Plants with a strong work ethic

National Herb Garden displays usefulness of many different varieties

In The Garden

April 25, 2004|By Marty Ross | Marty Ross,Universal Press Syndicate

The best way to design an herb garden is with an open mind. After you check parsley, thyme and basil off the list of essential culinary plants for your new garden, keep going. An herb garden needn't be limited to plants you can cook with.

"Herbs are a great, diverse group of plants," says Jim Adams, curator of the 2.5 acre National Herb Garden at the National Arboretum in Washington. "For the purpose of this garden, an herb is any plant that has a use. Annuals, perennials, trees, shrubs, vines and aquatic plants can all be herbs."

The National Herb Garden is a vast and fascinating collection of useful plants of all kinds. Visitors are reminded that roses have culinary uses and that larkspur, alliums, zinnias and many other familiar and beautiful flowers are properly regarded as herbs and look great in herb gardens.

One area is planted in a distinguished, formal knot garden of Japanese holly, juniper and arborvitae. Ten theme gardens demonstrate the uses of plants through time and in different cultures.

"We hope to teach people," says Adams, who wants visitors to be "blown away by this garden."

Each area has its own horticultural character. The Colonial Garden is filled with plants brought to North American from Europe and Asia. The Native American Garden, which includes coral bells (Heuchera americana), trillium and rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), demonstrates how much American Indians relied on plants for medicines; their knowledge was passed along to the European settlers. In many cases, we no longer depend on these plants in our daily lives, but they are part of our history and culture.

"This garden really tells the history of humankind's relationship with plants," Adams says.

Your own herb garden

Whether they are practical or instructive, herb gardens should be beautiful, Adams says. In your own backyard, an herb garden can take any shape or form.

The Herb Society of America, which helped to establish the National Herb Garden and maintains a display garden of its own at its headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio, provides a number of sample designs on its Web site (

A circular herb garden, defined with bricks around the edge and divided into four pie-shaped sections, can be laid out in any sunny spot. There are also designs for an herb garden with raised beds, a formal garden with clipped hedges, and a square garden with a handsome flagstone path bisecting the beds.

Many herbs are naturally billowing plants, and herb gardens of every style tend to have a certain exuberance, especially in high summer. Plants with variegated foliage, such as tricolor sage, or plants with silver leaves, such as artemisia or lavender, add sparkle to the design.

Don't fail to plant some flowers, too. Salvias, yarrows, bee balm and nasturtiums -- all useful herbs -- contribute splashes of red, yellow, pink or blue.

"There should be lots of color," Adams says. "Nicotianas and zinnias can give color. Hardy geraniums, mallows and poppies have wonderful colors."

Flowers also useful

Most people don't realize that roses should be thought of as herbs, he says. Rose petals are an essential ingredient in fine perfume, and rose hips are harvested for their vitamins. If you plant roses, old-fashioned varieties, which often have wonderful fragrance, are the best choice for an herb garden, Adams says.

Labels identify plants for visitors at the National Herb Garden, and describe the uses of each herb. You probably don't need labels to identify common herbs in your own garden, but decorative labels give an herb garden an authentic apothecary look, and they help you get to know plants you're growing for the first time.

Most herbs need a location in at least four to six hours of direct sun a day, and they should be planted in well-drained soil. Adams uses compost to improve the drainage and the quality of the clay soil in his garden beds. Pest and disease problems, when they crop up, are checked using the least-toxic control possible. A garden in which the use of pesticides is restricted will attract a startling variety of butterflies and birds.


National Arboretum

3501 New York Ave. N.E.

Washington D.C. 20002-1958


Open year-round (except Christmas Day) from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The National Herb Garden was dedicated in 1980. Its collections include impressive displays of lavender, salvia, rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, chile peppers and scented geraniums.

Herb Society of America

9019 Kirtland Chardon Road

Kirtland, OH 44094


Founded in 1933 to promote knowledge of herbs and herb gardening. Its Web site includes a number of profiles of herbs, including history, folklore and horticultural information for gardeners.

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