At our house, ‘tis the season for graph paper. Quad-ruled pads are ready on our desks, so we can plan our summer gardens as the seed catalogues arrive. Right now those gardens exist as lists and sketches, ordered by the geometry of those handy grids. How many pepper plants will go in that bed? What’s the scheme for this year’s dahlias?
For a new herb garden, or even a reordered old one, graph-paper art is essential. The tradition of organizing herbs into squares, triangles and other symmetrical shapes, so popular in colonial America, dates to medieval Europe - and ancient Persia before that. Gardeners still find it both beautiful and useful.
Herbs aren’t naturally tidy. Some creep (such as thyme), sprawl (like oregano) or spread (like lemon balm), and if you need only a small amount to snip from, corralling them can help. Even when it doesn’t restrain them, it defines where they’re supposed to be.
To maintain total control, an herb garden might be planted with only small varieties, such as Spicy Globe basil and non-creeping thymes, to make what my son calls a Chia Pet garden - all neat little green mounds. Herbs can be grown in urns and pots. Rigorous pruning and dividing can also be practiced.
If rigid geometry is not your style, there are more relaxed ways to grow herbs. In the Mediterranean countries where so many of our popular herbs originate, they take hold in stony, well-drained soil, and it’s startling to see common underbrush composed of our treasured rosemary, sage and thyme. In a free-form rock garden, these plants look very much at home, not only because they tend to thrive there but because their foliage - sometimes touched with silver, blue or gray - blends with stones in a lovely way.
The choice of plants may also dictate the design. Often an herb garden is a playing field in which there are two opposing teams. One tribe consists of perennial, often woody members of the mint family, such as sage, lavender, oregano and marjoram, with spike-shaped flowers in the violet color range. The other team, the carrot family, is made up of mostly annuals, such as parsley, cilantro, fennel and dill. (Some exceptions: Mint-related basil is an annual, and carrot-related lovage is perennial.) Mixing the two means finding a spot for the annuals each year where the perennials’ established root systems will not starve them or crowd them out.
My own garden is the old-fashioned foursquare type, with a circle in the middle. I’ve laid granite cobblestones in free-draining gravel to edge the beds and create paths. Annual herbs that I need in quantity (such as basil for pesto-making) get their own generous spot in the vegetable garden. I dig up spaces for the annuals, adding compost for good tilth, and aerate the soil with a digging fork.
I’ll need something new in the central circle. One year it was sunflowers, another year alpine strawberries. I’ll put it all down on the graph paper. Then, when the planting’s done, I’ll scatter seeds of brightly colored poppies, which will come up here and there, observing no rules, no boundaries and no straight lines.
Damrosch is author of “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook”; her website is www.fourseasonfarm.com.