Kitchen & Herb Gardens

Kitchen & Herb Gardens

Throughout history, people have grown culinary, medicinal and cosmetic plants in their gardens. The Romans grew vines, fruit, vegetables, medicinal and culinary herbs all over their empire, as did the monks in their European monasteries. Such gardens were usually formal, and often decorative, but were essentially practical in purpose.

By Tudor times, the monk's productive gardening had evolved into a more ornamental style: the Elizabethans confined these rather informal plants in trimmed geometric shapes called 'knots'. In the eighteenth century, kitchen gardens became somewhat unfashionable in Europe, amongst the rich at least, but, by the late nineteenth century, their popularity revived, especially in Scotland, where the necessity for walls to protect flowers as well as vegetables ensured the kitchen garden's enduring popularity.

In the UK, ornamental kitchen gardening is becoming increasingly popular, as it can offer a practical solution to the problem of space: even a small potager (ornamental kitchen garden) can be both productive and decorative, incorporating a wide range of plant and garden features. Old techniques of fruit-training have been resurrected, and the restricted forms of fruit trees available today are ideal for smaller gardens. Antique vegetable and herb varieties have also been revived.

Any kitchen and herb garden should be sited in an accessible position, where plants can be reached and tended easily, and as such they are normally situated in an area relatively close to the house. Hedges can be used for screening, although walls will offer the additional benefit of providing a surface upon which to train fruit. Alternatively, an attractive and productive boundary may be made by growing fruit as cordons or espaliers, trained on posts and wires. There should be good wide paths to service the area, to allow room for tools, barrows and to tend crops. There should also be space for cold frames, compost, a shed, greenhouse and possibly an incinerator.

Flowers are often an integral part of the ornamental kitchen garden, and these do not need to be restricted to flowering herbs, or edible flowers like nasturtiums and marigolds. Sweet peas are a very popular addition, as are honeysuckles, artemisias and tobacco plants.

Although vegetables can be grown in designated sections, they can also be used to enhance a garden border or to create an ornamental potager. Globe artichokes, savoy cabbage, marrows, Florence fennel and pumpkins can all contribute architectural shape to such a garden. Rhubarb also provides a good-looking and useful source of ground-cover. Many vegetables, fruits and herbs thrive when planted in containers, and certain types, such as strawberries, look particularly striking grown in pots.

Herbs almost always look attractive - in early summer, at least - and have the bonus of flowers and, even more importantly, scent. Herb gardens can be designed formally in some kind of herb wheel or parterre, where the divisions will help to keep rampant root systems in check, or allowed to grow and spill over informally. Plants such as rosemary, thyme and sage are particularly popular, and can be used throughout the garden.

Take a look at our section on the Kitchen Garden for more details on planning, planting and maintaining fruit, herb and vegetable plots.