Bernhard FeistelA new herb garden

One is neither a Winston Churchill just by consuming a lot of whisky, nor does one become a Christopher Lloyd just by removing an old rose garden. In fact, I was rather ignorant that the great Lloyd provoked the English gardening world (or loved to think so?) when he dug out his old roses and replaced them with exotic plants.

As a foreigner I became rather thrilled by this national English flower after my arrival and soon started collecting, propagating and, yes, shifting Falstaffs, Kiftsgates (!), Rambling Rectors or Macmillan Nurses on their own roots to friends in Germany. Yet here I was, starting a job by getting rid of an old rose garden. Admittedly with less gusto and confidence than the above mentioned iconoclastic saint.

The neglected walled rose garden

All this happened rather by chance than by deliberation: concentrating on my major first task to reinvigorate the borders I always stumbled over this neglected walled garden, where the tired looking roses were rather imprisoned than enlivened by box hedges. Each monoculture seemed to maliciously underline the other’s stiff upper lip. It was also difficult to guess why the rose beds had their particular shapes: they looked awkwardly forlorn in this whole area.

View through before the box hedges & roses were removed

 

 

No logical way or axis connected the inner gardens and terrace between the gates with the outer surroundings and one would always bang against the hedges when on the way out or in. To weed in this area must have been a no-win-situation since the only result would have been to expose bare soil and the legginess of the darlings. Yet, the whole walled area with the vernacular brick and flint work and a mature yew hedge on one side had a huge potential. Were it not for the rose beds, it would perhaps have thriven on neglect.

It was advantageous that I didn’t need to act immediately. This is always the best thing when attempting changes to a garden. I could get used to the area, see it in different light and weather conditions und just observe. Or curse the box hedges when I had to circle around them with my wheelbarrow…

View through with hedges removed

Gradually it filtered through that the owners would occasionally like one or the other kitchen herb and so it dawned on me that this sheltered place could become a kind of kitchen garden. Yet, there needed to be a constant or calming feature which would ideally be a focus point all year round. Roses on their boxed own definitely can’t provide this. And while I was pondering over a traditional herb spiral it occurred to me that a labyrinth could be a solution. I love labyrinths and mazes; they brilliantly illustrate not only a gardener’s fate. It could be constructed in a way to incorporate and break up the rather odd shape of the walled in area (former cattle sheds as it turned out) and provide main paths that make more sense.

Box plants in ‘storage’, yet to be converted to a border

A competition broke out between my wife and I for the weirdest or most suitable solution. I particularly like versions where one would enter at different places, wind around one another, meet in the middle, and exit via the other path.

New path and labyrinth layout

From this moment the owners of the garden became enthralled as well, which is the best one could hope for, and suggested a version of a traditional labyrinth from the Templar Knights.

Although I somewhat shrank from the idea of copying something instead of creating a unique feature I was quickly being comforted by their enthusiasm for the whole project. (As a consolation I am mowing one of our labyrinth versions into the orchard meadow this year, thus making a statement to enhance this tedious task.)

Hard landscaping work in progress

 

View of the new path past the labyrinth

Box plants repositioned & newly sown grass

 

 

 

 

 

 

From then on the idea of the herb garden took shape with the focus not on primarily the medicinal use of the herbs (this being also a question of time) but rather on their ability to hold their own over a long period or providing a good structural focus. I excluded herbs which would grow happily nearby in the wild, would only be on stage for a short time and be on their best when massed together (e.g. coltsfoot, ransoms, lily of the valley). Cheating a little, I also introduced somewhat cultivated versions. In general, the use in the kitchen (and be it as a bunch of flowers on the table) was an important consideration as was scent, particularly near the newly created seating area. For the latter I could re-use the existing box. When it has recovered, I will prune it into more curved shapes.

My cairn of dug out flints

Since the labyrinth was to be in the sunniest part and the soil extremely poor, I presumed that Mediterranean herbs might suit best. The soil was not only poor but packed with local flint stones which multiplied the time I estimated for many jobs, not the least the digging out of the roses. As revenge I built monuments to my toil (see photograph of the cairn).

 

About the same time I fell in love with the possibilities thyme can create, for the eye, the scent and the kitchen. (Are you in need of an addiction? There are hundreds of varieties!) I started there with about twenty, of which I find caraway thyme the most astonishing and Thymus citriodorus the most strongly scented. Thus thyme went into the gaps of the labyrinth with the almost too strongly scented Corsican Mint (Mentha requieni) in the middle ring. The latter was probably a mistake. The name Corsica evoked hot conditions but I realised it is much happier in half shady areas. (It can easily be divided.)

Newly planted labyrinth featuring varieties of thyme

In the outer ring I just experimented with colour and structure, changing the soil a little when I felt that a plant might need more nutrients. Additionally I am working with annuals or plant self sown biennials to cover gaps. I feel the whole is just a process and I like the emergence of an ever-changing picture inside a reassuring framework. I might have overdone with regard to the number of herbs I used, although I have introduced repeated “dots” or several core plants of one variety to avoid the obvious impression of a collection.

In general the aspect of foliage and colour is pleasing to the eye so far. A huge advantage of this small area is that I can check each plant more systematically than elsewhere and propagate or divide for other parts of the garden. There is much room for manoeuvre. And in any case, I am always in favour of the trial and error approach, despite the danger that people might feel that I have not done my homework properly and that I could feel that I am running out of time. Yet, there should always be thyme for errors in a garden…

Anise hyssop, Agastache foeniculum

If had to vote for favourites of the year it would be perennial flax (Linum perenne) for its sky blue flowers and its somewhat transparent shape over many months and Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) for the remarkable taste of its leaves, which you can also use to sweeten your tea. Both are reliable self sowers, so you need to buy only once. The same can be said of hyssop and many thyme varieties.

 

After I had established the inner labyrinth area I focussed on the more shady corners and introduced herbs for immediate kitchen use like parsley, coriander, dill, rocket, chervil or garlic. This part will thus change its population from season to season. The most northerly and moist corner received a mint collection with the request not to spread too vigorously.

In general, my idea was to create an herb garden without stressing this aspect too much, i.e. to combine the pleasant and useful qualities of its inhabitants. There will be scope to report how they feel in the coming season and how they greet newcomers. A collection of different herb aperitifs is taking shape, too, with rosemary, sage, rue, artemisia, oregano and others as ingredients.

PS. I did not execute but relocated the roses and had a 95% survival rate, although doing this during a hot and dry April. Pruned relatively harshly, most of them even flowered in a relieved or consoled manner two months later. Perhaps one needs to be famous to be really and recognisably bold, and I suppose Mr Lloyd might not have approved of the herb garden idea either, calling similar projects rather “weedy”.

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Bernhard Feistel

About Bernhard Feistel

Gardener and academic in rural England and sometimes also in his native Saxony, Germany; special interest in herb, maze and wildflower meadow designing and gardening. Norfolk, UK

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