Growing herbs as part of your garden: a permaculture approach
Growing herbs, whether culinary, medicinal or ornamental, is incredibly popular. For many people, “growing herbs” means “a plot of garden specifically designated for herbs”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, especially if your growing space is limited. It conveniently keeps all the herbs in one spot and often, that spot is close to the kitchen door. But if you have a larger garden, whether vegetable or ornamental (or both!), consider integrating your herbs instead. Growing herbs as part of your garden offers many benefits and lets you use permaculture principles to maximize your yield, minimize waste and soil disruption and build beneficial symbiotic connections. It can also make less work for you because growing herbs as part of your garden can lead to fewer weeds, less disruptive pests and greater water retention.
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‘Arp’ rosemary grows as a hedge around the vegetable garden. It adds visual interest all year long, and supplies plenty for the kitchen!
What does growing herbs as part of your garden mean?
It means that instead of planting your herbs in a single, designated area, your herbs are part of your entire garden. Here’s some examples of how that might work.
- using a perennial variety of rosemary as a hedge to border your vegetable patch or a flower bed
- planting a border of hardy thyme around a flower bed or along the edge of a vegetable bed
- putting perennial sage in with other ornamental perennials or annuals
- seeding annual herbs like basil or parsley* in an ornamental flower bed or companion planting them among vegetables
- growing low, clumping herbs as groundcover in your vegetable beds
If some of that sounded confusing, don’t worry. I’ll break things down a bit more. Let’s start with
The difference between perennial and annual or biennial herbs
Any herbaceous plant that goes dormant (dies back) in winter and puts up new or replacement growth in the spring is perennial. These plants can live anywhere from two years to decades under ideal growing conditions. Annuals are plants that complete their entire growing cycle in a single season. They grow from a seed, bear fruit or flowers and then die. Biennials grow for a season, generally without producing flowers or fruits, then come back for season two. In that second season, they produce, then they die.
It’s important to know that whether a plant lives as a perennial or annual depends on the zone and microclimate. In warmer zones, many plants will grow as perennials that die back seasonally in colder climates. And some plants fall into a gray middle area where they might make it through the winter in a sheltered location or if they’re provided with protection during severe weather.
When planning your garden, you’ll need to know which plants are ‘hardy’ in your zone and which may die completely in cold weather. Most plants and seeds will have this information on the packet but it’s not always an absolute. When you’re just getting started, it’s enough to just have a general idea of which herbs are likely to be perennials and which are annuals. After a few seasons, you’ll be able to use your own growing experience to refine the plants in your garden.
So what about permaculture?
Permaculture is a broad concept but very generally, it means organizing your garden in ways that mimic how plants grow and interact in nature. The goal is to maximize your growing space and minimize the need to interfere with the land through things like tilling or fertilizing. Permaculture seeks to avoid waste and emphasizes being a good steward of the land and environment. There’s a LOT to learn about permaculture but even in a small garden, it’s easy to apply some of the most important principles.
For example, a pair of apple trees and a few berry bushes could form the backbone of a permaculture ‘food forest’ or ‘fruit tree guild’. They remain in place year after year, producing food, enriching the land and supporting an ecosystem. Among those, you might plant either shorter lived perennials or annuals.
So next to your berry bushes, you might sow parsley and coriander, for example.
The shade from the trees will provide a better growing habitat for those cool temperature annuals and biennials than a sunny garden bed. And a bonus is that if you let them flower, they will produce seeds. The seeds might sprout the following year, giving you a new crop, without any work on your part or any disruption of the soil and ecosystem.
Less formally, you might use permaculture concepts in planting a hedge or border of a perennial herb like rosemary or thyme around your vegetable beds. Those herbs, which work well in border and hedge applications, would form a permanent feature of your garden. They would add structure and habitat and provide year-round visual interest. On slopes or other problem areas, they might also serve to minimize soil loss.
This isn’t just for food gardens. Instead of planting a generic non-native, non-flowering evergreen shrub, you might opt to plant rosemary. In many zones, you would reap the aesthetic and structural benefits of shrubbery but with a plant that provides both culinary and ecological benefits.
Finally, you could use a grouping of shrubby herbs to form a back row or center piece of an ornamental flower bed. Or a low growing ground cover herb like oregano to minimize erosion on a slope.
The point is to integrate herbs into the rest of your garden in a way that is beneficial to the soil, wildlife and other plants. This also means placing them in optimal growing conditions, or choosing varieties that are well-suited to the location.
But it’s not just about shrubby herbs!
Yes, their size, structure and comparative “evergreenness” makes them star players in many of these ideas. But smaller perennial herbs have a lot to offer as part of your garden, too.
Let’s use common sage as an example. It’s a fairly compact, slow growing plant, making it useful in smaller beds and as part of plant groupings. There are many varieties and they add a lot of color and texture to an ornamental flower bed. Sage grows as a perennial in many places, though it does often die back during the winter months. Plant a few clumps of sage among other sun-loving perennial or annual flowers and you’ll have consistent, leafy growth all summer long to set off the flowers. Plus it’s delicious!
Ok, but how about my basil?
While perennial herbs will form the backbone of your garden design and structure, the annuals have a big role to play, too. Basil, one of the easiest annual herbs to grow, can be used in so many ways in your garden! It grows fast (sometimes, too fast!) so it’s a great option to fill in gaps in an annual or perennial flower bed. There are tons of varieties, so you can use it any place you want a pop of deep green or bold purple. It’s really easy to propagate, too, making it a great choice to replace spent annuals late in the season.
Finally, annual herbs like basil, parsley, coriander and more are excellent companion plants for your vegetables. Basil does very well grown alongside tomatoes and is said to improve their flavor. As mentioned earlier, parsley and coriander will benefit from growing in shadier areas of the garden once the summer heat sets in. That means they’re excellent options to plant under or around taller vegetables or under vining things like cucumbers or beans. Putting these annual herbs into your vegetable beds isn’t just convenient for growing – it also helps keep weeds from taking over, keeps the soil cooler and slow moisture loss.
How do I start growing herbs as part of my garden?
In general, it’s best to start with the big, long -term plants or garden structures and work out from there. Look for areas you’d like to define visually with some type of border or large plant.
Then consider how much space you have and how tall (and wide!) you’d like that border or edge to be. Finally, evaluate the growing conditions for that area. How many hours of sun does it usually get? Is the soil loamy, sandy or all clay? Is the area prone to strong wind or standing water?
You’ll need to know these things before you pick herbs for the area.
Examples of growing conditions that will affect plant choice
Lavender can be a wonderful border hedge. But it needs a lot of sun and, more importantly, loose, well-draining soil. So it wouldn’t be the best choice for an area with very compacted soil. Or part of your garden that typically holds water after rain.
Sage needs a lot of sun, so it might not be the best choice for planting under a tree. But tarragon or some types of marjoram or thyme may do very well in that spot.
A plant like basil, which likes a fair amount of water, isn’t a great choice near plants that prefer drier soil.
Growing herbs in your garden also harnesses the magic of companion planting
Companion planting is simply growing two or more plants near each other because they benefit each other. That might mean one plant attracts a ‘pest’ and keeps that insect from devouring another plant. Or that a plant restores a soil nutrient its neighbor typically depletes. Sometimes it just means a taller sun-loving plant offers shade to a more delicate neighbor.
When it comes to herbs, there are plenty of beneficial companion planting combos. Grow chives or mint near strawberries to help repel slugs and rodents. Basil improves the flavor of tomatoes. Oregano deters pests that feed on plants. The list goes on and on. Plants have evolved to grow together for the benefit of the entire garden, so it just makes sense to take advantage of this.
Chives add fantastic texture to a mixed border of herbs and native plants
Growing herbs as part of your garden for groundcover
Another way to use herbs through your garden is as groundcover. Many herbs are happy to spread (slowly or rapidly, depending) and they’ll cover an area quickly. Roman (perennial) chamomile, low-growing thymes, and Greek oregano all make excellent groundcover.
Wondering why you need a groundcover?
Bare soil is at risk for erosion and for weed takeover. It also dries out more quickly. By covering soil with a groundcover, you prevent invasive weeds from taking over and your plants will likely need less supplemental water, since the soil will stay moist longer. And soil that’s not getting baked by the sun will stay cooler, which is a benefit for some plants.
How to use herbs as groundcover
There are a few ways to use herbs this way. The simplest is simply to plant the herbs and let them spread. If they start to encroach where they’re not wanted, just cut off the excess (and then use it in the kitchen!). When you’re ready to plant other things in that area, either move the groundcover herbs aside or gently cut out a section. Herbs that make good groundcover typically make new roots wherever they are in contact with soil, so they aren’t as bothered by disruptions like this. They also don’t mind a bit of foot traffic, so it’s ok if you have to step on them from time to time to tend other plants.
Here’s a couple of real-life examples from my own garden.
I grow Greek oregano in the tomato bed. It doesn’t stay green all year long but it springs back to life much earlier than tomato planting time. So by the time my tomato plants are ready to go into the ground, the oregano has bounced back from winter and put up new growth. I simply cut or tear it out of the spot where the tomato will go, plant the tomato, and that’s it. Over the course of the summer, the tomato will shade the oregano, so some of it dies back. But most of it thrives in between the tomatoes and keeps the weeds at bay. If oregano flowers, it attracts tons of pollinators, which is great for the tomatoes.
I’ve got a large bed full of perennial herbs and native pollinator plants (note that there is some overlap between those two, like echinacea!). To keep the bed less weedy, I grow perennial chamomile in between those plants. As the plants get bigger, it’s easy to remove chamomile to make room (if need be). The chamomile smells amazing and it keeps some green color all year long. Like oregano, the chamomile doesn’t mind being cut or moved, and it will quickly make roots once relocated. And, of course, the flowers make chamomile tea.
By using these herbs as groundcover, I’m harnessing their tendency to spread (and even take over) to my advantage. And I’m maximizing my growing space by working these herbs into my garden, instead of trying to keep them contained to small area of my “herb bed”.
The Takeaway from Growing Herbs as Part of Your Garden
The most important thing to understand is that you don’t have to structure your garden into “zones” – ie, vegetables go here, flowers are in this bed, and herbs go in this planter. By including herbs, both perennial and annual, throughout your garden, you can reap the benefits of permaculture landscaping while also ensuring the herbs are growing in optimal conditions. Looking at herbs as options for your ornamental or “landscaping” areas can help you maximize your output and provide support for the ecosystem and pollinators. Using herbs as companion plants to your flowers and vegetables helps those plants flourish, reduces your work and enhances the beauty and productivity of your garden.
In short, it’s time to start thinking of herbs as “plants” and growing them alongside the tomatoes, roses, ferns and berry bushes. These plants are beautiful, aromatic, delicious, medicinal and ecologically beneficial and they deserve to take their place throughout the garden.
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