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.

If you’d like to follow the blog, you can subscribe below…

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

10 Exciting Crops to Grow in a Modern Kitchen Garden

When we first arrived at Chelsea we made a beeline for the Great Pavilion and my favourite kind of display – those which combine beauty and productivity. I really enjoy the Pennard Plants gardens and always come away with ideas for new crops to grow the following year.


Allotment gardens to let…

This year was no different. The gold medal winning display covered 90 years of growing, exploring how allotments have developed since 1926 and the birth of Queen Elizabeth II. The first allotment plot included a greenhouse from the 1870s and was planted with fruit and vegetables of the period. There was a regimented air to the planting with all the crops standing to attention in military rows. The plot was packed with vibrant, healthy plants and focused largely on producing as many essential vegetables as possible to supply the demand for food after WW1. The allotment contained examples of vegetables grown from Pennard Plants’ heritage seed range and also included a compost area and beehive – valuable resources then as now.


Neat and productive 1926 allotment plot

The middle plot was a Chelsea Pensioners Allotment and emulated some of the allotment cultivation going on in the Royal Hospital every year. This time the planting was more mixed, with flowers, fruit and vegetables growing together in cheerful harmony. Nasturtium ‘Empress of India’ and ‘Alaska’ provide peppery leaves and petals for salads and young seed pods can be pickled as an alternative to capers. Borage and calendula attract the pollinators and their petals can also be used in salads, whilst in the foreground Moroccan Mint and Creeping Red Thyme provide leaves for tea and add flavour to all manner of soups, stews and salads.


The Chelsea Pensioners Allotment is both productive and beautiful

The third plot brought the story up to date with the Modern Allotment. Many of the planting was container-based in galvanised troughs allowing plot holders to move their crops between sites and enabling people to grow in the smallest of spaces. This modular and moveable approach to growing works well in rented properties. The ability to maximise growing space by adding extra soil depth to raised beds also allows gardeners with small outdoor spaces the opportunity


My reflective shed selfie

The mirrored shed designed to merge into the background was a modern take on allotment storage and the plot also housed chickens and bees, suggesting the role of animals in modern self-sufficiency. However, it was the more unusual fruit and vegetables which lured me in – resulting in my spending a long time taking pictures, asking questions and swapping advice.


The exciting modern allotment – with spiral trained apple tree

Some of these 10 unusual crops I’ve grown before and are now family favourites, some I’ve heard about and wanted to try, and others are exciting new discoveries. Read on to try something new or add your comments to the blog post and let me know what has worked for you, what hasn’t and any tips you’d give the novice grower:

1. Ground nut (Apios americana) – climbing herbaceous vine with edible tubers and seed pods. Mild flavour and 3 times the amount of protein of modern potatoes. Likes moist, well-drained soil in sun or part shade. Would work well in forest gardens as it can be left to climb through shrubs or trees.


The ground nut vine

2. Earth chestnut (Bunium bulbocastanum) – beautiful umbellifer which would be at home as much in the flower garden as the allotment. Tubers taste of chestnuts and both leaves and seeds can be used as a flavouring or garnish. Easy to grow and hardy. I’ll be trying this one out next year…


Beautiful earth chestnut flowers

3. Red perilla (Perilla frutescens var. crispa) – a cut and come again salad leaf from Southeast Asia. This half-hardy annual looks stunning for those who like colour in the vegetable plot or who aspire to create a potager garden as an ornamental as well as productive feature. Can be used to give a scarlet colour to pickled dishes and flower buds and seeds can also be eaten. Mild aniseed-mint flavour, milder than green varieties. Grow from seed each year.


Striking red perilla

4. Chinese celery (Oenanthe javanica ‘Flamingo’) – beautiful variegated leaves with a pink tinge to the outer edge. Distant relative to parsley, the leaves are best steamed or used as a garnish and have a celery-like taste. Needs a moist, semi-shaded spot in the garden. Vigorous grower, hardy down to about -10.

Warning – many members of this genus are extremely poisonous, so if you intend to harvest the plant, ensure it comes clearly labelled with the correct Latin name.


Chinese celery looks attractive and delicate

5. Wasabi (Wasabia japonica) – the Japanese horseradish root has a spicy heat which livens up all manner of dishes, such as mashed potato, salads (good in salad dressing) and marinades. The plant takes 2 years to reach maturity and needs acid soil with moist, shady conditions. It can be grown in pots of aquatic compost placed in a tray of water or in boggy ground.


Spicy wasabi

6. Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) – a tuber from Peru, closely related to sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes. They look rather like potatoes and have a taste rather like a pear crossed with mild celery – in Peru they are eaten more as a fruit than a vegetable. The plants are perennial – dig the tubers up to harvest and select several large tubers to overwinter in a frost free place. These can then be planted out the following spring.


Yacan is another tuber worth trying…

7. Callaloo (Amarathus spp.) – this attractive plant is also known as amaranth or love lies bleeding and is often used as an ornamental specimen. The seeds can be sown direct from late May to early August and will grow into plants for cropping within 6 weeks. Leaves can be used as a cut and come again salad crop and also fried in curries or cooked in soups – basically used in the same way as spinach. My confession is that I sowed two packets of callaloo seed last year at two different times and not a single seed germinated. Any thoughts on what I was doing wrong would be gratefully received!


Vibrant callaloo – clearly doesn’t like my garden

8. Mexican tree spinach (Chenopodium giganteum) – an annual which will self-seed and is a relative of quinoa and the weed fat hen (Chenopodium album) which is also edible. The young leaves and tips can be harvested continually and used as a leafy green in the same way as spinach and with a similar taste.


Galvanised troughs with an interesting range of salad leaves – like mexican tree spinach

9. Vietnamese coriander (Persicaria odorata) – a frost tender perennial herb with a lemony coriander taste. It can be grown in a pot and overwintered indoors or simply transplanted from the ground to a pot for overwintering. Grow in a sheltered spot in full sun or partial shade, in rich, fertile soil. Can be eaten fresh in salads and used in soups and stews.


Vietnamese coriander with its striking leaf patterns

10. Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) – a favourite tuber in our family, we’ve been growing this Andean tuber crop for several years now and this year I’m also growing 14 trial plants as part of the Guild of Oca Breeders study to develop a genetically diverse, day neutral oca which will crop more heavily in the UK than current varieties. Oca can be a range of bright colours from yellows to whites, reds and pinks. They are harvested around November and nothing makes me happier in the rather drab autumn vegetable garden than digging up a treasure trove of little red gems to roast for tea. The tubers are sweeter if left for a fortnight or so on a sunny windowsill. They have a lemony taste and can also be eaten raw. Leaves can also be eaten, provided they are taken in moderation so as not to disturb the plant’s growth and eaten in moderation as they contain oxalic acid like sorrel, spinach and rhubarb. Leaves should not be consumed if you suffer from rheumatism or arthritis.


Oca – a family favourite

I also got a lovely collection of new chillies to grow from seed next year, recommended by Chris Smith at Pennard Plants. The rest of my family would probably say I already grow enough different chillies, but I love experimenting with new plants. If you would like to try something new, you can get more information on the Pennard Plants website. Follow my blog for more ideas on growing something a bit different and let me know how you get on…

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.