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Garden Editor, Charlotte Observer

DAVIDSON -- Even before they bought the house, Emmy and Bill Morrison had designs on the garden.

"We walked out in the back yard and Emmy said, `Right out there, is where I want my herb garden,'" he recalls. "About 18 months later, I said, `It's time to build it.'"

Now this was not going to be just a collection of herb plants lined up soldier straight or clustered among the perennials in a wavy border.

It was going to be the real thing, with an eye on designs that go back centuries. The Morrisons were about to turn a spot in their back yard - clearly visible from the house - over to Emmy Morrison's hobby.

So instead of a summer herb garden, the design had to hold up all year. It needed elements that would help it show up in the evenings and in the moonlight. It had to reflect, through plant selection, the ways people have used herbs for culinary, pharmaceutical and other purposes through the centuries.

She set to work on the design; he went to work building it.

"We felt a rectangle shape would be ideal," Bill Morrison recalls. "I said I would build it even though I had never laid a brick before in my life. Then, just in the middle of things, when we had worked on it for three days, (Hurricane) Hugo came along and blew everything topsy turvy. But we did finish it before Christmas '89."

A low brick wall encloses the garden, 45 by 20 feet. Inside the garden, red cedar boards, 6inches by 1inch, line the straight sides of herb beds; bricks define the edges that curve.

They thought hard about the right material for the paths between the herb beds. Wood chips came to mind but the color seemed a bit dull. Finally they settled on small white pebbles, a choice that proved perfect for the way it illuminates the design, particularly on moonlit nights.

While the arrangement of the beds created by Emmy Morrison is an amalgam of ideas she got from books, it is entirely within the tradition of patterned herb gardens. Historic apothecary roses line the garden's back wall. Beyond them is the Morrisons' large collection of climbing, shrub and old-fashioned garden roses.

Centuries ago, people looked to their gardens for their pharmaceutical and household needs, for plants that would help them feel better, dye their fabrics, wash their clothes, preserve their food and ward off insects.

As scholarly interest in these useful plants began to develop, botanists and physicians developed "physic gardens." Such beds were usually geometrically shaped and arranged in repeating patterns divided by paths. The first on record was made at the University of Padua in 1545 near Venice.

It is a tradition that can be adapted to modern gardens such as the Morrisons' in Davidson. Such a design fits the history and folklore of herbs that sparked her interest in them years ago.

In olden days, herb gardeners tended to group one plant of a kind to each bed, perhaps to avoid confusing dyeing or bug-beating herbs with pharmaceuticals. That is not a problem today, since herbs grown in herb gardens aren't typically used for medicinal reasons.

The Morrison garden mixes herbs in beds, but usually with purpose in mind. One bed contains herbs often used in colonial days, such as tansy, soapwort, orris root, comfrey and garlic. The round bed in the center holds six kinds of thyme. English boxwood edges that bed, another way to keep design lines vivid all year.

Emmy Morrison enjoys her herb garden for culinary purposes, as a source of materials for potpourri, lavender bunches and tussie-mussies - small, mixed bouquets made from herbs and flowers and edged in lace.

Some herbs, such as lemon balm, smell wonderful; others aren't so appealing, such as artemesia, with its liniment smell.

Some herbs, such as the salvias, bear lovely flowers; others, such as parsley, make beautiful foliage.

The Morrisons love to talk about the stories behind their herbs. Leaves from a plant called bible leaf, for example, are said to have been tucked into Bibles so that if a sermon got tedious, the owner could crush a leaf for a reviving scent.

Encouraging words

Some tips on herb gardening from Emmy Morrison:

  • Try things. Don't be discouraged by the failures of others.
  • Place small limbs and sticks on bare stretches of garden to prevent neighborhood cats from using it as a litter box.
  • Remember that herbs can be planted in fall as well as spring.
  • Look to santolina as an edger, but trim it before it blooms to make a stronger plant.
  • Remember that the garden doesn't have to be big. The Morrisons' previous herb garden was about 10 feet by 10 feet with two diagonal paths.
  • Plant bronze fennel to use in flower arrangements. Cut it a day before you need to use it.
  • Improve and lighten the soil when you make the beds and you won't have to do this again.
  • Read about herbs. One of Morrison's favorite books is "Eyewitness Handbooks: Herbs" by Leslie Bremness (Dorling Kindersley, $29.95).


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