We all like formal herb gardens, but they take a great deal of maintenance to keep them looking good. Gardeners with limited time would rather be harvesting their herbs and enjoying the hummingbirds and butterflies than trimming animal-shaped boxwood topiary. If we take advantage of the lay of the land, there may be a spot just waiting to become an herb garden.
Choose a Site
A sunny slope is a perfect spot for a natural-style herb garden. If the entire garden is flat, create a berm by building up the soil into a mound or build a raised bed or a rock garden--they will all enhance drainage. More herbs die from soggy soils than from cold weather. Herbs need very little water and do fine in poor soil conditions. Mediterranean herbs grow in rocky soil and intense heat. Too much water will actually reduce the essential oils in the herbs and will diminish their fragrance and flavor.
Add Paths and Edging
Rock is the best material to use in and around the herb garden. Use flat rock for pathways and steps and plant creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) or Corsican mint (Mentha requienii), between the steps. Larger rocks can be used as bed edging material or as barriers between different parts of the garden. Small river rock or pebble gravel will work well for paths and even as a mulch around larger plants. Herbs have few disease or pest problems, and deer and rodents rarely bother them. Add roses and other plants that are common targets for deer, and they may be spared as well.
Choosing plants may be the toughest part. Herb gardening can quickly become a passion, and there are so many types of herbs. Most gardeners start with culinary herbs--staple plants like rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), oregano (Originum vulgare), sage (Salvia officinalis) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris). Even if you never plan to use herbs medicinally, some of them can be an attractive addition to the mostly green herbs. Try purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and bee balm (Monarda didyma) for flower color and to draw hummingbirds and butterflies. The herb garden is the most alive area of the landscape. It is filled with pollinating bees and insects that will benefit other parts of the garden such as the fruit and vegetable areas. Plant perennial herbs first so they can provide the framework; then add annual seeds like basil (Ocimum basilicum) wherever there are bare spots.
Caring for the Herb Garden
It is easy to care for herbs. Woody herbs will need to be pruned and shaped each year, or this can be done a little at a time when harvesting. Herbs wake up later than other plants and are at their peak in late summer, so give them a good trim at least a month before the cold weather sets in. Any later, and they could suffer cold damage. At this point, wait until late spring. Softer herbs, such as oregano, will die back, and the dead twigs can be trimmed anytime, as new growth will soon follow. Herbs can be hung upside down to dry and then stored in glass jars.