I love the geometry and neatness of Elizabethan knot gardens, the manicured symmetry of low box hedging filled with a tangle of flowers and greenery. The best, I think, are those planted with fragrant herbs such as rosemary, cotton lavender, marjoram, thyme, lemon balm and chamomile. On a hot day, the scent can be utterly intoxicating.
There are a couple of lovely herb gardens near me in south London. One is in a sunny corner of Greenwich Park. It’s an ornate pattern of box surrounding a central bronze fountain, a magnificent artichoke flower designed by The Great Pottery Throw Down’s Kate Malone. Benches are perfectly placed for contemplation. It has a planting plan and key displayed to one side, so you can identify anything you particularly admire. It has the added bonus that it's next to the park’s magnificent new herbaceous border (London’s largest at 200 metres), recently redesigned by Chris Beardshaw. If you happen to be in London do check it out - it’s fabulous.
The other herb spectacular I’ve recently admired is the Triangular Garden at Eltham Palace. English Heritage reckons it was created when Stephen and Virginia Courtauld lived there in the 1930s and 40s. As it’s near the kitchens, it’s thought to have been a herb garden originally, so English Heritage have renovated it to reflect this. Rather than box hedging, it’s designed with latticed lines of brickwork, like a tartan check, planted in blocks with lavender, sage, chamomile, thyme and lawn grass.
At home I grow a handful of herbs in my garden, amongst them rocket, chives, rosemary and sage. It’s a small garden, so space is limited and herbs must earn their keep. Which means perennial ornamental herbs like rosemary and purple sage are most definitely in. Both like a sunny spot and well-drained soil, so they’re in pots on the patio. Chives I grow in my raised veg beds, where they self-seed, so I sometimes plant the seedlings out into gaps in borders too – the little puffs of purple late-spring flowers are gorgeous. They're edible, although I tend to leave them on the plant as they’re so pretty. I’ve tried planting thyme in the gaps between patio slabs – I love the idea of it, but it’s never thrived. I think it must need bigger gaps.
This year I want to grow some more exotic herbs. I love Asian food, so lemon grass and Thai basil would be great to have at home. Lemon grass in carrot soup with ginger and coconut milk is brilliant, and its bright and perky zing is fabulous pounded up in curry pastes. The plant itself is a handsome ornamental grass, apparently reaching 1.5 metres. It will have to join the other pots on the patio, as it has to come inside over winter – but I reckon it will make a great houseplant. I know I should really include coriander in the Asian herb gang, but I can’t stand even the smell of it. It’s a genetic thing, so I'm a lost cause!
And then there’s mint, my favourite of all herbs. And there are so many different varieties: apple, spearmint, and Moroccan to name but a few. A word of warning with mint, though. Do not plant it out in a bed or border, as it will run riot and smother anything in its path. Keep it contained in a pot, or plunge the pot (with the mint inside) into a border. I love the leaves torn into Thai or Vietnamese-style salads with plenty of chilli; cooked in the pan with new potatoes; or as my Mum always uses it - a huge handful finely chopped and whisked into a dressing of vinegar, olive oil and a pinch of salt and sugar. It transforms a green salad, into food fit for the gods.
Happy Herb Gardening
Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer