The Q&A Archives: Herbal Garden Design

Question: I am writing in behalf of the Shanes Crossing Historial Society in our little town of Rockford....We have moved to our park a log house and would like to plant an herb garden this spring. Although we are all "gardeners" we would like to have a design or plan as to what was planted in the 1800's as to have our garden authentic...could you help us with a design as to what to plant and how to lay out a nice design? We are in zone 5. The garden would be partially shaded in the hot afternoons. A culinary, medicinal, a drying and a potpourri section would be ideal. I was told that they combined herbs & vegetables in the same garden then.

Answer: Most early herb gardens were informal and included whatever the lady of the house knew how to use or thought she would need plus perhaps a few decorative favorites from among the wildflowers. Too, many of the herbs were wild collected rather than grown in the garden. Unfortunately these gardens were not documented per se.

You might look at some historical references about herbs to get some ideas about plants that were grown then. One I particularly like for historical interpretations is "Herbs and Herb Lore of Colonial America" by the Colonial Dames of America ISBN 0-486-28529-4 (Dover Publications) -- these plants are still in use today so I am sure they would have been used throughout the nineteenth century. You might also find some useful plant lists, at least, in the book "Plants of Colonial Williamsburg: How to Identify 200 of Colonial America's Flowers, Herbs, and Trees" by Joan Parry Dutton and published by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, ISBN 0-87935-042-3. Another fine book for a look at heirloom plants and their early garden uses is "The Heirloom Garden: Selecting and Growing Over 300 Old-Fashioned Ornamentals" by JoAnn Gardner, Storey Communications, ISBN 0-88266-751-3.

Using these as a guide to decide what to grow you can develop a garden plan based on the plants' cultural requirements. A very simple layout, either in rectangular raised beds or perhaps in the "four square" pattern edged in wood or local stones would be appropriate, along with simple paths of beaten earth or gravel or stepstones for ease of maintenance. Finally, there was almost always a fence to keep out animals, both wild and domestic. Have fun with your project!

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