How to create a healing garden: planting aromatics and fragrant flowers

In healing gardens, as well as looking attractive, each plant has a purpose - stimulate the senses with health-giving herbs.

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What better kind of garden can there be than one that is full of aromatic plants and fragrant flowers to lift the spirits and stimulate the senses?

At this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, one of the prettiest gardens on display will surely be A Modern Apothecary, which will sport borders of espaliered as well as step-over pears, a circular tapestry of herbs and an entrance archway of hops and climbing roses.

As well as looking attractive, each plant has a purpose. “The idea is to inspire people with the power of plants for both physical and emotional well-being,” says herb grower and the garden’s designer, Jekka McVicar.

“Everything in the garden had to be proven to be of benefit to man. For example rosemary, in the herb bed, has been scientifically proven to help restore the memory; taxol extracted from yew, in columns on the back wall, is used to treat cancer; pears help regulate Type 2 diabetes and hops aid sound sleep.”

The design is eminently copyable and, at just 10m square, would work well in many London gardens. In fact post-Chelsea it is going to be resited within the garden of St John’s Hospice in St John’s Wood, which commissioned the garden for patients and their families to enjoy and use as a tranquil place for quiet reflection.

Even the outline of the garden, a circle within the allotted square, is chosen for a reason. “Circles and curves are best if your mood is low because you don’t need to make a decision which way to go,” says McVicar. “If you put a path with an S bend in a small London garden, you meander rather than walk down a straight path. Curves are gentler, more soothing than sharp angles.”

Haven: A Modern Apothecary, Jekka McVicar’s garden, will be transferred post-Chelsea to St John’s Hospice


Four standard hawthorn trees at each corner will blossom in May and, later in the year, produce berries for birds. These, too, have a purpose: an infusion of hawthorn flowers and leaves, points out McVicar, benefits heart and circulation.

The wide circular herb bed holds a random mix of beneficial herbs including lavender, feverfew, sky-blue flax and lemon verbena, threaded decoratively with red ribbons of beetroot, orach and ruby chard. Four bay pyramids within the herb bed provide evergreen structure, and are set at angles to the hawthorns.

“The temptation in a garden like this is to make everything symmetrical,” points out McVicar, “but that would make the space look a lot smaller.”

A pebble path broad enough to support hospital beds and wheelchairs, and provide brave visitors a barefoot reflexology treatment, leads from the arched entrance into the inner circle of the herb bed.

At the garden’s centre is a trickling Portland stone fountain surrounded by a carpet of mixed thymes and chamomile which will flow on to the edges of the path, releasing its fragrance when crushed underfoot.

Herb leys are traditional mixed-species pastures for grazing animals, but McVicar has incorporated her own city take on a herb ley between the garden’s boundaries and the herb bed.

“Grass would have been the easy option but if you’re on clay, and in shade, a lawn gets muddy and compacted. So I had the idea of creating my own mix of shade-loving turf by sowing seeds of chicory, salad burnet, sorrel, yarrow and St John’s wort. You can mow a path through it, or simply step on it to create a natural-looking green walkway.”

Two oak benches, backed with open-plaited willow and placed at angles to one another for privacy, are set on the path so that visitors are cushioned by the plants in the herb border.

“In Ayurvedic medicine, when the patient is poorly, the doctor asks the patient to sit in the herb garden at the end of the day, when the aromas are at their most powerful,” explains McVicar.

“Even in our cooler climate, it’s still great therapy just to sit among the herbs, enjoying the wonderful sights, tastes and scents.”

  • To help give patients at St John’s Hospice a new garden, visit the appeal page at
  • Especially for Homes & Property readers, Jekka McVicar offers a Grow Your Own Herb Ley seed collection, ideal for clay soil in part shade, for £9.99 incl p&p, with yarrow, chicory, sorrel, salad burnet and vervain. Order at



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