May 17, 2020


Coreopsis | Photos by the writer
Coreopsis | Photos by the writer

Herb gardens may be regarded, by some, as being ‘in fashion’. They definitely are, but they are also an essential part of the garden and, to be without one, is to ignore the very foundation on which gardening, as we have come to know it, was built.

Archaeological evidence identifies the oldest herb gardens as having existed in China way back in 3,400 BC, but it is well within the realms of possibility that other, smaller ones, predated them by who knows how many generations.

Such ancient herb gardens were, again according to archaeological findings, backed up by recipes written on papyrus, in Egypt, dated approximately 2,400 BC, predominantly medicinal in nature, and further Egyptian finds dated 1,500 BC, include 875 recipes for a variety of medicines utilising over 500 herbs in total.

Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), gathered information about herbs and other plants when he conquered Afghanistan, before entering into what is now Pakistan. The first Mughal emperor, Babur

(1483-1530 AD) was a noted plantsman and herbalist, who created gardens with always a special place for herbs, wherever he went. As did his ancestors before him as creating gardens was, surprising as it may sound, a very Mongol tradition.

Establishing your own herb garden is a good project that is important not only for culinary reasons but also for historic ones

Much of modern medicine is based on the ancient findings of Chinese, Tibetan, Persian and Arab herbalists, with later information being obtained from European herbalists who learnt from Christian monks who had, much to the horror of the Christian church whose hierarchy considered herb use a pagan practice, studied Latin translations of Arabic herbal manuscripts.

Curly parsley
Curly parsley

At some point, culinary herbs came to be cultivated alongside those with medicinal properties and ‘traditional’ herb gardens — those we know and recognise today — came into being, especially as for so many urban dwellers, harvesting herbs from the wild is certainly not a practical option.

Herb garden designs are numerous and varied yet — this is rather surprising given the history of herbalism — the vast majority is based on Western and not Eastern design concepts. However, some of them, knowingly or unknowingly, do incorporate Islamic design principles intertwined with Mughal ones, which takes us right back to the Middle Eastern, Central Asian and Asian herb gardens of long ago.

Here in Pakistan, we can rightly lay claim to both Islamic and Mughal herb garden designs — no doubt the Indus Valley civilisation had its own herb garden designs too. However, as with all other things garden-wise, the majority of the population have neither the time nor the amount of land, let alone the money, to create lavish herb gardens on a sizable scale. But this most certainly isn’t a barrier to making a herb garden, even a herb garden in pots, in whatever garden, balcony or rooftop space we can set aside, purely for growing our own personal selection of climatically suitable, culinary and medicinal herbs, and growing them in whatever simple or complicated design we happen to fancy.

The most important things to consider when starting an herb garden are:

  1. Sun and wind exposure

  2. Soil/compost and drainage

  3. Location of perennial plants according to anticipated height and width, required soil type and water intake

  4. Location of annual/purely seasonal plants according to height/width, soil and water requirements

  5. Perennial and annual/purely seasonal herbs for full sun

  6. Perennial and annual/purely seasonal herbs for partial shade

  7. Perennial and annual/purely seasonal herbs for full shade

  8. Annual/purely seasonal herb species suitable for growing in spring, summer, autumn or winter

  9. If growing herbs in pots/containers, you should ensure that drainage is uninterrupted and that the depth of the pots/containers is enough to allow the roots of the selected species plenty of space to grow to maturity and that, if the herb is going to be a tall one, that the pot/container is heavy and balanced enough not to be blown over every time a breeze ruffles the plant it holds

  10. Grouping herbs having the same — or very similar — sun, soil and water requirements makes things easier to manage.Here are just a few examples of the herbs you can — this varies from location to location of course — conceivably grow, but do please check out their specific soil/water/sun/height/width/root depth before making a start.

Perennial herbs: Comfrey, hollyhock, carnations, geraniums, chives, garlic chives, thyme, oregano, sage, rosemary, mint, tarragon, aniseed, angelica, fennel, feverfew, chamomile, lavender, watercress, bellis, violas, wallflowers, lemon balm, bee balm, coneflower, safflower, sorrel, amaranthus, lemon verbena, lemon grass, savory, lovage, chicory, bay, bergamot, catnip, hyssop and wormwood.

Annual/purely seasonal: Parsley, borage, coriander, nasturtiums, pot marigolds, basil, ajwain, dill, land cress, chervil, cilantro, marjoram, atriplex, chenapodium, rocket/arugula, purslane, coreopsis and alsi. —Z.N.

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Published in Dawn, EOS, May 17th, 2020