We have managed to create a garden with distinct aromatic notes at different points. Originally designed as a sensory garden for our children, this is now the way we like to grow our herbs!
To create an aromatic herb garden you will need the right mixture of plants, in the right location. Either planted to be ‘in the way’ and brushed past or in pots you can move around as you change the way you use your garden. We have chosen to interplant in borders and pathways and then give structure with taller aromatic herbs in pots.
The scent of a plant comes from the essential oils in the leaves and flowers. The low density molecules are able to travel in the air we breathe and are received as scents. There is an evolutionary reason for this, but we massively benefit from it in our garden. You can use aroma to deter pests or to attract beneficial pollinators to the garden.
Top Herbs For An Aromatic Herb Garden
- Lemon Verbena is incredibly aromatic when you brush past it. Plant in containers in the UK or colder zones in the US. This will mean you can overwinter them and protect them from harsher frosts and heavy rainfall. Lemon verbena loves a regular feed during the growing season. We use lemon verbena to deter flying pests and therefore keeping it in pots will allow those aromatic qualities to float around your alfresco dining area. Even though you should plant it in pots, there is nothing to stop you digging the pot into the ground and then you can lift it without disturbing the roots. Meaning it becomes the portable perennial you need it to be. You can buy lemon verbena as seeds or plugs but we recommend buying as a 9cm plant here, specialist online nurseries have really excelled over recent years.
If you are using lemon verbena in cooking then you may want to consider making a bouquet garni or sachet d’epices as the leaves are sharp and will no doubt put you off the dish. As lemon verbena comes from South America, it can be used to add flavor to so many indigenous dishes. We add a few leaves into rice when cooking for a fresh citrus flavor that actually you won’t get from adding lemon itself.
- Bay Tree will be a great center piece to any garden. You can let your bay tree grow to fill the space by planting directly or you can contain it in pots. If you plant Bay trees in pots you need to annually trim the root ball by around a third to maintain the size of the overall plant. Use this as a chance to feed it and replenish compost. You will be able to feed your bay tree through the growing season for best results. The bay tree will be pretty much impervious to pests once it has established itself in the ground. Use the leaves in cooking but remember to remove them before serving. The aroma could be described as earthy but with lighter notes. Sitting in the shade of a larger bay tree is the best way to appreciate this aroma. However a pair of ball shaped bay trees either side of the front door is very pleasing as well.
- Rosemary can really deliver when it comes to aroma. If you have a few larger shrubs then you can plant from cuttings and gain an entire hedge worth very quickly and easily. Even better is that rosemary is a perennial and you will be able to benefit from the aromatic nature all year round. That said it really does release essential oils during the height of Summer. Rosemary smells of an earthy pine like scent. The flowers are pleasing and have a long flowering period with no detrimental effect on the rest of the plant. It is drought tolerant and pretty much indestructible. Use it in many different dishes to give an extra depth of flavor.
- Thyme comes in so many different varieties and will be good in lots of different settings. You can under plant the bay tree with it, or use it in hanging baskets. Thyme tastes earthy and like a perfect Italian dish! Go for a lemon thyme to give an extra layer of aroma. Thyme is also drought tolerant so perfect for a lazy gardener.
- Oregano is a herb that I have included almost out of habit. We grow a lot of oregano as we love cooking Mediterranean cuisine. It lends that authenticity of flavor and aroma that you think of when you think about great pizza or pasta dishes. Oregano will release sent during warmer days and is lovely planted around any outdoor eating area. If you have a BBQ area or pizza oven, then you will want oregano! It is low maintenance and will not die in drought conditions. Perfect for younger gardeners to try and grow from seed or younger plants. It also have very attractive small pink flowers in clusters.
- Lavender has the gentle aromatic scent of relaxation. We love to grow many different varieties of lavender along borders in our garden. Encouraging us to brush past and release the scent. When we think of aromatic herbs we think lavender. But lavender is also great when dried and used indoors or in our chickens nesting box. Lavender can thrive in pots and will need plenty of drainage, but very little other than a good trim before Winter. We move ours to a more sheltered spot in Winter. This is more around reducing rainfall and wind than the cold though. A good layer of mulch around lavender that is planted in the ground can really help. When Spring comes remove any dead leaves and clear the base. This will avoid rot or disease building up. Lavender will attract beneficial bugs to the garden and will really elevate any driveway or as a center-piece in a hanging basket by the front door.
- Mint comes in so many different varieties and we love to grow, chocolate mint, pineapple mint and spearmint to name a few. These go down very well with the kids, but don’t taste that great when simply pinched and shoved into their mouths. So go gently and use the leaves in cooking or herbal teas. For anyone who loves their garden a bit wild, plant mint directly into the ground. If, instead you like order do keep it under control in pots. Mint grows underground on runners and these will take over the garden. Mint is a favorite in any herbal garden. It has a great aroma and when planted with other leafy herbs will become a great edible center piece. We allow ours to go to flower as it is not a sign of bolting and will give the bees and pollinators a real treat. As well as creating very pretty, delicate white, pink or light purple spikes of flowers. So get creative with your mint varieties.
- Lemon Balm is from the mint family and can be quite invasive as a result. So planting in pots is a great idea and you can then add it to your outside dining table as and when needed. The aromatic nature of lemon balm is gentle and a sort of mix between the zing of mint and the citrus sharpness of lemon. Much more gentle in flavor and scent than lemon verbena, lemon balm can be used liberally in herbal tea infusions or in fresh salads. Lemon balm benefits from a regular prune, so harvest as you want to eat it. By pinching out new growth it will bush out to be quite substantial.
- Tangerine Sage is great for kids as it mixes the pungent aroma of sage with the gentle scent of zesty citrus. One word of note is that when eaten fresh this does not taste great for younger taste buds. Cooked with your usual family favorites it works very well. So if you are planting as a garden to be tried and tested as you grow, this one may be better to the back. It does produce the most unusual flowers and these can also be added to salads or cocktails in the form of ice cubes. Tangerine sage is also sometimes called pineapple sage and I would say this is more accurate of the aromatic profile at least. It needs to be over wintered in the UK and most of Northern America as it will require protection from even the most mild of frosts. We have ours in pots and move to the poly tunnel when needed.
- Curry Plant is an unusual herb to grow and one which can really be a conversation starter. However it genuinely does have the heavy aroma of curry and I would even go as far as to say this is the most aromatic herb you can grow. So plant it some way away from the house as to avoid the waft of curry all Summer long. Using curry leaves in cooking is very simple and you will get a truly authentic flavor profile. The aromatic nature of the curry leaves will come through in all cooking!
- Basil is a last minute addition to this list as we grow the majority of ours indoors. Our kitchen windowsill gets plenty of sunlight and this means it is ideal for growing basil. Basil is also from the mint family and it will thrive with the right amount of water and sun. Basil needs plenty of sun and only water when the top of the soil is dry to the touch. The reason we love to grow basil indoors is that it becomes handy to remember to add as a garnish to dishes. We also have the aromatic benefit for basil as well. The essential oils are released in the sunshine and basil becomes the perfect kitchen scent. Basil will benefit from regular pruning and so eating it as and when you need helps. We pick a few sprigs most evenings. The kids can also grow basil easily, so it is quite a quick win for us. We do cheat a bit here as and when we need to. Making pesto is a good little Winter indoors activity. So we need masses of basil. You can buy living plants from supermarkets and separate them out. A few weeks later you will have masses of basil. Far cheaper and easier than you would imagine and you don’t have to kill the plants to harvest. Meaning so many more crops throughout the year.
How To Plan An Aromatic Garden
- Find the scents that you like. As basic as that sounds it is really important. For me lavender brings back wonderful memories of relaxing Sundays spent with grandparents. For others the aroma is too old fashioned and twee. So make sure to try before you buy, or at least rub leaves in nurseries and then get your basics in place.
- Think about zoning your aromatic garden up. Remember what we said about curry plants being very clearly curry, well maybe you wouldn’t want that aroma with your zesty, more subtle scents. A more sheltered spot would benefit from the gentle aromas. Conversely an area in your garden for eating would benefit from the herbs that deter pests in the evenings. We could plant a dozen lemon verbena for each area we want to sit in, or have a pot we can move around depending on the time of year.
- Height is important in all garden planning. Planting taller, bushier shrubs to the back of a border will work, but if you want to benefit from the aromatic nature of that herb, you may need to rethink your plan. Rosemary is a good example of a herb that, if left to it’s own devices will grow and expand to fill most spaces. So good pruning will mean you can plant along a border or pathway without fear of it taking over. Just be aware of the workload involved and make sure you benefit from the inevitable harvest!
- We recommend planting edibles together. It is tempting to add plants that look good together, but if you are ever in any doubt you should keep them separated. Non-edibles can be terrible tasting or worse toxic. An aromatic herb garden, using the herbs we have suggested above will give you a great mixture of flavors.
- Plant your aromatic garden in a place that will get visited through the year. You may want to think about planting a lavender hedge alongside your driveway. You could intersperse it with rosemary shrubs to make a lighter note and extend the flowering period for that are.
- If you have only a small balcony, think about the herbs that grow well in pots. Lavender, mint, lemon verbena or different types of thyme will all grow well in smaller spaces. Thyme is known as great ground cover, so interplant with taller shrubs to maximize the space available. A balcony can be a small aromatic idyll ready for you to sit and enjoy!
- Mix up the seasons for the aroma. Some plants only release scent through a very short window of flowering, whereas herbs are more likely to give a year round scent. Your aromatic garden won’t suffer for intermixing some edible flowers though!
- Don’t be afraid to get creative with your aromatic garden planning! Think about head height and how to maximize the more subtle scents. You may even think about a nice sprawling thyme planted in a hanging basket and cascading to your front door. The beauty here is that thyme is a drought tolerant herb and it will mean less time watering those hanging baskets!
- I have not included a very aromatic herb in this article and that is feverfew. It is a deliberate omission as although it is easy to grow, it will create an intense aroma. One which is quite unpleasant. So perfect if you want to deter pests, but not if you want to encourage bees and beneficial bugs to your garden. So think about the benefits of your plants before planning an aromatic garden.
Get creative and don’t be afraid to start small. An aromatic garden can be full of pollinators with so much reward for the gardener.
I hope you enjoy what you are able to create and please do share with us your successes!