Herbs as Ornamentals

Herbs rate as some of most beloved of plants. They have been essential ingredients to cooking and medicine for thousands of years and even non-gardeners know their names. But what many gardeners often overlook is their potential as outstanding ornamental plants. Even if you never snip a leaf of oregano to toss in a pot of soup or slip sprigs of lavender into a linen drawer, herbs are worthy additions to the garden.

Basically herbs have it all – flowers, foliage, texture, color. What is more eye-catching than pink pom-poms of chive blooms dancing above their spiky leaves, silvery oregano highlighted against wine-colored ‘Purple Ruffles’ basil, the electric-blue flowers and downy foliage of borage, or the bold contorted form of a rosemary. Plus, unlike many annuals and perennials, herbs have intoxicating scents. When putting herbs in your garden, plant your favorites where you’re sure to brush past them.

A traditional way to present herbs is in a structured parterre or kitchen garden, but they are just as well suited to a sunny informal border among perennials, annuals, and shrubs. Try juxtaposing their colors and textures among purple coneflower, small- to medium-size ornamental grasses, sedums, salvias, daylilies, dianthus, roses, and yarrow. And don’t assume herbs are “just green.” They produce an abundance of flowers and their foliage colors run the gamut from deep purple to blue, silver, dark green, chartreuse, and variegated. Basil alone has dozens of varieties, with an amazing range of colors, leaf sizes, leaf forms, and heights. A bed of just basil can look like a tapestry.

Herbs also fill the design roles of other ornamental plants. Towering, feathery fennel gives dynamic height and structure (and even seasonal screening); the bronze form will also echo other burgundy colored foliage and flowers in the garden. For edging, try ‘Boxwood’ or ‘Summerlong’ basil, germander, or curly-leaved parsley such as ‘Extra Curled Dwarf’. Thyme makes an ideal groundcover in a well-drained location, and can be tucked between pavers to create a fragrant pathway. Prostrate rosemary can be trained to cascade over a wall, adding visual interest to an otherwise blank surface. A number of herbs are evergreen and lend color to the garden even in winter, as long as they’re hardy in your area.

And you don’t need a big landscape to enjoy herbs. Many have compact forms that are perfect for small-space gardens where there is ample sun and good drainage. If you only have a deck or balcony, no problem. Herbs also make ideal container plants. Place them individually in their own pots, or mix them in a large vessel or trough for a mini herb garden. If you want to grow herbs that aren’t reliably hardy in your area, containers are a great solution. When the season starts to cool down, simply move them indoors to a sun porch, a bright room, or a garage that gets plenty of light, and move them back out into the landscape the following spring. (It’s also wise to plant mint in a container regardless of hardiness since it tends to be too aggressive for most garden spaces.)

Of course, the big added bonus to all this beauty is the usefulness of herbs, particularly in the kitchen. And regular snipping actually benefits and refreshes the plants, leading to a flush of new foliage and often flowers as well. Another plus is that herbs are so wildlife friendly. Pollinators are crazy about the blooms of all plants in the mint family (basil, lavender, rosemary, thyme, mint, oregano, sage, catnip, marjoram, savory) and some herbs are important host plants for butterfly caterpillars (black swallowtail larvae favor parsley, dill, and fennel—it’s worth planting them just for this reason). 

Most herbs are easy to grow from seed, though they are also readily available as plants. When plotting their locations in the garden, take note of whether they are annual or perennial (meaning, are they short-term or long-term garden residents), their cold hardiness, ultimate sizes, and will they continue to get enough sunlight as other plants grow and leaf out around them. And if you plan to harvest from them regularly, make sure the herbs are easy to access without stomping on their neighbors.