The Beauty and Tradition of the Herb Knot Garden

Herb knot gardens are a classic and intricate type of garden design that have graced stately homes and castles for centuries. This traditional style uses low hedges trimmed into geometric patterns, interspersed with gravel or grass walkways. Culinary and ornamental herbs are planted within each section to form the “knots” that make up the larger garden design.

When herb knots are meticulously maintained, the patterns stand out vividly against the ground cover. The designs are both aesthetically pleasing and historically interesting. While labor intensive, herb knot gardens provide enjoyment through creative layouts, scented herbs, and harmonious plant combinations. They allow gardeners to be artistic with the living sculpture of meticulously clipped plants.

The Origins and History of Knot Gardens

Knot gardens have their origins in medieval times. Monasteries grew medicinal and culinary herbs in geometric beds divided by gravel or stone pathways. This early form of a knot garden emphasized function over form. The name “knot garden” came later during the Tudor dynasty.

In Elizabethan England, knot garden designs grew in intricacy, with elaborate patterns emerging as the preferred style. Wealthy families often had knot gardens installed on their manor estates. Boxwood hedges outlined intricate knot shapes, with aromatic herbs and early flowers inside each section.

The knots reflected the twisted patterns popular in Tudor architecture and art. Gardeners used evergreen shrubs like boxwood, yew, and cypress to create living knots that maintained their shape year-round. By contrast, the plants inside the knots changed with the seasons.

Royals and aristocrats continued installing impressive knot gardens throughout Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. They served as stately spaces to take a stroll or entertain visitors on manor grounds. The gardens also displayed the owner’s wealth, resources, and refined taste.

While many grand knot gardens fell out of favor in the 19th century, 20th century garden designers helped spark a revival. British garden designer Gertrude Jekyll updated the knot garden style but used flowers instead of herbs. Other contemporary interpretations embrace curves, asymmetry, and a more relaxed plant palette.

Choosing a Design and Layout

The layout of a traditional knot garden depends on creating a geometric pattern and repeating it across the space. Common designs include squares, circles, diamonds, triangles, lattices, and octagons. Typically, four or eight knots form one unified grid design that is mirrored on each side of a center path.

Most knot gardens utilize symmetry and repetition to make the pattern stand out clearly. Each “knot” can contain the same plants or use color, texture, and foliage shape to differentiate individual knots within the whole. Keeping some uniformity while breaking up the pattern prevents it from feeling monotonous.

The spaces between each knot shape are just as important as the knots themselves. These open spaces allow you to move between the sections and observe each knot design from various angles. Grass or gravel pathways make navigation easy while providing contrast.

When planning a knot garden, sketch out the layout on paper first. Estimate the mature spread of the hedge plants you intend to use so the pathways between the knots don’t disappear as the garden grows in. Aim for pathways of 1 to 4 feet depending on your space constraints.

The overall layout should feel balanced but doesn’t need to be a perfect square. Rectangular and L-shaped knot gardens can fit well along garden edges. For small spaces, start with just four knots in a simple square layout. Larger gardens can incorporate additional rows.

Choosing the Right Plants

Herbs and aromatic plants are the traditional choice for planting within the knot garden sections. Herbs were both practical and symbolic during medieval times. Plants like thyme represented courage, sage was associated with immortality, and lavender signified devotion.

When selecting herbs for knot gardens, choose varieties that tolerate tight shearing and frequent pruning. Woody herbs with compact growth habits make perfect low hedges. Thyme, lavender, rosemary, sage, and Santolina work very well. Mix silver, gray, and green foliage for texture and color contrast.

The dwarf boxwood is the gold standard for outlining the knot shapes. Boxwood is beloved for its neat growing habit, vibrant evergreen foliage, and ability to bounce back after pruning. Other options include dwarf hedging cypress, yew, or miniature holly.

Low growing perennials and ornamental grasses can also be incorporated as long as they tolerate clipping. Thrift, germander, lady’s mantle, and creeping phlox make good fillers around the taller woody herbs. Miniature hostas, liriope, and sedum give additional color options.

For extra seasonal interest, plant low spring bulbs right in the walkways and gravel. Crocuses, grape hyacinths, and dwarf daffodils bloom early then die back before the summer heat. The foliage disappears just as the herb knots fill out.

Constructing and Maintaining the Hedges

One of the keys to a perfect knot garden is maintaining crisp, tight hedges that hold their shape. To form the low hedges, plant starter pots very close together at a density of up to 5 plants per square foot. This encourages them to grow together into one solid mass.

Allow the small shrubs or herbs to establish for an entire season before doing major shaping. Then begin trimming and shearing them into the outline of your knot pattern. Timing depends on the plant, but typically trim boxwood and woody herbs at least twice per year.

Aim to maintain most hedge plants at a height of 8 to 18 inches. Trim the tops narrower than the bottoms so sunlight can reach all parts of the plant. Prune sides vertically to keep a crisp, smooth edge. Use sharp bypass hand pruners for detail work.

Keep the pathways between the hedge sections free of weeds. Mulch with gravel or pea stone to prevent unwanted growth. Hand pull any weeds and edge the walkways for a tidy look. The plantings inside each knot will also need regular weeding and deadheading.

Adding Visual Interest and Texture

While the geometric hedge patterns are the star of the show, the plantings inside each knot allow for creativity. Use a variety of herb species to provide diverse colors and textures as you move through the garden.

For silver accents, plant artemisia, curry plant, and santolina. Let some herbs like lavender or sage bloom for pops of color. Bushy rosemary andthyme create volume and fullness inside each hedge section. Use golden oregano and variegated mints for splashes of yellow and cream.

Consider adding containers planted with small herbs or flowers that can be moved around seasonally. Low obelisks draped in flowering vines are another option for vertical interest in the center of knots. Fragrant flowers like violas, pansies, and violets also complement the herbs.

Finally, vary the gravel or ground cover between each knot. Mix pea gravel with flagstone pieces for visual texture. Use Irish moss or low succulents like sedum between pavers to soften the walkways. Contrast enhances the crisp edges of the hedge patterns.

Modern Interpretations and Variations

While traditional knot gardens are meticulously designed, contemporary versions take a more relaxed approach. Flowing asymmetric shapes that give the impression of billowing fabric replace strict squares and circles. The outlines can curve and ramble instead of using rigid lines.

Thymes, sedums, succulents, and grasses may be used in place of clipped woody herbs and boxwoods. Ornamental kales, cabbages, and colorful perennials also work well in modern knot gardens, especially as specimens for seasonal display.

Another creative option is to plant a different theme in each knot. Create a pizza garden with oregano, tomatoes, peppers, and basil. Or try a tea garden, cocktail garden, or night-scented garden planted with evening primrose, four o’clocks, and moonflowers.

For urban gardeners with limited space, mini knot gardens can be designed in single containers. Use one type of plant like Irish moss per pot, and sculpt each into a circular or square shape. Arrange the containers together on a patio for your own micro knot garden.

Let your creativity run free when reimagining the knot garden pattern and plant palette. While untraditional, modern versions carry on the artistic spirit of the classically intricate knot.

Bringing Geometry and Artistry Together

Knot gardens allow gardeners to express their creative vision while designing with geometry and patterns. They merge aesthetic appeal with aromatic plants, sculpture, and ornamentation. Both historic and modern interpretations showcase the beauty, tradition, and practicality of growing edible herbs and flowers in artistic forms.

When designed and maintained properly, the low hedges and pathways of a knot garden form a tapestry of shapes and textures to admire. As each herb fills out its allotted space, it becomes a living brushstroke in a larger work of horticultural art. Walking through a completed knot garden, you feel immersed in a relaxing yet stimulating space.

Whether you prefer the traditional designs with boxwood and lavender or modern freestyle creations, knot gardens offer a satisfying project for gardeners at any skill level. They allow us to leave a living legacy of intricate patterns, a blend of human creativity and nature’s palette. Your herb knot creation is sure to impress as a unique, sculptural element in any landscape.