A sniff of aromatic sage leaves, a few snips of garlic chives, a dusting of fennel pollen… giving everyone the chance to experience – and taste – the power of herbs first hand is what a community herb garden is all about. And it just so happens that the garden I help to run is situated on a roundabout.
It may seem an unlikely situation, but it is not your average car-choked traffic feature. And the team of volunteers who help to keep the herbs happy and the litter at bay know that what they do brings joy – and free herbs – to the local population.
The Rothsay community herb garden sits at the junction of two residential roads in Bedford, a town of roughly 80,000 people situated around 50 miles north of London. The streets are lined with Victorian houses and mature trees, and the roundabout itself is larger and greener than you’d expect, with a diameter of around 40m (130ft).
Within it there are two large beds that make up the herb garden, filled with herbs of every shape and size, from creeping thyme and clumps of mint to mounds of purple sage and the towering elacampne (Inula helenium). All the plants have some value as herbs: some culinary, some medicinal. Paths intersect the roundabout so there’s plenty of passing foot traffic, and there’s an open invitation to everyone to harvest whatever herbs they need from the plot.
Regular maintenance sessions bring together a small group of local volunteers all willing to help maintain the garden, weeding and pruning sessions are full of chat on the local news and the odd passerby will stop to admire our handiwork.
Communication is a key part of the herb garden’s success. A noticeboard that helps local people understand the purpose of the garden and identify the individual herbs. Annual open days provide a chance for people to find out more about the garden and what they can do with the herbs in it: one of my jobs has been to give a talk which always garners lots of questions: it’s always surprising how some useful herbs are so unknown and under-appreciated.
The garden was set up a decade ago by Zero Carbon Castle, a local community group inspired by the Transition town movement, which fosters grassroots, eco-friendly community projects. The town council, who owns the roundabout, gave permission for the garden and helped pay for herb plug plants used by around 20 local people as they planted up the garden for the first time.
Ten years on, and although Zero Carbon Castle has since fizzled out as an organisation, the herb garden has gone on nonetheless, managed by a small team of local people, including me. The volunteer crew may have changed its personnel a little over the years, but the aim remains the same: providing something beautiful for people to look at, providing locally grown herbs for the community.It has been entirely self-funded for the past seven years.
It’s not always easy: I popped down to mow the grass around the beds the other day and within a couple of minutes I’d collected an empty sandwich carton; one nitrous oxide canister; a few cigarette butts; and a blizzard of sweet wrappers. Litter is probably our biggest problem, but by tackling it regularly, the space stays well looked after, which reminds people that it’s anything but a dumping ground. Whole plants have been dug up on occasion, and a few dogs wander between the herbs from time to time.
Bedford is a multicultural community, so there are sometimes language barriers that can cause confusion: signs in Italian and Polish as well as English help to explain that while people are welcome to snip away at any herbs they want to take home, digging up whole plants is not allowed. There are two benches on the roundabout that attract people stopping for a rest and a chat, but also act as gathering places for late night drinkers and those taking drugs (which explains the nitrous oxide canisters). That said, the vast majority of people respect the space.
There is no source of water nearby so the planting has to be drought-resistant: bark mulch helps to keep the moisture in, but during prolonged dry spells we carry out emergency watering, transporting containers of water from a local resident’s outside tap to the herb beds.
A largely organic approach means that we can help rather than harm what’s a surprisingly wildlife-rich area, with owls hooting from the trees at night, hedgehogs snuffling for insects amid the herb beds, and bats circle above on warm summer nights. Not bad for a roundabout, really.
Six tough herbs for community spaces
The stands of feathery, deep red foliage make it a wonderfully pretty plant for a herb garden, but its delicate looks belie the fact that, given the right setting, this herb is tough as old boots, naturalising along railway sidings and road verges wherever there’s a patch of sun and a scarping of poor soil. Pollinators such as hoverflies love the acid yellow umbels of the flowers, and it self-seeds around given the chance: just let any artful interlopers remain and pull up any seedlings that turn up out of bounds. A mix of bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’) can look particularly striking mixed with regular green herb fennel (Foeniculum vulgare).
I have a love-hate relationship with this plant: on one hand, it’s one of the most easily recognisable and widely-used herbs there is, valuable for everything from teas and salads to cocktails and garnishes. It’s also extremely tough and tolerant. But boy, does it spread. We have several different mint species and cultivars in the garden, but keep them under close control, and aren’t afraid to remove huge clumps every maintenance session to keep it in bounds. There are dozens of stunning mints to choose from: my favourites are chocolate mint, and mojito mint (Mentha x villosa), a ruffled-leaf mint that makes the perfect cocktail. ‘Eau de Cologne’ is marvellous as an addition to a hot bath.
This plant (Latin name Helichrysum italicum) is worth it just for the incredibly aromatic smell it pumps out on a hot day, although it also makes a good addition to the colours and textures of a herb garden: nursery Architectural Plants calls it a ‘shapely grey blob’ which is a little like damning with feint praise, but you get the idea. Its yellow flowers also attracts huge numbers of pollinators, and I cut springs of the silvery-grey foliage for use in vases and make aromatic herb wreaths out of it, too. Some education is required to show people that this isn’t the plant to use to flavour your curries: that plant, Murraya koenigii, is too tender to survive in temperate locations over winter.
Lavender has the whole package: aroma, flowers, and a surprisingly wide repertoire in the kitchen; I use it for everything from baking to barbecue marinades. Lavender looks great as a low boundary hedge to a community herb garden (try the compact cultivar ‘Miss Muffet’ if you want a really low hedge), or dot it throughout the garden to bring the bees in: its evergreen foliage also provides added interest in winter. English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is the most hardy species, perfect for planting in beds; French lavender (Lavandula stoechas) is bet planted in containers that can be moved or protected as temperatures drop. Lavender’s only vice is becoming leggy and sparse after a few seasons, so treat it as a shortlived perennial, taking cuttings to raise as new plants.
The seed of this biennial herb is reputed to be difficult to germinate, and there are many tips and tricks to get it to sprout. The strange irony is that once planted in a herb garden, it will self seed around very happily and provide you with many a plant for selling or sharing. If you have several plants, cut all but one down before it sets seed but after it flowers (it’s another pollinator magnet) if you don’t want it spreading all over the place. I love flat leaf parsley (Petroselinum crispum neapolitanum) most, and love the huge-leaved variety ‘Gigante d’Italia’, whereas other swear by the curly (Petroselinum crispum), or butcher’s parsley as my mother calls it, has its place – for one thing it’s generally hardier than Italian parsley: it may even be due for a revival.
I think of chives (Allium schoenoprasum) as the perfect herb garden plant because pretty much everyone recognises it, and very few people object to its flavour. Plus it produces stunning lollipop like flowers every June and can thrive in all sorts of soils and situations from heavy clay to an unirrigated green roof. If you want to be a bit more adventurous, its relative garlic chives aka Chinese chives (Allium tuberosum), with flat strappy leaves and white flowers makes a useful addition.
Cat Lane (Jane Perrone), Justine Stringer (lavender, allium),Thompson & Morgan ( herb garden)