Flexible Design Plan for a Simple Formal Herb Garden

  • 01 of 06

    Choosing Plants

    Designing an Herb Garden
    Marie Iannotti

    Formal herb gardens—with their symmetry, knots and interweaving textures—can look intimidating. But to create a simple formal herb garden, all you really need to do is choose a geometric shape, like a circle or a square, divide it into sections of equal size and fill each section with similar or complementary plants. Designing a formal herb garden is easy enough. Just don't lose sight of the maintenance involved with keeping order in your herb garden. The more precise the lines, the more any...MORE wayward plants will stick out like a sore thumb.

    A less labor-intensive approach is to give your herb garden the bones of a formal layout and then fill it with exuberant herb plants that can be allowed to mature, fill in and spread without constant supervision.

    Choosing Plants for an Herb Garden

    When selecting plants for a formal herb garden, consider the growth habits and mature sizes of the plants. Place low creepers, like thyme and chamomile, on opposite path edges to complement each other. Put more aggressive herbs, like mints and lemon balm, in pots either above or below the ground.

    Most herbs used for culinary purposes won't be allowed to flower early in the season. So focus on texture and foliage color to bring a sense of fullness to your herb garden design.

    Make sure all the plants can be accessed, both for harvesting and maintenance, without walking into the beds. The paths should be at least 3' wide, for easy walking. Since this is a formal garden, the paths can be paved or mulched to provide the axis for the garden.

    The garden design shown here contains 20 different herb plants. Most of these plants will flower at some point in the season, but there is plenty of variety with just the plant shapes and textures. The sprawlers are kept to a minimum, to retain a somewhat formal feel. You can, of course, improvise any way that suits you.

    The color scheme is another unifying element that adds to the formality. It makes use of the complementary color combos of purple/yellow and blue/orange. If the orange of the calendula and nasturtiums is too bold for you, you can always substitute one of the paler yellow varieties or the pink variety of calendula.

    The center of a formal herb garden is usually the focal point. Even though there is formality, the focal point is a chance to you to show your gardening personality. It could be a large herb plant, such as a sweet bay tree or a large potted rosemary. Many gardeners like to put a garden ornament in the center of their herb gardens, like a bird bath, either as a bath or as a planter. Another popular feature is placing a sundial in a small center bed and surrounding it with thyme plants. Whimsy is permitted in a formal herb garden.

    Below is a list of plants used in this basic garden design (read on for more detail), but remember, the plants you choose to use (and number and variety) will depend on the specifics of your garden.

    1. Lavender Bee Balm
    2. Thyme
    3. Cilantro
    4. Lavender
    5. Lemon Balm
    6. Borage
    7. Tarragon
    8. Nasturtium
    9. Chives
    10. Purple Sage
    11. Dill
    12. Lavender
    13. Lemon Thyme
    14. Greek Oregano
    15. Bronze Fennel
    16. Golden Variegated Sage
    17. Calendula
    18. Parsley
    19. Basil Assortment
    20. Chamomile
    21. Bird Bath
    Continue to 2 of 6 below.
  • 02 of 06

    Complementary Colors and Contrasting Textures

    Herb Garden Design
    Marie Iannotti

    The first bed is predominantly green with lavender flowers. The contrast of leaf textures should keep it attractive, even when not in bloom.

    The Monarda will spread and may need dividing after about 5 years. Deadheading will keep it in bloom longer and shearing back the whole plant when it starts to look tired, will revitalize it and keep it attractive into fall.

    The cilantro (coriander) is an annual plant that will self-seed a bit if you don't collect the seeds to use in the kitchen.

    NOTE: The...MORE number of plants suggested will vary depending on the size of the plants purchased, the mature size of the variety suggested and your patience in allowing the garden to fill in.

    1. Lavender Bee Balm (Monarda) 3 - 5 Plants

    Two good choices:

    Monarda x hybrida 'Petite Delight'

    • Height: 12-15" (30 - 38 cm)
    • Width: 12" (30 cm)
    • Zones: 4 - 9
    • Flower Color: Lavender
    • Bloom Period: Mid-Summer
    • Exposure: Full Sun

    Monarda didyma 'Blue Stocking'

    • Height: 30 - 38" (76-96 cm)
    • Width: 18 - 24" (46 - 60 cm)
    • Zones: 4 - 9
    • Flower Color: Lavender
    • Bloom Period: Mid-Summer
    • Exposure: Full Sun

    2. Common or English Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) 1-3 Plants

    • Height: 12-18 in. (30-45 cm)
    • Width: 18-24 in. (45-60 cm)
    • Zones: 4- 8
    • Flower Color: Rose
    • Bloom Period: Mid-Spring
    • Exposure: Full Sun

    3. Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) 5 - 7 Plants

    • Height: 18-24" (45-60 cm)
    • Width: 9-12" (22-30 cm)
    • Zones: Annual
    • Flower Color: White
    • Bloom Period: Mid-Summer
    • Exposure: Full Sun

    4. English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) 1 - 3 Plants

    Chose a cultivar suited to your climate:

    'Munstead'

    • Height: 18-24 in. (45-60 cm)
    • Width: 24-36 in. (60-90 cm)
    • Zones: 5 - 9
    • Flower Color: Deep Purple
    • Bloom Period: Mid-Summer
    • Exposure: Full Sun

    'Jean Davis'

    • Height: 18 - 24" (45-60 cm)
    • Width: 24-36 in. (60-90 cm)
    • Zones: 5 - 11
    • Flower Color: Pale Pink
    • Bloom Period: Mid-Summer
    • Exposure: Full Sun

    'French Perfume'

    • Height: 12" (30 cm)
    • Width: 12" (30 cm)
    • Zones: 5 - 10
    • Flower Color: Deep Purple
    • Bloom Period: Mid-Summer
    • Exposure: Full Sun

    'Grosso'

    • Height: 24 - 30" (60-76 cm)
    • Width: 18 - 24"(45-60 cm)
    • Zones: 5 - 10
    • Flower Color: Violet
    • Bloom Period: Late Summer
    • Exposure: Full Sun
    Continue to 3 of 6 below.
  • 03 of 06

    Introducing Color and Flowers

    Formal Herb Gardening
    Marie Iannotti

    Bed two brings in the contrasting colors of orange, yellow and blue. Borage has electric blue flowers, but it can become a gangly messy plant and it will self-seed profusely. So be sure and harvest as much as you can use.

    The nasturtiums and chives act as a softening edge. This will be echoed in the opposite bed with parsley and calendula.

    Remember that the number of plants may vary.

    5. Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)

    • Height: 12-18 in. (30-45 cm)
    • Width: 12-15 in. (30-38 cm)
    • Zones: 4 - 9
    • Flower...MORE Color: Off-White
    • Bloom Period: Mid-Summer
    • Exposure: Full Sun

    6. Borage (Borago officinalis)

    • Height: 12-36 in. (30-90 cm)
      Width: 9-24 in. (22-60 cm)
      Zones: Annual​​
      Flower Color: Blue
      Bloom Period: Mid-Summer
      Exposure: Full Sun

    7. Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus)

    • Height: 12-36 in. (30-90 cm)
    • Width: 18-24 in. (45-60 cm)
    • Zones: 4 - 8
    • Flower Color: Off-White (Inconsequential)
    • Bloom Period: Late Summer
    • Exposure: Full Sun

    8. Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)

    • Height: 6-12 in. (15-30 cm)
    • Width: 6-9 in. (15-22 cm)
    • Zones: 10 -11, Usually grown as an annual
    • Flower Color: Shades of yellow and orange
    • Bloom Period: Summer
    • Exposure: Full Sun

    9. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)

    • Height: 12-18 in. (30-45 cm)
    • Width: 6-9 in. (15-22 cm))
    • Zones: 3 - 9
    • Flower Color: Mauve
    • Bloom Period: Early Summer
    • Exposure: Full Sun
    Continue to 4 of 6 below.
  • 04 of 06

    Contrasting Textures

    Herb Garden Design
    Marie Iannotti

    Bed three relies heavily on the contrast of foliage texture and color. Purple sage is gorgeous any time of year, even winter. The tough, leathery purple leaves are offset by both the feathery texture of the dill, as well as its lacy flowers. Dill can fade quickly in the garden and you might want to start new plants from seed, periodically, to keep your harvest going.

    Next, there's the almost spiky needle-like foliage of the lavender plants and their straight, slender flower heads. And...MORE finally, a sprawl of lemony thyme, to soften the edges.

    10. Purple Sage (Salvia dorii)

    • Height: 24-36 in. (60-90 cm)
    • Width: 24-36 in. (60-90 cm)
    • Zones: 4 - 10
    • Flower Color: Lavender-Blue
    • Bloom Period: Late Spring
    • Exposure: Full Sun

    11. Dill

    Anethum graveolens 'Fernleaf'

    • Height: 12-24 in. (30-60 cm)
    • Width: 12-15 in. (30-38 cm)
    • Zones: Annual
    • Flower Color: Yellow
    • Bloom Period: Mid-Summer
    • Exposure: Full Sun

    Anethum graveolens 'Dukat'

    • Height: 18-24 in. (46-60 cm)
    • Width: 18-20 in. (46-50 cm)
    • Zones: Annual
    • Flower Color: Yellow
    • Bloom Period: Mid-Summer
    • Exposure: Full Sun

    12. English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) 1 - 3 Plants

    Chose a cultivar suited to your climate. Try to use a different variety from Herb Bed One:

    'Munstead'

    • Height: 18-24 in. (45-60 cm)
    • Width: 24-36 in. (60-90 cm)
    • Zones: 5 - 9
    • Flower Color: Deep Purple
    • Bloom Period: Mid-Summer
    • Exposure: Full Sun

    'Jean Davis'

    • Height: 18 - 24" (45-60 cm)
    • Width: 24-36 in. (60-90 cm)
    • Zones: 5 - 11
    • Flower Color: Pale Pink
    • Bloom Period: Mid-Summer
    • Exposure: Full Sun

    'French Perfume'

    • Height: 12" (30 cm)
    • Width: 12" (30 cm)
    • Zones: 5 - 10
    • Flower Color: Deep Purple
    • Bloom Period: Mid-Summer
    • Exposure: Full Sun

    'Grosso'

    • Height: 24 - 30" (60-76 cm)
    • Width: 18 - 24"(45-60 cm)
    • Zones: 5 - 10
    • Flower Color: Violet
    • Bloom Period: Late Summer
    • Exposure: Full Sun

    13. Lemon Thyme (Thymus citriodorus or Thymus citriodorus 'Variegata')

    • Height: 6-12"(15-30 cm)
      Width: 12-24" (30-60 cm)
      Zones: 5 - 10
      Flower Color: Lilac​
      Bloom Period: Mid-Summer
      Exposure: Full Sun
    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    Tying it All Together

    Herb Garden Design
    Marie Iannotti

    Echoing Bed Two, this herb bed features a contrast of purples, yellows and orange. The feathery foliage of the bronze fennel is a nice foil for the leathery leaves of the golden variegated sage and even the flat-leaf parsley.

    Since the parsley is a biennial, it may seem to over-winter. However, if you are growing it to harvest, you will want to replace it in the spring, before it goes to seed and becomes bitter and unattractive.

    14. Greek Oregano (Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum)

    • Height: 18-24 in....MORE (45-60 cm)
    • Width: 15-18 in. (38-45 cm)
    • Zones: 5 - 9
    • Flower Color: White
    • Bloom Period: Mid-Summer
    • Exposure: Full Sun

    15. Bronze Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare 'Purpureum')

    • Height: 24-48 in. (60-120 cm)
    • Width: 15-18 in. (38-45 cm)
    • Zones: 4-9 (Not usually long lived)
    • Flower Color: Yellow
    • Bloom Period: Mid-Summer
    • Exposure: Full Sun

    16. Variegated Golden Sage (Salvia officinalis 'Icterina')

    • Height: 18-36 in. (45-90 cm)
    • Width: 18-36 in. (45-90 cm)
    • Zones: 5 - 10
    • Flower Color: Lavender
    • Bloom Period: Early Summer
    • Exposure: Full Sun

    17. Calendula or Pot Marigold, English Marigold (Calendula officinalis)

    • Height: 18-24 in. (45-60 cm)
    • Width: 6-9 in. (15-22 cm)
    • Zones: Annual
    • Flower Color: Yellow, Orange or Pink
    • Bloom Period: Summer
    • Exposure: Full Sun

    18. Flat-Leaf or Italian Parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. neapolitanum)

    • Height: 18-24 in. (45-60 cm)
    • Width: 12-15 in. (30-38 cm)
    • Zones: Biennial
    • Flower Color: White
    • Bloom Period: Mid-Spring, 2nd Year
    • Exposure: Full Sun
    Continue to 6 of 6 below.
  • 06 of 06

    Giving Your Garden a Focus

    Formal Herb Garden Design
    Marie Iannotti

    As mentioned earlier, the center of a formal herb garden is usually the focal point. This gives the herb garden its personality. Here, the center is a simple bird bath, to complement the many bird and bee plants used throughout the garden.

    Circling the bird bath are two annual herbs that will be used throughout the season. The harvested look of the plants and the functionality of the bird bath contribute to an aging of the herb garden: It won't look like it is strictly for show.

    19. Basil...MORE Assortment 5-9 plants

    • Height: 6-36 in. (15-90 cm)
    • Width: 8-24 in. (20-60 cm)
    • Zones: Annual
    • Flower Color: White or Purple
    • Bloom Period: Late Summer
    • Exposure: Full Sun

    There are new basils to try every year. Some easy growers include:

    • 'Genovese' - Larger leaves than 'Sweet Basil', with all the flavor.
    • 'Cinnamon' or 'Mexican Spice' - Green foliage, purple flowers, with a spicy, cinnamon scent.
    • 'Finissimo Verde a Palla' & 'Spicy Clove' - Quick growing compact plants that are great for containers and edges.
    • 'Lemon' - Gives a fresh lemony tang to pesto. Small leaves can be harder to harvest.
    • 'Red Rubin' - Keeps purple color throughout the season with great flavor. Wonderful in vinegars.

    20. Chamomile, German (Matricaria recutit)

    • Height: 6-12 in. (15-30 cm)
    • Width: 6-9 in. (15-22 cm)
    • Zones: Annual
    • Flower Color: White Petals/Yellow Center
    • Bloom Period: Mid-Spring
    • Exposure: Full Sun