Three years ago, I ticked off, perhaps to some, a pretty unassuming bucket list item: growing a herb garden. I’ve always loved herb gardens, and it’s because of the the sensory aspect of them – the different shades of green, the different textures of the leaves and the wonderful, unique scent of each plant. To me, having a herb garden, that I could tend year on year, seemed very grounding. When I moved into what I thought was going to be my permanent PhD house three years ago, my parents gifted me a beautiful planter. Being able to go out to my garden, even when I lived in rented accommodation, filled with different sights, scents and textures really helps calm my nerves. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to stay in that house, but me and my planter moved home, and we’ve been tending each other ever since.
This winter, we had a particularly bad frost, so most of my plants didn’t make it. As soon as the garden centres reopened, I was down at Burston’s, picking out some new babies to take home. For this week’s Grow and Tell, I thought it would be fun to show you my replanting process, and tell you a little about the herbs in my garden. So let’s go back to the beginning, to last weekend and the mess my planter was in.
As well as being filled with straggly weeds, the soil was exhausted and only my spring onions, chive and parsley were clinging on to dear life. I harvested the chives and spring onions, and separated my parsley to be added to my new herb garden. With the planter empty, I was ready to get replanting. When I’m planning out my garden, I like to put the pots in the troughs to work out what order I’ll put them in, but I also have to take into account which herbs will do better where. With a five-tiered planter like this, the drainage at the top is a lot stronger than the drainage at the bottom, so plants that need a lot of drainage, like rosemary, are perfect for the top.
When it comes to transplanting the herbs from the pots into the troughs, if you get herbs from a nursery, they should have pebbles mixed in with their soil. I try to keep as much of this intact when I plant them. The roots tend to have formed a relationship with their soil and their pebbles, so I try not to separate them from one another. As well as this, herbs grown in a nursery will start to form their own little ecosystem on top of the soil, so I try to maintain this as well. As long as it’s not mould and the plant seems healthy, I try not to disturb it. Just like everything else, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis or Salvia rosmarinus) is an evergreen herb, so it’s perfect for a sensory garden, as it’s leafy all year round. With a woody stem and soft, needle-like leaves, it provides a range of textures. I probably don’t have to tell you much about its scent, because it’s so fragrant and recognisable. The name “Rosemary” comes from the Latin name “Ros Marinus“, like the species name, which means “dew of the sea”. Traditionally, Rosemary was been used to ward off evil spirits and nightmares, whilst also attracting good energies. Sprigs of Rosemary were also hung above cradles to prevent fairies from stealing newborn infants.
Any species of Thyme would be a wonderful addition, but I specifically chose Lemon Thyme (Thymus critriodorus). So named for its lemony scent, this is where it differs from, what we recognise as, regular Thyme (Thymus vulgaris). The lemon scent makes it slightly more savoury, which is why I prefer it over Thyme. Again, an evergreen shrub, it’s perfect for a year-round sensory garden. Its delicate, smooth little leaves are a wonderful juxtaposition beside the hardy Rosemary. As well as being great for a sensory garden, it’s also great for promoting bees and butterflies in your garden, because of its tiny, purple flowers. In Medieval England, Thyme was gifted to Knights, to bring the bearer bravery. Since 3000 BC, it has been used as an antiseptic, tracing all the way back to the Sumerians.
Common Sage (Salvia icterina) has wonderful, rough leaves, providing, again, another touch sensation to the sensory garden. The leaves are variegated, adding a sunny touch of yellow. You may notice a trend here, but Sage is also evergreen, so it will provide sensations year round. I love picking the tip of a sage leaf, crushing it between my fingers and letting the strong aroma seep onto my hand. The genus name “Salvia” comes from the Latin word “Salveo” meaning “to heal” or “to save”, as in applying a salve (like a lip salve). As its name suggests, it was traditionally used as a treatment for a wide range of ailments. In England, we perhaps took this a little too far and suggested eating it every day would grant you immortality.
Finally moving away from the evergreen plants, Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is a biennial species in temporal regions and annual in tropical regions. This does mean that is won’t stick around all year, but it does add a little change through the year. Watching it sprout and wither with the changing seasons is quite grounding. The crinkly edges of the waxy leaves make it another interesting addition to the sensory garden. The etymology (naming) of this species is a lesson in Latin. The genus “Petroselinum” translates to “rock (petra) celery (selinon)”. The Romans would tuck it into their togas for protection and wore it on their heads to prevent themselves from getting drunk. Traditionally, uprooting it brings bad luck to your household, so keep your fingers crossed for me.
Back to the evergreen shrubs, English Lavender (Lavandula anguistifolia – which is not actually native to England) adds a really wonderful grey-green colour to my sensory garden. The unique feeling of their fluffy, needle-like leaves is a wonderful parallel beside the broader Sage and feathery Parsley. In the summer, this shrub should produce the wonderful, signature purple flowers that Lavender are renowned for, making it great for bees and butterflies too. My Nan and I used to pick these, dry them in the airing cupboard and then sew them into hankies to put under my pillow at night. For this reason, Lavender is my favourite scent, so having this scent available when I’m in a panic is really important to me.
To shake things up a little this year, I decided to add an alpine species to my herb garden. Rock Rose (Arabis ferdinandi-coburgi ‘Old Gold’) also likes full sun and drainage, so I thought it would be a fun addition to the family. Yet another evergreen species, it will provide this same foliage joy, year-round. It has wonderfully variegated leaves and, because it’s a Brassica, sprouts little bean pods. Better yet, it also trails, so I’m excited to see it trailing down to the bottom of its trough in the coming months. From previous experience, anything in the bottom trough also tends to be the most likely to be eaten. Having a non-herb in this trough, I’m hoping, will mean that my herbs are protected from little nibblers.
This does remind me to mention my pest deterrent. I don’t like to use pesticides for three reasons: (1) I want to eat some of these and don’t fancy ingesting any toxic substances, (2) we have a dog that I would be devastated to accidentally poison and (3) there are a lot of insects that interact with these herbs that I wouldn’t want to put at risk. Instead, I use copper tape and it works an absolute treat. I get mine from Wilkos – you stick it around the bottom of the tub or planter, and it stops slugs and snails from traversing the sides.
I cannot express to you how much I enjoy tending to this little garden and how important it was to me, to have my own little patch of cultivated space, when I lived in rented accommodation. For £15, this herb garden will bring me invaluable joy for the rest of the year, plus all the tasty, added benefits of eating fresh herbs from your garden.