By: Jessie Keith
Knowing designer herbs is to love them. Like all herbs, they are easy in pots, window boxes and containers, but they are also as beautiful as they are fragrant and delicious, making them perfect for creative planting designs. Some have variegated or colorful leaves and others columnar or compact forms giving them a visual edge. A bold lemon grass in a patio container, trimmed mini basil contained in an urban kitchen garden, or glorious variegated lemon thyme spilling out of a windowbox all look as splendid as they taste.
Visually appealing herbal delights cover most culinary favorites. Sage, rosemary, thyme, basil, oregano, and marjoram come in lots of pretty variations. Others, like lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus), make a big impact in their natural form. Here is a sampling of some of the most interesting and lovely herbs to add to ornamental containers and beds.
Basils (Ocimum spp.) are some of the easiest summertime annual herbs for pots and many are colorful and attractive. Two for beauty and good performance are the purple-hued Thai basil ‘Siam Queen’, variegated non-flowering ‘Pesto Perpetuo’. Both add unique interest to containers and continue to produce flavorful leaves from planting time to frost. Purple sweet basils, like ‘Amethyst Improved’, are also beautiful but only remain flavorful and full if their flower buds are continuously removed. If allowed to bloom and set seed, they have fewer leaves and develop a sharp, strong flavor.
Oregano is a classic perennial herb for containers and Origanum vulgare ‘Gold Tip’ and ‘Aureum’ are real show offs with gold-enhanced leaves and somewhat cascading forms. Two marjorams for color are the golden-leaved Origanum majorana ‘Aureum’ and beautifully variegated Origanum majorana ‘Variegata’, which has green leaves with irregular ivory edges.
Some of the most diverse and interesting herbs for foliar color are sages (Salvia officinalis). These semi-evergreen herbs all have soft, velvety leaves. Three are real ornamental standouts. The rounded, silvery leaves of ‘Berggarten’ sage are unusually ornamental as are the purple, ivory, and green leaves of ‘Tricolor’ sage and the golden variegated leaves of the classic ‘Icterina.’ Purple sage (S. officinalis ‘Purpurea’) is another charmer.
Trailing and weeping plants consistently add flair to containers, which is why the trailing rosemary plants Rosmarinus offinalis ‘Lockwood de Forest’ and ‘Huntington Carpet’ add extra flair at the base of containers. Thymes are also choice trailers for spilling over the edge of a potted herb garden. Of these, the lemony gold- and green-leaved ‘Doone Valley’ is a perennial favorite, as is the silver-edged Thymus x citriodorus ‘Silver Queen’ and fine, compact Thymus serpyllum ‘Elfin.’ All add lush looks and strong fragrance to containers.
When creating designs with ornamental herbs it pays to think of habits and heights as well as textures and colors. Life cycle and root spread are also important considerations. Small, annual, non-spreaders, such as compact basils, should be planted together. Aggressive, spreading perennials, such as ornamental oreganos, should be planted in pots on their own or given plenty of space in an herbal border.
When designing plantings, remember that groupings look best in threes. One complimentary combo of three for a container would be the variegated and columnar ‘Pesto Perpetuo’ basil, a bushy purple sage, and clambering ‘Silver Queen’ thyme. Choose a spacious attractive container, water it regularly during the heat of summer, and it will look lovely all season long. And when the annual basil dies through winter it can be replaced the following season.
Aggressive spreaders should be planted alone. All mints spread quickly via rhizomes, and the colorful and deliciously fragrant variegated pineapple mint (Mentha suaveolens ‘Variegata’) is no exception. Oreganos spread almost as quickly and will overcrowd other herbs. Lemongrass is another that will create a huge clump by summer’s end, if provided a large pot and consistently moist soil.
All herbs mentioned are sun-loving garden plants that grow best in fertile, well-drained medium like Black Gold All-Purpose Potting Soil. A light application of slow-release fertilizer early in the season will also help them remain vigorous and happy. Give them good care, and they will reward you with contained culinary splendor all season long.