The Herb Bed and a Short History of Herbal Gardening

The use of beneficial herbs for food, medicine and dyes has been prevalent throughout history, dating back to Prehistoric man. As man moved from hunter/gatherer to practicing agriculture, the cultivation of herbs in home and formal gardens was introduced around the world. Modern herbal gardens are a popular way to combine the textures of attractive foliage and fragrant flowers, attract beneficial pollinators, and grow plants that can be used as medicines, teas and culinary flavorings.  Most herbs are easily grown in a variety of conditions, making them ideal for new gardeners. An example of a modern herb garden can be found at the Teaching Garden.

The botanical definition of an herb (herbaceous plant) is any plant with a fleshy stem that dies back at the end of the growing season, but herbs are also widely defined as aromatic plants that have value as medicines, flavor, fragrance, pesticides or dyes. Herbs can include trees, perennial shrubs, annuals, vines, ferns, mosses or algae.

Herbs are depicted in cave paintings in France, dating from 13,000 to 25,000 BC, and some scholars believe they were used as early as 60,000 years ago. All early civilizations including the Aztecs, Mayans and Egyptians are known to have used herbs for medicinal purposes. The first written record of the usage of medicinal plants for various illnesses was written on clay tablets over 5,000 years ago by the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia. The Egyptians also recorded over 850 herbal medicines around 850 BCE. Herbal and natural remedies for illness were also widely used by the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Hippocrates (460-377 BCE), known as the Father of Modern Medicine, listed 400 common herbs used in his practice. The use of medicinal herbs in treating illness was also widespread in China (3,000 BC) and India (1,500 BC).

During the Middle Ages in Europe, herbs were used to preserve meat and to cover the odors of rotting food. Since bathing was rare, herbs were also used to mask body odors. This period did not see the widespread use of herbs for medicinal purposes by common citizens, as the Catholic Church accused herbalists of witchcraft and burned them at the stake. Most Medieval herb gardens were found at Benedictine Monasteries where monks translated ancient Greco-Roman and Arabic texts about herbs. Here, monks planted extensive herbal gardens and used them for teaching. The earliest visual representation of a formal garden to survive the Middle Ages was a master plan for an herb garden at a Benedictine Monastery.  These gardens contained a wide range of herbs including winter savory, oregano, garlic, chives, basil, curry, lavender, coriander, tarragon, sage and rosemary, many of these plants being brought from the Mediterranean region.

“The Great Age of Herbalism” occurred between the 15th and 17th centuries in Europe, and it is during this time the formal herb garden became popular in Europe. Families in the 18th and 19th centuries had herb gardens for flavoring, preservatives, dyes and medicinal remedies. The Renaissance also gave rise to the use of herbs in formal and knot gardens.

European colonists who settled North America in the 1600’s brought with them seeds from their home regions, especially from the Mediterranean. Most colonial homes had an herb garden in a sunny location, not far from the kitchen and colonists used them for seasoning, sachets, dyeing and medicines. Settlers introduced plantain, mint, lavender, parsley, calendula, roses, dandelion, chamomile, thyme and yarrow from their native regions. Native Americans introduced the settlers to cayenne, goldenrod for fever and Echinacea to treat wounds, and these quickly became part of the herb garden.

The Teaching Garden at the Benedictine Monastery on Linton Hall Rd. in Bristow, VA has a beautiful herb bed that is maintained and carefully tended to by Master Gardener Cheryl Ayers.  Cheryl has been the bed leader of this aromatic bed for around 2 years now and has been doing a fantastic job. She keeps the bed looking lush, while supporting the many diverse types of culinary and scented herbs planted by the original caretakers. She can be found at the TG on Tuesday mornings, and often has interns or other master gardeners helping.

Cheryl describes the herb bed as lush in late June until mid-August and aside from keeping some plants within their boundaries (mint), has little weeding to do. Despite the fact that many of the plants are drought tolerant, Cheryl waters the bed at least once a week. The herb bed is in full sun and has little shade. You will find small, woody shrubs such as rosemary as well as herbaceous plants such as basil.  Taller plants such as horseradish, dill and fennel are found in the center of the planting. Fennel (both green and bronze) attract beneficial butterflies and pollinators such as tiger and zebra swallowtail caterpillars, and is not harvested as a vegetable.  Two rectangular stone walls (“Wall of Herbs”) were added to the garden last year and add height to the planting.  Cheryl has planted Thai basil and curry on these walls, which are surrounded by chocolate mint, spearmint and lemon balm, to name a few.  Other herbs that can be found are onions, garlic, sage, two types of parsley (flat leaf and curly), tarragon, basil (both amethyst and Genoa), lavender, cilantro, and pineapple mint.  Chamomile, oregano, wooly thyme and variegated marjoram are used for groundcovers.

Luckily, most of the plants in the herb bed are unappetizing to local wildlife, so there is no need to worry about animal damage unless the local deer decide to rest in the chamomile.  Other than the signs of deer, this bed is often visited by turtles, birds, and plenty of butterflies. After working in the bed for a long time, Cheryl recommends planting certain plants, especially the mint and lemon balm, in more confined spaces because she has seen how easily these plants can “take over”. Container gardening is an excellent way to grow kitchen herbs and Cheryl recommends planting up to three different herbs of choice in a large pot. She also wants homeowners to be aware of horseradish and fennel because of how deep their roots extend.


Herb gardens require minimum effort to grow, and include many drought tolerant perennials that are also resistant to pests and diseases. They are best located in areas of 6-8 hours of full sun. The best soil for an herb garden is fertile and loamy with a pH of 6.3-6.8.  Prepare soil depth to 8”, and amend with composted organic material. Raised beds and mixed garden beds with vegetables are an excellent way to grow herbs in smaller spaces. Some herbs will need winter protection from drying winter winds and do better behind windbreaks, such as shrubs or rocks. Dwarf varieties grow well in pots that can be brought indoors during the winter.  Annual herbs are best started from seed indoors during the late winter, and perennial herbs do best when purchased as plants. Many herbs can be rooted from stem cuttings.

When in the area, please come out to the Teaching Garden to visit the Herb bed! During visiting hours and at Saturdays in the Garden, Master Gardeners will be there to give you a tour of this and any of our other beds!


Thanks to for some of these great photos!


Herb Bed at the Teaching Garden Plant List

Culinary Herbs plant list




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