All-round garden plants: aromatic Mediterranean herbs

The drought-busting solution for summer is a fragrant flowering herb garden
Bushy lavender
© Gap Photos/Ron Evans
Sensory carpet: bushy lavender and mat-forming thyme make a fragrant and colourful patchwork
For a permanently hosepipe free garden, plant the ultimate drought busters: herbs. With felty or fine-needled foliage designed by nature to limit their need for water, aromatic Mediterranean herbs — chiefly sage, rosemary, thyme, bay — make the finest all-round garden plants.

Think of them as evergreens and you begin to see, as garden designers do, the valuable role they can play, as framework, groundcover, path-edgers and front-of-border plants that produce potent fragrance whenever they are brushed past or stroked.

On a hot summer's day you can practically see the volatile oils shimmering above the plants, offering the best outdoor aromatherapy.

For plants that give so much pleasure, as well as prunings to enhance the plate year-round, their needs are surprisingly simple: free-draining soil, and a sunny spot. Get the soil in shape — dig plenty of grit into the planting hole if your soil is heavy — and they are a breeze to plant; no manure or feed required. Just settle them in with a good watering, and mulch with gravel to keep them in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

Rosemary, already smothered at this time of year in blue, pink or white flowers, can be used in a dozen different ways around the garden. Try it as neatly clipped hedging (Miss Jessop's Upright is the well-behaved one to buy), as a freeform, aromatic wrap around a garden bench (Rosmarinus officinalis) or cascading over the side of terracotta pots, Sicilian-style (Rosmarinus officinalis prostratus group). This same low, spreading rosemary looks wonderful, too, planted solo, in hanging baskets.

Thyme, just asking to be stroked, is every bit as versatile, and fun to work with. Use it to visually break up a path or paving with pockets of carpeting thyme that can stand footfall, such as Thymus serpyllum Minor; plant bushy thyme Thymus Porlock around sundials and sculptures; settle orange-scented T Fragrantissimus around the base of roses as a perfect fragrant partner.

Rosemary
© Gap Photos/Elke Borkowski
Rosemary makes a tactile and aromatic evergreen for patio planters
Make a sensory patchwork of thymes in a large pot on the patio, mixing heights and scents that include golden variegated lemon thyme (upright) as well as caraway (creeping).

A cushion of grey-green, lilac-flowered Thymus serpyllum L, better known as woolly thyme, makes the most tactile container plant of all, but needs protection from excessive wet or, like cashmere left out in all weathers, it will rot. If you can't find woolly thyme, oregano makes a great substitute as well as handy pickings for pizzas.

In poor, stony ground, oregano will self-seed; take advantage of that by planting beautiful decorative varieties such as Origanum Kent Beauty, which produces whorls of tubular pink and green flowers.

Sage has a way of eventually outgrowing its welcome, but who cares, when you can replant, and it grows so quickly? Salvia officinalis makes a great partner to most perennials in the border; like groundcover geraniums, it's a great filler, and flows easily on to pathways and over raised beds. Use the purple variety, Salvia officinalis Purpurascens, and you can have gorgeous pinky-mauve flower spikes, too.

Even snobby gardeners who can't stand variegated foliage find bed room for the less vigorous sage Tricolor, cream sage, attractively splashed with dusky pink and apple green markings.

Weave these herbs together in a tapestry of textures, along with early flowering French lavender and later- flowering English, and you have your very own enticing, easy-care Mediterranean maquis.


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