“I placed a bowl of herbs and ointments in the window of my bedroom, and let the scented breeze carry him away…”
The Sharp Hook of Love: A Novel of Heloise and Abelard. Sherry Jones.
One lovely July evening a few years ago we had free tickets to the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. Midweek it’s open until ten and people put picnic rugs on the grass, open a bottle of wine and enjoy the walled oasis in the heart of the capital. We’d been flirting with the idea of a herb garden and the Physic Garden was all the inspiration we needed.
The Perceived Wisdom for herb gardens is to have them near the house – so that when you need an emergency bay leaf for the Bolognese sauce you don’t have to leave your bubbling pan for too long.
We decided to put it on the east side of the patio. There is a big beech tree above it so some of it only gets the sun from early afternoon onwards but it does then bake until sunset.
Our house is Victorian red brick. The patio retaining wall is too so we decided to do a brick path – as we had seen at the Chelsea Physic Garden. We had never made a path but knew it needed a good foundation so it didn’t settle or sink too much.
MLH dug out a foundation. Our clay, flinty soil was rock hard so that was a pretty back-breaking job by hand. Then we filled it in with broken paving blocks left over from the front drive.
My job was cementing in the border. We went for the “basket-weave” configuration of bricks because we wouldn’t have to cut any of them to fit the design. Clever eh?! As total brick-laying novices it was hard work and slow as we figured it out as we went along. I was doing what I could on my days off and MLH got stuck in at the weekend. It took us weeks.
It was a conscious decision not to improve the soil. Many of the woody Mediterranean herbs don’t mind a poor, stony bed. The rosemary, thyme, marjoram, lavender and sage have thrived. Many of the umbelliferous plants with a tap root like the bronze fennel, angelica, caraway and sweet cicely have also thrived if planted when they were already established. However many of the annual herbs like chervil, dill, basil and calendula have really struggled especially if sown direct. The clay soil bakes solid in the sun and their little roots just can’t penetrate even with regular watering. In the Autumn I’m going to rearrange the planting and improve the soil. Follow the blog for regular updates later in the season.
A final word on plant selection. I have kniphofia, achillea and euphorbia in my garden. Not culinary herbs of course but historically they had a medicinal use and I decided to widen the remit of my herb garden to include these too – so that I could grow more of my favourite plants! My Dad bought me a great book called Doctors in the Medicinal Garden: Plants Named after Physicians by Dr Henry Oakeley.
Kniphofia was named after Johann Hieronymous Kniphof (1704-63) and was used in traditional African medicine as a snake repellent and for chest complaints although it is toxic so don’t try this at home…
Achillea was named after the Greek warrior Achilles (he of the weak heels) The plant is known as Soldier’s Woundwort or Staunchwort because the leaves were reputed to stop bleeding.
Euphorbia’s common name, Spurge, comes from the Latin and Old French – purgare, purgacion, meaning to purify or purge and was used as a laxative. The sap is extremely corrosive though and will burn skin. It was also used to treat warts but again I really wouldn’t recommend it!