therefore be interplanted easily.
Here, we focus on specific classic herb garden design layouts: the formal herb knot garden, an herb garden wheel, and the more informal English cottage garden style. We'll also include hints for the container gardener, because a balcony is big enough!
Herbal Knot Garden Design
The "knot" in Celtic knot gardens usually comes from the knotting of the garden paths. A very simple version of this is shown in this diagram. While I've seen this attempted with very different materials, like grass and brick, I find it more appealing when the two paths have something in common, perhaps flagstone and pea gravel.
The example paths in this diagram give us 9 beds into which we can plant herbs. This is handy as it allows us to cluster them by soil moisture.
Most often, each bed will be edged in something low growing. If you live somewhere with mild winters, this could be nasturtiums, or, if you are somewhat further north, rosemary or lavender. The truly northern will do best with some sort of creeping thyme. This will survive the cold and provide you with more structure in your winter herb garden design.
You neither need to nor should try to do something entirely different within each square. Rhythym is an essential part of design.
Here, we have two planted our herb garden design squares in two entirely different patterns. Let's pretend the striped one is herbs that like water, and the concentric squares are drier more drought tolerant herbs.
By placing these two patterns into the 9 squares of the knot garden design, a lovely herb garden design blooms. Notice the center garden bed? Here, I've mixed the two square patterns by using the water loving herbs but in the layout I'd used for the drought-tolerant herbs. I might even leave out that most center square and place a bay laurel tree on a small soil uplift here instead.
If you have a number of potted plants that go outside each summer, the bed centers or corners are logical spots to embellish with a houseplant, but consider the path "ends" too. A potted plant at the visual end of a path cuts off the wandering eye. The visitor's gaze will instead bounce back into the garden itself and spend more time admiring what you've built.
Herb Garden Wheel Layout
The herb garden wheel follows the same general pattern of the herb knot garden: beds edges treating similarly, garden bed interiors planted with herbs of similar garden maintenance needs. One new twist on that the herb garden wheel often takes is to consider topography, or the physical undulation of the garden itself.
Any good garden design, herb or otherwise, places drought tolerant plants at the top of a slope, and water lovers at the bottom. The herb garden wheel often intentionally creates a high center.
One cound plant an herb garden mound's center with rosemary or another drought-tolerant standing-water hater, and then use that (rosemary, etc) to cast a little shade over herbs that prefer partial shade, which are all cleverly planted on the north side of the mound.
There is a common variant of the herb garden wheel in small gardens, but I do not know it's formal name. I have heard one friend refer to it as an herbal spiral mound. In a traditional garden wheel, a considerable percentage of the garden can be dominated by the paths that form each spoke. This was efficient when it was the scholarly medicinal herb gardening of 1500s Mexico and Italy, whose garden's diameter's measured as much as 30 and 50 feet across.
To reduce the amount of the herb garden design dedicated to garden paths, the small garden treats the wheel as a single bed unit, with the edging around the "tire" of the wheel, rather than each spoke. The garden path then spirals in, looping the central mound not quite the full distance. If space permits, several small knobby 'culs-de-sac' dot the outer arch of the path.
This configuration maximizes the garden bed edges, putting everything in easy reach, while minimizing the garden path. This same tactic is of phenomenal use when considering the arrangement of pots of herbs. By clustering like plants in different pots, you'll create masses that more easily catch and hold the eye.
Herb Borders a la English Cottage Garden Design
The final in-the-ground herb garden design to be presented here is the English cottage garden, also known as the English border garden or a grandmother's garden. This is an adaptation for herbal garden designs of a style more commonly associated with herbaceous flowers. Never fear, there are a number of edible flowers and you are welcome to create an herb garden with flowers, too.
Cottage gardens fit themselves into a range of sites sizes as they were originally a component of vast estates, and anything feels small after that much space. They are boisterous, exuberant, and best suited for gardeners who like things to look 'abundant' rather than 'tidy'.
The key to a successful border is, again, rhythym. Yes, different spots within the border are often getting slightly different amounts of sun and water, but you can repeat "purple bloom" without necessarily repeating "chives" every time.
Rhythym requires mass: a volume of the same plants clustered together to give considerably more impact than a single plant could. The only exception to this rule is a white bloom, which can punctuate space, especially at twilight, all by itself.
Perhaps you are a pesto lover. Fresh basil pesto is one of the defining flavors of summer, and, frozen in little tubs in the freezer, will knock your snowboots off in the winter. If this sounds like you, then consider snaking clusters of basil and oswego tea (a edible, red-flowered meadow edge plant) along the center of your border, as in the diagram above.
With that "snake" having defined little pocket gardens, you cluster other shorter plants, such as oregano and thyme, toward the path edge, and tall dills, lovage, and hollyhocks (also an edible flower) toward the garden wall.
What? No garden wall? If your garden bed is meant to viewed from all sides, cluster the taller plants in the middle and fade to shorter at the edges.
WARNING: Do not put the very shortest plants on the far corners of a bed! This is a spot vulnerable to being kicked or stomped on. You'll want to put something larger and less "oops-able" on the corners.
Like all this talk of massing plants? James van Sweden and Wolfgang Oehme, of the D.C. landscape architecture firm Oehme van Sweden, have dubbed this evolution of the more staccato garden borders of designers Gertrude Jekyll and Beatrix Farrand the New American Garden.
Armed with these herb garden layout diagrams, all you need now to plant an herb garden is our planting guide, which has the specific light, soil, and moisture references for all the most common herbs, more all the time!