How To Create Your Own
Herb Knot Garden



The herb knot garden is a parterre (a garden which separates plants using dividers) made using divider hedges created from low, bushy herbs planted in interlacing patterns (the most common being a Celtic knot). 

Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia (CA)

Knot gardens first became popular in the English Elizabethan period and have been around ever since.

Although the knot garden is one of the most high-maintenance of the formal gardens, if you really love herbs and topiary this is the best of both worlds.



Understanding the knot garden

In the most rigid definition of a knot garden, you need two or more threads intertwining to make -- guess what? A KNOT!

Traditional knot gardens of the past also were either a square shape or were enclosed in a square border. But this is more optional -- there are beautiful knot gardens which are inside circles, triangles, and rectangles.

I've seen many so-called knot gardens -- most of them are just parterres.

If it's not making a knot or a braid or some sort of intertwined pattern, I don't consider it a knot garden.

There are two kinds of knot garden:

Matthaei Botanical Gardens, Ann Arbor, MI (US)

The closed knot, which has no access to the inner compartments (unless you step over the hedges)



Illustration of a knot garden layout (1670)

The open knot, which includes paths in the design.

For example, a herb labyrinth or herb mandala could technically be considered a knot garden, as the threads do cross.

Traditionally the compartments were either laid with colored sand or gravel, or planted with one brightly colored annual herb per compartment.

I've seen herb knot garden compartments planted with lettuces, cabbages, and all sorts of edibles, as well as non-edibles.



How to create your herb knot garden

Choosing a site

Tudor Knot Garden, Essex, UK

Pick a flat, sunny spot with an elevated area nearby from which you can look at your knot garden!

For example, you would want to put your herb garden below something like:

  • a balcony
  • a staircase
  • a high window
  • a hill
  • a bridge


Choosing your plants

For a herb knot garden, you need:

  • evergreen perennial herbs (so your knot garden lasts more than a year and looks good in the winter)
  • with smallish leaves (so you can shear them nicely)
  • which can live in your climate year round
  • that grow to less than three feet (1 meter) tall or that you can shear to less than this height. This is the absolute tallest a knot garden should be, especially if you're doing a closed knot -- 2 feet (60 cm) is average.

You can't shear any plant down more than about a third of its height/width before it begins to suffer, so do yourself (and your herb plants) a favor and pick small plants for this.

There are many regular and dwarf herb varieties which grow to less than four feet (1.3 meter) tall and wide, so you should find plenty to choose from.

Some popular herb plants for threads:

  • rosemary
  • thyme
  • lavender (best left unsheared for a more informal herb knot garden)
  • dwarf barberry
  • hyssop
  • marjoram


Some popular herb plants for compartments:

  • basil
  • chives and other alliums
  • mint
  • parsley
  • marigolds
  • scented geranium

You will want many herb plants in each thread, so either begin your herbs from seed, begin propagating enough herb plants for your threads, or start saving up the money to buy them.



Drawing your design

Plan your design on paper before you plant. Here are some suggestions:

Right-handed trefoil knot (mathematics)
  • Use an existing knot design, either Celtic, from some other culture, or even from knots used in other places such as fishing and boating
  • Take an intertwining pattern from the architecture or moldings of your home
  • Investigate some famous herb knot gardens to find inspiration from history

Transfer the design to your site using hoses, string, spray paint, gravel, or whatever you find most useful.



Planting your garden

Herb plant spacing

You can't just put the plants right next to each other when creating your threads. When the plants grow, they will become overcrowded, jostle each other out of line, and will be prone to disease. So you have to space your herb plants out properly to ensure they look right when they're mature.

To determine plant spacing for your threads, you first need to know the final mature width of the herb plant. This information can be found from the grower or on the tag when you bought the plant.

Here's how to space them: take the final mature width for the plant and subtract 1/3 of that width.

Example: if your herb plants will end up 3 feet (1 meter) wide, space them 2 feet (66 cm) apart when you plant them.

When you do this, the plants intertwine along the thread, giving you a nice smooth surface to shear.

Thread weaving

Cressing Temple knot garden, Essex, UK

You don't actually weave threads -- what you're doing is giving the illusion that the threads are going over and under each other.

Go back to your design and decide which thread will go "over" the other one. "Over" threads will be planted in a continuous row, while "under" threads will stop at the "over" thread and resume afterwards.

If you have two herb plants of different mature widths to plant next to each other, you space them thus: add the two final widths, divide by two, and subtract 1/3 of that final number.

Example: you have one herb plant thread which is 3 feet (100 cm) wide and another which is 2 feet (66 cm) wide.

US/Imperial

3 feet + 2 feet = 5 feet
5 feet divided by 2 = 2.5 feet
1/3 of 2.5 feet = 0.8 feet
2.5 feet - 0.8 feet = 1.7 feet or about 1 ft 8 inches

Put the herb plants 1 foot 8 inches apart.

SI/Metric

100 cm + 66 cm = 166 cm
166 cm divided by 2 = 83 cm
1/3 of 83 cm = around 28 cm
83 cm - 28 cm = 55 cm

Put the herb plants 55 cm apart.

The meeting of two threads doesn't have to be exact -- any small gaps will help the illusion that these herb threads are weaving over and under each other. So don't stress about it.

If you need help, contact me.



Shearing your herb garden

Clip or shear your herb knot garden threads as you would any other hedges.

If you leave the "over" threads a bit taller than the "under" threads where they meet, it increases that illusion of them weaving over and under, but it isn't mandatory.

Do you have a herb knot garden? Please show us!



Would you like to join a group of people who love edible gardens as much as you do? Consider the Tasteful Landscape community.


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