Put Some Herbs in Your Landscape

Tom Wajda
Adams County Master Gardener

Herbs come in all shapes, sizes, and colors so it is not surprising that they are increasingly popular as landscape plants. For example, lavender (the 1999 Herb of the Year) can be used as a foundation plant or to create a hedge and will still provide you with delightfully flavored flowers and leaves. Different varieties of thyme can be planted as part of a rock garden, as low border, or between bricks or flagstones in a walkway. Another strong point for herbs is that their strong flavors mean that deer are not interested in most of them.

Foliage is one of the most interesting aspects of herbs for landscaping. Several members of the artemesia family are particularly striking with their silver or gray leaves. Wormwood (Artemesia absintha) is a hardy perennial that grows 3-4 feet high. Although it dies back in the winter, it nonetheless is a showy summer anchor against a wall. Silver brocade (A. stellariana) has a bright silver leaf. It is very low growing and can be used at the front of a bed or in a rock garden. Powis Castle artemesia and the various southernwoods provide lovely mounded or vertical shapes. Horehound, silver mint, sage, and silver thyme (all perennials) provide a variety heights and shapes with silver foliage.

Purple or reddish herbs include opal basil, purple sage, bronze fennel, and lyre leaf sage. Opal basil is particularly attractive when planted in a bed. A bed of 5-15 opal basils is both striking to look at and a great source of flavor for the dining room table. Different types of basils can be alternated along a sidewalk to provide a colorful and tasty approach to your door.

Flowering Herbs

Two of the most interesting flowering herbs are bee balm (also called monarda and bergamot) and purple coneflower. Bee balm, a hardy perennial, comes in eight or ten varieties ranging from dark red (a favorite of hummingbirds) to white. Avoid the Cambridge Scarlet variety which is prone to powdery mildew. Instead, for a dark red color choose Garden View Scarlet. Bee balm leaves make a superb tea. (An interesting historical footnote is that this "Oswego tea" was a staple in Colonial American kitchens especially after the Boston Tea Party.)

Purple coneflower (the echinacea of many herbal remedies) is a superb long-blooming perennial that can be a great addition to any garden. It is great favorite of monarch butterflies and should be in every butterfly garden. Other herbs with interesting flowers or textures include chives, sage, scented geraniums, anise hyssop, yarrow, and oregano.

Herbs for Shady Areas

While most herbs prefer a sunny location, many will do well in part sun or shade. Sweet woodruff -- used in potpourris and to flavor May wine -- is an excellent shady area ground cover that cares little about soil conditions. (We have a nice patch growing under two maples on the north side of a building where the ground is too full of roots and rocks to mow). Angelica and lovage, two five-foot tall culinary herbs, both do well in shade as does lady’s mantle, the blue flowering borage, and mint. Sweet Cicely and lemon balm are two more excellent plants for shady areas. (With its strong lemon flavor, lemon balm is considered the best herbal mosquito repellent.)

Brick or flagstone patios and sidewalks are ideal places to plant low growing creeping thymes including elfin thyme, thyme minus, and woolly mother-of thyme. (Birds love to use all of these, especially the woolly mother-of-thyme, to line their nests.) Roman chamomile is another herb for these areas. When walked on, these herbs all give off a delightful fragrance and may help in warding off mosquitoes. They are short enough and hardy enough to be mowed regularly.

Container Gardening with Herbs

Large and small herb planters are attractive additions to your porch, deck, or patio. Creeping rosemary and creeping lemon thyme can be used in hanging baskets and will provide a handy source of two great culinary herbs. Bay, lemon verbena, and upright rosemary grow well in larger pots. They all like the sun but will also do well in partially shaded areas. Combinations of thyme, rosemary, basil, parsley, and many other herbs do well in window boxes or other containers. Remember to water them every day or two and to fertilize them twice a month. Keep in mind that herbs do not like "wet feet" and should not be allowed to stand in water.

Read other articles on growing herbs or vegetables

Read other gardening Articles by Tom Wajda