At markets, I am often told that customers want to establish a herb garden. So how do you start planning and planting a herb garden? First of all, you probably don’t want just one herb garden but several. I don’t tell this because I’m crazy about herbs, but a herb can be about any plant: a plant from the desert, to high mountain slopes, cold climate forests or tropical rainforests. Of course, you can’t have them all, but in most gardens or even courtyards, you will find slightly different climate zones, more or less sunlight, windy or sheltered areas or you might create spots with different soils.
For practical reasons, I would suggest a rough division of herbs in the following groups.
The first group being annual herbs like dill, parsley, coriander or basil. In my opinion these annuals are the only herbs to grow in the vegetable garden. Why? I think perennial herbs in the vegetable garden are a nuisance, as you have to work around them when replanting beds. Most importantly many of them won’t like the heavily fertilized soil and they dislike a lot of water as well. Others like mint spread and take over. The annual borage is one of the annuals which are not well behaved: it gets huge and self-seeds. However, most annual herbs mix well with lettuces tomatoes and cabbages, are easily direct sown and can be planted in rows like every other vegetable.
Now to the perennial plants: The second group I would classify as ‘Mediterranean’: rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, lavender and savoury. These herbs don’t like coddling; prefer scorching sun, poor rocky, gritty and alkaline soil which drains easily. They are perfect for rockeries along the driveway or on hot footpaths. Without these tough conditions, they succumb or don’t develop much taste. Most of these sun herbs have greyish leaves often with fur.
Many especially medicinal plants grow wild in the forest of the cooler parts of the world: North America, Europe and Asia. Some grow in full shade and some do grow in clearings. Woodruff, wild ginger (Asarum spp), ginsengs (all of them), avens (geum), alexanders, and mushrooms grow naturally under deciduous trees and love soil high in organic matter.
I remember foxgloves in forest clearings back in Europe together with wild woodland strawberries, these and other herbs like part-shade. Shade herbs often have big leaves and are dark green.
I could go into detail of many many more niches where herbs are growing: coltsfoot likes roadsides, arnica likes nutrition poor alpine meadows, white sage the desert, tea trees grow in our native bush, calamus and gotu kola likes wetlands. Just have close looks at your garden, leftover bits were nothing really grows can most likely be filled with a useful herb. Many herbs will like the company of ornamental plants in the perennial border or can be grown in pots and hanging baskets or even on a window sill.
Most herbs but definitively not all are very ornamental. Pretty ones are foxglove, woodruff, wild ginger, artemisias, thymes rosemary and more. Others I would rather plant in a less visible spot I would name the Mexican cooking herb epazote, the anti-diabetes herb goat’s rue or red clover.
It is probably still fun to have a dedicated garden for herbs or build a herb spiral, but probably some of your preferred herbs won’t grow there.