Gardens: herbs

Herbs are a great choice for planting in a permaculture spiral. Photograph: Gap

Herbs are givers. Not only do they boast the greatest flavour-to-effort ratio, but they are almost without exception fine-looking plants that you’d be happy to give space to even if they weren’t providing pizza toppings. If you cook but don’t garden, herbs are the place to start. Here are a few ways to fit them into your garden.

In pots

Success with herbs is all about proximity: have them close at hand and you will use them often. The continuous snipping off and nipping out of the ends of their branches helps keep them bushy, branched and growing well. Plant in pots and keep them by your kitchen door.

Silvery Mediterranean herbs such as thyme, oregano and lavender particularly lend themselves to container growing: they come from sun-baked hillsides, so don’t have much fun in our cool, damp soils. A pot gives you the opportunity to play at creating that Mediterranean terrain by mixing lots of grit into the compost. This helps water drain off quickly and fools your plant into being happy. Put the pot in sun and let it bask. If space is limited, these are the herbs to grow in a hanging basket, where the unpredictability of your watering regime won’t deter them from clinging on to life, and may render their leaves more pungent and filled with volatile oils; they quite like being treated a bit roughly.

Not all herbs want to be blasted by sun, of course, and some, such as mint and chives, will positively thrive in damp shade. But again, the beauty of pots is that you can tailor both soil and position to suit each plant. Plant these in a moister compost, perhaps with a little leaf mould mixed in, and keep in a shady spot, or at least out of harsh midday sun. These are the herbs that will make good use of your shady side return, once you’ve bumped the bicycles, clothes horse and rusting lawn mower out of the way.

A formal parterre

Show off the sheer beauty of herbs in a formal parterre, which happily suits a small urban garden just as well as a palatial one. They were designed to be viewed from the drawing rooms of grand palaces, an effect easily recreated by viewing yours from your bedroom. The general idea is a formal, symmetrical pattern with miniature evergreen hedges of plants such as trimmed box. The spaces in between were traditionally filled with bedding plants for blocks of colour, or with bulbs for a burst of spring loveliness, but can just as well be filled with herbs. There is a slight drawback in that different herbs like different conditions, so your silvery herbs may grow woody and leggy, or your shade-loving herbs may get a bit sun-blasted, but if a formal arrangement appeals, it’s worth taking a chance.

A parterre must be well thought out, though. You could opt for a simple quadrant of hedged squares to fill with four different herbs, or go for a more complex knot design that would create space for many different herbs. First, plant your hedge. Box is a beautiful plant for this – dense and glossy green – but can be wiped out very quickly by box blight, so I’d go for one of the small-leaved alternatives, such as Ilex crenata. This is much more expensive and slower to grow, but it won’t turn your parterre straw-coloured. Plant as densely as you can afford, and trim into shape as it grows. Young plants will take several years to knit together and look effective; more mature plants will do so faster.

Once you have a framework, fill it generously, packing each section with a different texture or colour: grassy chives, purple-flowered lavender or golden oregano. Trim frequently to keep plants neat and within bounds. Then admire first thing each morning as you pull open the curtains.

Permaculture herb spiral

There is a certain aesthetic to a permaculture garden, often involving far more flags, flower-shaped beds and wishing trees than I’d want on my own patch. But it’s actually a happy marriage of hippies and logic, and in the permaculturists’ herb spiral we find a neat way of fitting a number of herbs with different growing requirements into one small area, handy for picking.

By creating a gently sloping snail swirl of soil peaking at the centre, you get myriad different conditions: well-drained and sun-blasted at the top, moister yet sunny on one side, moist and shady on the other. A small wildlife pond at the base helps keep soil moist and also provides a home for frogs, which will devour chive-fancying slugs. Build the walls of your spiral with stones or upright logs, fill in with compost and plant. Gaia may or may not smile upon you, but you will have a healthy supply of herbs.

Herbs that tolerate shade

Calendula, angelica, chervil, lemon balm, lovage.

Herbs that prefer shade

Mint, chives, sweet woodruff.