Designing and Creating a Herb Garden

Karen Noon
Wednesday, 10th April 2019

Karen Noon shares how she designed and create a herb wheel to replace a felled cyprus tree in her garden.

After having felled a diseased Lawsons cypress in the middle of our front garden that was planted in the late 1970s, I started to design a useable growing space to replace the tree and the large patch of lawn that surrounded it.

Using the tried and tested permaculture design technique of SADIMET I set about creating a design that would be both an aesthetically pleasing and productive.

Survey and Analysis

The area I had to work with measured 20m x 16m which is a fairly substantial size. The location faced a south easterly aspect, and in our part of the world which is Southern Brittany, France, this meant that it had full sun from morning through to late afternoon during summer. In winter it was one of the few areas that was most frost-free.

The location in the front garden with a low box hedge to the road, meant that for passers-by, it could be a showcase to our permaculture demonstration and education site that we are busy developing. 

In terms of budget we had very little money to spend on this project, and allocated only €150.00 to the project in total. With a very constrained budget I knew I had to be creative in my use of materials to turn this space into something eye catching.

I conducted a 'client interview' with my husband and myself as clients and together we came up with a list of must have, desirable and nice to have elements.

One of the key criteria we agreed on was that most elements need to come directly from the property.

After surveying our onsite resources, we came up with the following list:

  • Gardening tools
  • Cement mixer
  • Woodchip from the cypress that was felled
  • Wood offcuts to create borders
  • Herb seeds
  • Rosemary and lavender plants for cuttings
  • Compost
  • Willow and hazel trees for coppice

Items we could repurpose:

  • Random bits of weed suppressant fabric
  • A few pieces of old carpet
  • 10 bags of wine and beer bottles
  • A continuous supply of paper bags from animal feed

Items we would need to source:

  • Cardboard
  • Horse manure
  • Herb seeds and plants

Design

January and February were taken up with surveying the site, and then I started sketching out some designs. By March 2018 the paper design had been completed and final layout selected. A herb wheel design really resonated and the theme of a wheel of life also spoke to where we found ourselves.

The herb wheel would consist of four quadrants with pathways roughly a half a meter wide leading between each quadrant to the centre point (which centred on the stump of the old tree). Each quadrant would be filled with different herbs.

Quadrant 1 – edible, everyday kitchen herbs. Quadrant 2 – medicinal and healing herbs. Quadrant 3 – unusual herbs and experiments. Quadrant 4 – herbs for teas and infusions (mints etc.).

The outer area of the design is where I would indulge in my desire to grow plants that originated from South Africa (the country of my birth). This area would be mulched with woodchip to make it low maintenance. The location would be perfect for sun loving plants on slightly acid soil.

At the further edge of the garden closest to the tree line I planned to create a strip of wild flowers for pollinating insects. The existing flower border along the driveway would be replanted with lavender, which would eventually grow to provide colour and a lovely scent.

Implement

One of our criteria was that the design needed to be implemented over winter and spring that year, and hoped we would see tangible results within the first year.

  • We wanted to be able to harvest our own herbs for cooking, soaps and balms.
  • The project would showcase how to implement a permaculture design. This therefore needed to be 'operational' before our first Open Days in August 2018.

Soon it was time to map out the design on the ground with tape measure, rope and spray paint. I had started laying down paper animal feed bags along the outer perimeter of the lawn to supress the grass. Woodchip that we had from the cypress tree was placed on top of these. The plan was to eradicate all the grass in the long term, and have the area surrounding the herb wheel mulched.

We spent a few Saturday mornings skip diving at a local farm equipment store, and pulled out all their usable cardboard which we lay out in the planting quadrants. The cardboard started working its magic in suppressing the grass, and on top of this we placed trailer loads of horse manure that we got for free from friends.

Getting creative I made a large tepee trellis, using willow, hazel and bramble. It was positioned in the centre of the wheel over the tree stump. This would later form a support for climbing plants.

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One day my husband came home with two old worn tractor tyres that he thought could be repurpose. I decided to use them in the herb garden. One tyre fitted under the tepee trellis, and the other was placed at the far end of the herb wheel to create a water feature. It was lined with off cuts of pond liner, and then filled with clay from the local river. Later we added potted aquatic plants. The water feature would be great for attracting insects and birds and also creating a microclimate.

We started to add tumbled glass mulch along the central walkway by recycling hundreds of bottles we had been collecting over the years. The glass was tumbled in a cement mixer, cleaning them and laying them on top of the weed suppressing fabric. If tumbled correctly the glass is smooth edged and can be walked over by humans and animals without causing harm. The glass sparkles and shines like water when it rains creating a lovely feature.

By June we had all four quadrants ready for planting, and a layer of straw pulled out from the deep mulch system used in the chicken runs as a final touch. My husband had generated offcuts from planks he had been milling, so we cut these to a uniform size digging them in about 3 inches and overlapping each one for form the outer border. We also placed rounds of sliced logs 3 – 4 inches thick to act as 'stepping stones' so that one didn’t have to walk on the soil whilst weeding or harvesting between the plants. The four main pathways had a thick layer of woodchip over the weed suppressant fabric.

Planting for the first season was from seed propagated in my polytunnel. The 1st quadrant for culinary herbs was very productive and we had basil, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, coriander, tarragon, chives and sage most which lasted well into November.

The 2nd quadrant had borage, Echinacea purpurea (coneflower), purple mallow and Calendula officinalis (marigold). I allowed an opportunist squash seedling to take over the rest of the bed. It was so prolific that we harvested over 20 squash. Next season this bed will be dedicated solely to growing medicinal and healing herbs.

The 3rd quadrant was largely untouched as it was the furthest away from the house, I planted cape gooseberry seedings and they thrived in the sunny, protected spot. These will be removed and replaced with other plants in the new growing season. The final quadrant had mints and purslane.

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Maintenance, Evaluate and Tweak

By design this area was fairly low maintenance throughout the growing season. With its proximity to the house, I could do weeding as and when required. The soil was soft and loamy as the horse manure broken down and weeds were easy to pull by hand. The main tasks were to harvest and contain a rampant squash plant (we fed the leaves to the pigs). As we had not implemented any irrigation system and had taken care to mulch with straw, it would only be occasionally watered over the extremely dry and hot period in the summer.

Looking back over the first year of this project I am delighted at the yield, visual display and diversity this design has produced. From a near barren space with grass and a large tree, it has turned into a haven for insects, birds and people.

There are a number of tweaks that we will be implementing in Spring 2019. Firstly we will exclude dogs from this area; we are woodchip mulching the central walk and moving the glass mulch into the smaller inner circle around the tyre. We plan to expand the wildflower area and also add an insect hotel. Focus will now be on planting plans rather than structural implementation.

The feedback received from visitors has also been encouraging. People say that it helps them to see that anyone can quickly and easily implement a similar design, within a limited budget and at a scale suitable to their space and land.

Karen runs Afrinoon Permaculture, an education and demonstration site situated in central Brittany, France. For more information please visit www.facebook.com/afrinoonpermaculture/

Useful links

10 easy herbs to grow for bees

Growing wild flowers

How to grow and look after winter herbs

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