RHS Feel Good Front Gardens: ‘A Herbal Retreat’

Back in February I entered the RHS/BBC Local Radio competition to design a front garden for Hampton Court. It was intended to show how plants and good design can have positive effects on people’s health and happiness. Inspiration had to be local in origin and I based my design on the long history of herb growing, distillation and pharmaceutical production in my home town of Hitchin, North Hertfordshire. One of the best aspects of designing the garden was the opportunity to learn more about the role of different plants in my local history. ‘A Herbal Retreat’ was the garden which grew out of my research – a garden with exclusively herbal planting – either with culinary, medicinal or distillatory purposes.

‘A Herbal Retreat’

My garden was designed to create a herbal haven to enrich life through relaxing, aromatic planting and the production of herbs for the kitchen and medicine cabinet. The garden included a quarter herb wheel by the entrance filled with familiar culinary herbs and then took visitors on a journey along a reclaimed brick and gravel path through a range of plants (such as Echinacea, Monarda, Nepeta, Agastache and Passiflora caerulea) whose herbal properties might be less well known, to demonstrate the practical applications as well as beauty of our garden plants. In this way, the herb wheel acted as a herb garden within a herb garden.


My design for ‘A Herbal Retreat’

The front door was adjacent to a small thyme lawn (of Thymus serpyllum) with a wooden recliner and lavender filled cushion. Two pots with mixed planting for herbal teas were situated next to the seating, with Pelargonium ‘Attar of Roses’, Lemon verbena ( Aloysia citrodora), Peppermint (Mentha piperita), Chocolate mint (Mentha piperita ‘Chocolate’) and my favourite mint, Moroccan Mint (Mentha spicata crispa ‘Moroccan’). The path also included herbal planting with attractive creeping specimens like Corsican mint (Mentha requienii), Indian mint (Satureja douglasii) with its lovely white flowers, Creeping savoury (Satureja repandra) and Woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus ) to soften the edges and release an enticing fragrance for visitors or anyone delivering the post.


Woolly thyme thriving in my front path

Hitchin’s Lavender History

I showcased lavender within the garden, moving from the old variety ‘Vera’ along the boundary, likely used by William Ransom who founded the UK’s oldest pharmaceutical company in Hitchin in 1846, through to more modern cultivars in the borders. Hitchin was an important lavender producing area, with commercial production beginning in the 1800s and over 100 acres of award-winning lavender fields at its peak. William Ransom distilled the lavender for local chemist Perks & Llewellyn and the resulting product was so good that in 1851 Queen Victoria’s train stopped at Hitchin so that she could receive a bottle of essential oil.

Lavandula angustifolia ‘Twickel Purple’

We also have the superb Hitchin Lavender with around 25 miles of lavender rows. Armed with a paper bag and a pair of scissors, you can amble through the field picking your own lavender for cake making or drying at home. Then there’s my favourite area – the trial grounds where I can get lost for ages in rows upon rows of different varieties. The best thing about lavender is that it epitomises herbal use – it has culinary, medicinal and distillation applications and its scent adds to the healing ambience of a garden.

IMAG0296 (2)

Hitchin Lavender

My garden wasn’t selected, but I learnt a lot about herbs and local history during the design process. As a result I was looking forward to visiting Hampton Court to see the winning gardens and learn a little more about some other areas of the UK.


RHS/Local Radio Feel Good Front Gardens


The Winning Gardens – Manchester

I particularly liked Manchester’s Lee Burkhill ‘Fancy a Brew? Take a Pew’ with its nod to Coronation Street in the cobbled path and its exuberant planting which mixed grasses and perennials in a celebration of summer colour.


Stunning summer colours

Red and orange Echinacea, Red Helenium, purple Verbena bonariensis and lemon Salvia shone out through the Stipa gigantea, Pennisetum ‘Cream Falls’ and Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’. It was a calming yet uplifting summer space in which to relax with a cuppa and I’m sure many people would covet it for their own front garden (I did!)


Soft summer froth


The Winning Gardens – Kent

I also enjoyed Kent’s Sarah Morgan ‘Beachscape Oyster Garden’ which used wooden planks set in gravel from the front door to take you on a journey from land, across the beach to the water’s edge. The planting was a combination of soft and spiky, with Achillea, Euphorbia and Daucus carota alongside Agapanthus, Eryngium yuccifolium, Cirsium rivulare and Festuca glauca. I loved the gabions filled with pebbles, fossils created by local school children and planted with different Sempervivum.


Pebbles, fossils and sempervivums

The garden also included the wonderful Dianthus cruentus which I discovered at Chelsea this year and which creates amazing jewel-like spikes through other frothy planting. My only concern about this garden was that the rills taking the water to the eye-catching rusty pool were significantly raised above the level of the path – possibly creating difficulties for anyone attempting to reach the front door!


Spiky and soft


Greening the Grey

At the end of the day, it matters little whether your front garden has a beach theme, includes tropical plants or references local tin mining history. What matters is that front gardens have become an endangered national resource. They are disappearing at an unprecedented rate despite our growing understanding of the importance of natural outdoor spaces on human health, flood defence and the protection of wildlife. If inspiring designs like the ones at Hampton Court can encourage people to create small green areas outside their properties, then they become part of an important movement towards recognising the value of collective green spaces and joining them up across the country for the benefit of ourselves, our wildlife and the environment.

My actual small front garden greening the grey throughout the seasons

I’d love to know your thoughts about front gardens. How does your front garden use plants to create a green space outside the house? Did you find any of the Hampton Court designs inspiring – if so which ones and why? Do you have plans to green the grey outside your house and what have other people on your street done to create green spaces?

Please leave me a comment so I can learn more about what others are doing or want to do in their front gardens. Thanks.

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5 thoughts on “RHS Feel Good Front Gardens: ‘A Herbal Retreat’

  1. Esther says:

    I live in central Sevenoaks, Kent and inherited a paved over front garden when I moved here 10 years ago. I have let ‘weeds’ blow in n not removed them from the cracks n have added many big pots and built a bug hotel with pallets, on top of which I have placed soil n sown wildflower seeds. My garden is now full of life and I love it. Sadly all other Edwardian semi’s along my stretch of road have turned their front areas (largely pebbled anyway) into car parks. I will keep going with growing bee attracting plants n flowers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • dogwooddays says:

      Your front garden sounds fabulous! I also let my front garden self seed – really interesting to see what comes along. Favourites so far have been violas and a lavender! Just a shame that the trend is to pave. What a lot people are missing. I think more RHS exhibits and campaign materials should include advice for green front gardens which also have parking. Although I think there are some ideas on their website along these lines.


  2. elizabeth towler says:

    Loved this blog. I feel very passionately about the importance of front gardens,
    not only from a greening/wildlife/environmental point of view but also how important they are to creating an attractive oasis at the most important access points to your house. You walk through it every day so why not make it a wonderful experience that brings you happiness every time you pass through it. It welcomes you as you come home and can transform the outward appearance of your house dramatically at relatively little cost. Nothing brings me greater pleasure than seeing bees and butterflies visit plants that I have planted in my front garden.

    Liked by 1 person

    • dogwooddays says:

      Thanks ☺ Glad your front garden brings you so much pleasure – if only more people realised how much potential there is for relatively little cost and effort in the humble, and often small, front garden. Front gardens symbolise how much individuals can do on a small scale and how this can create a really big impact across the whole country. Let’s keep spreading the word 🙂


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