The designed herb garden: imagination, function, and fragrance

When the traditional gardener first branches out into herbs, it is often by adding a row of parsley here, a basil plant there. This simple introduction then opens the way to the discovery of lemon thyme, Cleveland sage, English thyme, pineapple sage, lovage, borage, summer savory -- the list of aromatic herbs goes on and on. As the fun of experimentation in growing and using herbs captures the imagination, a new gardening world begins to come into view. But so often the straight-line planting habit endures and one produces some very nice rows of beautiful fragrant plants, almost all of which are a variation on a shade of green.

Then a bit of reading brings to light the designed herb garden. As much an art form as the formal flower garden, the designed herb garden combines imagination, convenience, function, fragrance, and proportion. But how does the novice go about planning an herb garden that incorporates these qualities?

Until now there hasn't been a definitive book devoted specifically to the art of designing and building a structured herb garden. Not even in England, where the designed herb garden is common, is there a reference manual for planning an artistic and functional herb garden.

``Herb Garden Design,'' by Virginia Rady and Faith Swanson (published last year by the University Press of New England, $30, $15.95 paperback), has finally filled this neglected spot of gardening literature.

The book has been enthusiastically welcomed by gardeners all across the country, not only because it is the first of its kind, but also because it is a book that is rich in ideas for both the novice and the professional landscape architect.

Another reason for the enthusiastic reception is simply that ``Herb Garden Design'' is an exquisite book. It is lavishly illustrated -- it has 51 specific garden plans -- and beautifully written in crisp, descriptive prose.

The subjects are arranged in logical sequence beginning with design basics, including the construction of paths and fences and how to use a survey map to place your garden in the best possible location. A succession of suggested plans follows, ranging from the very simplest, to the formal garden and specialty gardens (including such novelties as ``For the Shakespeare Scholar,'' ``Designed for Moonlight,'' and knot gardens, to name a few), and on to civic and historical gardens.

The concluding section explains how the authors themselves used their manuscript to design and build a garden during the writing of the book. In fact, this section shows how the book can be used in adapting a given plan to the reader's particular needs.

The design for a dye and textile garden (found on Page 77) was selected by Mrs. Rady and her husband as most suitable to their property. The description of how the work was accomplished proves that the authors are not just scholars, but practical gardeners as well.

All the gardens illustrated are to be found in the United States. ``That Dooryard Herb Garden,'' for instance (one of the plans suitable for a beginner), is in Connecticut. This simple plan for culinary use was laid out with circles and arcs to soften the severity of the rectangular space availabile.

A much more complex plan, with unusual coloring, is the ``All Gray and Silver'' garden, a circular one designed and planted in northeastern Ohio.

All the plans offer dimensions in both metric and imperial. Surrounding structural elements are described, as are any decorative additions, such as sculpture and sundials. A complete plant list, including both common and botanical names, is given for each garden.

The concept for the book originated as a file of designs compiled by the Herb Society of America (HSA) a number of years ago. Both authors are longtime members of the society, who, in the late 1970s, were asked to take the plans that had been submitted and produce a pamphlet on garden design.

A book emerged out of the HSA file, rather than a pamphlet, because both Mrs. Swanson and Mrs. Rady are experienced, avid gardeners, and both are perfectionists. They saw the need for a book that was comprehensive, readable, and beautiful. And they stuck with the vision of what they wanted to accomplish until it was finally in print.

Mrs. Swanson's main task was producing the illustrations. This meant taking the HSA file and sorting out the plans that had been sent in on random bits of paper bags, scratch paper, graph paper, and onion skin. All were done to different scales, if to scale at all, and all had different amounts of detail in regard to describing the plants used.

The plans then had to be standardized in scale, and somehow each had to have the accuracy of a planting plan with the visual appeal of a design plan. In the end, after months of hard work at her drawing board, Mrs. Swanson developed a style of drawing the plans to scale in blue pencil first and then going over them, freehand, in ink.

The result is a pleasing combination of letter-perfect draftsmanship softened by artistic interpretation.

Incidentally, the decorative north points on each plan are unique. Mrs. Swanson became fascinated by the infinite variety of the flower carpels she saw in her botanical dictionary, and she adapted a different one to each plan. It is a detail well worth noting as you read the book.

Although the two authors often worked together on the text, especially in developing a valuable index and cross-referencing system of common and botanical names for the hundreds of plants illustrated, the task of writing the commentary belonged mainly to Mrs. Rady. The style she evolved is clear and nontechnical, and it is so well matched to the illustrations that it is easy to ready the book straight through at one sitting.

Mrs. Rady's commentary was also helped by the fact that she was able to travel quite extensively during the writing of the book and so could view many of the gardens before having to write the descriptions that accompany each plan.

The extensive library of the Garden Center of Greater Cleveland was an invaluable source of reference material. ``Cleveland was an excellent place to live while writing this book,'' Mrs. Swanson remarks, ``if you can't live in England.''

As the months of armchair gardening wind up this winter, ``Herb Garden Design'' is a perfect book to have at hand, both to study and enjoy.

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