While we may think of herbs as unassuming little plants, their importance and use is intertwined with human history. For thousands of years herbs have provided people with fragrance, taste, and healing. And when it comes to growing them, an herb garden is no different from a flower garden; it can be just as decorative and smell just as fabulous. Even before using herbs for cooking or remedies, they contribute to our overall health when we grow them because gardening is good exercise that gets us outside in the fresh air and sunshine.
If your concept of a garden is straight rows of plants, think again. Just like the interior of our homes, a garden is a place for creative expression. Whimsical, artsy, or traditional objects can be added to create an atmosphere that suits your style. It can be modern, traditional, or themed just like a flower garden. Of course, it can also be witchy.
Even the smallest of herb gardens can be an attractive and tranquil place in which to relax and connect with nature. Although herbs can reside in their own separate garden, you can also create an herb "room" (area) within a flower garden. Herbs can also be integrated into existing gardens of flowers, shrubs, or vegetables. With a little planning, you can choose herbs that complement the colors and scent of your current garden. In fact, many herbs are beneficial to other plants by keeping certain bugs at bay or by contributing to healthy soil. For example, basil is good for tomatoes and peppers, lemon balm is good for pumpkins and squash, and German chamomile enhances the general health of almost any plant growing nearby.
An herb garden can echo historical periods, too. The ancient Romans laid out their gardens in geometric patterns making them practical and visually appealing. Their gardens were practical in that plants were easy to reach. Likewise, medieval monastic gardens were usually rectangular with paths between rows of herbs and vegetables. At large monasteries there were separate, specialized herb gardens for culinary use, preparing remedies, brewing ale, and religious purposes.
Later, the exploding artistic enthusiasm of the Renaissance extended outdoors to gardens. Elaborate geometric designs with squares and rectangles were worked into complex symmetrical patterns creating a living version of the Persian carpet. The Elizabethan era marked the dawn of extravagant pleasure gardens in royal courts and large estates. To distinguish their outdoor space from the cluttered appearance of the lower-class cottager's gardens, the landed gentry kept their plants orderly and neatly trimmed. This and the influence of Italian design resulted in the formal knot garden.
While knot gardens are absolutely beautiful, initial setup is more work and the plants need to be kept neatly clipped to maintain the appearance. Of course, if you love the look of a knot garden it's worth the work. If a formal look appeals to you but you want a design that is less labor-intensive, the use of simple geometric patterns can help you achieve it.
As in the Roman and medieval gardens, geometric patterns can be created by putting paths between groups of plants. This works well in square, rectangular, or circular-shaped gardens. Paths can be created with gravel-sized stones, flagstones, or bricks. In addition, such a garden usually has something at the center to serve as a focal point. This can be a statue, gazing ball, or anything that appeals to your sense of design. A birdbath works well; plus, by inviting birds to your garden, you encourage natural pest control. The center of a garden can also be a good place to locate an outdoor altar. Also consider the shapes, such as sacred symbols, that can be created within your garden using plant colors and textures.
Designs such as the ladder and cartwheel continue to be popular for herb gardens. Bricks or small paving stones are often used to create the ladder rungs or wheel spokes within the garden, and then one type of herb is planted in each of the spaces. The cartwheel design can symbolize the Wheel of the Year with each section representing a sabbat. As an alternative, divide the garden into quarters and dedicate a section to each of the elements/cardinal directions using corresponding flower colors. If you already have a moon garden, add anise or white flowering rosemary to fit in with the color scheme. Also consider creating or adding herbs such as lavender and rosemary to a fairy garden.
As mentioned, the Roman and monastic gardens were practical because the plants were easy to reach. This makes planting, weeding, and harvesting possible without trampling half of the garden. If you don't want to include paths, flat stepping stones or pairs of bricks can be strategically placed to help you maneuver around the plants. Also, paint spirals or other symbols on the stones to enhance the flow of magical energy.
Another type of garden design is the raised bed, which has some advantages. In addition to being a solution for poor soil, it provides easy access to plants and good drainage. Raised planting beds allow you to accommodate the herbs you want to grow if your soil is not what they require. Also, if you have more than one raised bed you can grow plants that have totally different soil, sun, and moisture requirements. Of course, the exterior of a raised bed provides another surface upon which you can express yourself by painting symbols or magical phrases on them.
Herbs can also be integrated into your existing landscaping. Bushy lavender plants can set off a walkway or highlight a decorative fence. Herbs such as chervil and lemon balm can thrive in damp areas where other plants may not fare as well. In addition to herbs, place figurines of deities, fairies, dragons, or other creatures around your garden. If you want to be a little more discreet, layout small stones or seashells in circles, spirals, runes, or oghams. Even if vegetation covers them in summer, you will know they are in place and holding the power of magical energy.
Enhance paths and patios with low-growing herbs between the paving stones, which will also keep weeds at bay. Because patios are usually situated on the sunniest side of a house, aromatic herbs will warm in the sun and scent the air. Herbs such as Roman chamomile and creeping thyme work well in such locations. If you have outdoor ritual space or a labyrinth, use herbs to define pathways. Because mugwort can grow tall and bushy, use it as a border plant around ritual space to provide some privacy.
Apartment dwellers can also create herb gardens, and it doesn't necessarily require a south-facing window. In fact, most herbs that require a lot of sun also need some shade during the hottest time of day. Placing them on a table near a window where they can get direct sun as well as some shade works well. One advantage to potted plants is that they can be moved to different windows to follow the sun throughout the year. Even if you have an outdoor garden, consider using a few potted herbs to provide a focal point and variety.
When gardening in flowerpots, group several types of herbs in one pot and arrange several pots together to create an interesting display. Outdoors, hanging baskets and flower boxes on railings work well on porches where space may be at a premium. Also, from an outdoor location plants can easily go indoors to provide you with fresh herbs for cooking, remedies, and magic work through the winter months.
When creating a windowsill or porch garden, don't feel constrained by conventional flowerpots. Containers for plants can be varied and imaginative. A neighbor of mine used several old silver coffee pots as planters. Anything can be used as long as it provides good drainage, which means you may have to drill a hole or two into something that did not start life as a flowerpot. Of course, containers can be painted with magical symbols. Small crystals, seashells, or figurines can be placed in flowerpots or strategically arranged alongside them.
In addition to unleashing our creativity to start or revamp a garden, herbs provide us with a source for natural healing. While still considered an alternative medicine, for thousands of years herbal remedies were the only medicine available. Over the centuries, herbal medicine has weathered an up-and-down relationship with the medical establishment as well as the devastation of the medieval witch hunts. While herbs took a back seat to chemicals in the manufacture of many modern drugs, that, too, is changing as more of us seek a natural approach to healing.
Of course, that natural approach extends to our gardens. Chemicals used on our plants or in the soil ultimately end up inside of us. Composting and going organic may require a little more work; however, it guarantees that we will have the best-possible herbs to put in our food and our homemade remedies without causing harm to the environment. Of course, good healthy plants add more of a boost to rituals and magic work than ones laced with chemicals.
The bigger picture concerning gardening is that it gives us the opportunity to be good stewards of the earth. Following a spirituality that is earth-centered and believing in a web of existence makes this essential. In addition to going organic, adding plants native to our areas helps support wildlife; most importantly, the pollinators. Bees, birds, and other creatures have taken a beating from chemicals and disappearing habitats. By gardening, even flowerpots on a porch, we can create little oasis areas to help the pollinators which in turn helps our gardens and helps us connect with the cycles of the natural world.
Just as cooking a special meal for those we love is satisfying and rewarding, so too is working with herbs making remedies or components for magic work for families, friends, and ourselves. Gardening and working with herbs harkens back to the wise folk who cared for their families and village neighbors. It creates a connection through time that binds us to the earth, the ancestors, and to each other. I find it amazing that something as simple as an herb can be so powerful in so many ways.
Sandra Kynes (Portland, ME) is a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids and the author of seventeen books, including Star Magic, Llewellyn's Complete Book of Correspondences, Mixing Essential Oils for Magic, ...