Our Herb Garden—Then and Now

Our Herb Garden—Then and Now

Part I: The Original Design (ca. 2008-2019)

The Memphis Botanic Garden’s Herb Garden is a product of many years’ development. The original Herb Garden was planted in November 1986. That garden was removed in 2008 to make way for the new Children’s Garden. However, the conceptualization for the new herb garden began even prior to that removal: Landscape designer Tom Pellet did the original drawing for this garden, landscape architect Larry Griffin, and horticulturist Chris Cosby added his input later in the developmental process. Hardscaping began in 2010, but final planting happened up to the day of the garden opening in October 2011. 

View from May 2011

Herb Garden Over the Years

Opening Night – November 2011

From the beginning, this garden was not just your basic herb garden.  It was planned as an ethnobotanical garden, that is, a garden based on useful, or once used plants. The plants are grouped by area of origination, as well as usage. Over the years, the garden continued to evolve and change as new concepts were utilized, plants died or were replaced, and new plants were added.

Random Views of Sherri McCalla Tending the Garden – 2012

Original soil preparation
The basic fertilizer mix that was used consisted of the following (used at the proper rate and tilled in to allow the roots instant access):

  • 2 bags (28 lbs. ea.) rock phosphate (rock is slower release than super)
  • 1 bag (40 lbs.) greensand ((0-0-3) is mined from deposits of minerals that were originally part of the ocean floor. Contains about 3% total potash (potassium source), along with iron, magnesium, silica and as many as 30 other trace minerals. May also be used to loosen heavy, clay soils. Improves plant health.  Ideal for use in organic gardening
  • 1 bag (25 lbs.) M-roots (mycorrhizal inoculant)
  • 1 bag (40 lbs.) Plant Tone
  • 1 bag (40 lbs.) pelletized lime

The basic bed preparation mix

  • 2 ½ parts native soil, screened
  • 1 part sand (builder’s sand which is coarser than play sand and is usually red)
  • ½ part cotton burr compost

Distribution and usage

  • The inner ring formal beds and the knot garden: base fertilizer + 1 bag lime/ basic bed mix
  • Boxwood Hedge: Base fertilizer + 1 bag lime, sand
  • Traditional Perennial Border (outer ring of the formal beds): Base fertilizer/base mix
  • Grassy berm: base fertilizer/1 bag lime/base mix
  • Meadow: ½ rate base fertilizer/1 part sand/1 part compost (instead of ½ part)
  • Shade area: Base fertilizer minus lime/ 2 parts leaf compost – 1 part cotton burr compost – sand
  • Dry Medicinal bed got 2 parts sand, 1 part compost
  • Moist Medicinal bed got more compost, less sand (2 parts compost, 1 part sand)

Every bed received rock phosphate, greensand, and M-roots. Additional lime was added to boxwood areas, the fragrance bed, and the dry medicinal bed. Compost used was leaf and cotton burr. Shrub borders were mulched with regular bark mulch (we used shredded hardwood). The outer edge formal beds were mulched with cotton burr compost. And the woodland beds were mulched with leaf compost continuing the natural theme.


  • Woodland, Asia, Eurasia, Native American, meadow & turf had spray head irrigation.
  • Other areas had drip irrigation (formal beds, knot bed, boxwood hedges).

Part II: Re-designing the Herb Garden (2019)

The original planting plan for the existing Herb Garden was a beautifully planned and executed display of herbs. These herbs included ones that people would recognize as well as unusual species not commonly seen in the Mid-South. As the years have passed, the herbs have grown and the beds (especially in the formal area) have changed profile as plants have leaped in size, spread to grab more space, moved to other beds instead of the designated one, or decided the Mid-South is not where they want to be and died. This confusion has led to a labeling conundrum: how to label the plants so the public can see the label as well as tell which plant the label refers to. There was also the problem that the beds were too wide and, well, people want to be able to touch the herbs and smell them; therefore, they waded through the beds to get to the plants in the centers which compacted the soil.

Growth Over the Years – 2015 & 2016

Over the last few years, volunteers John Peterson, Kathy James, Tabb Graham, Teresa Horn, Evelyn Mosley, Reni Erskine, and many others (please forgive me if I have not included your names) had pondered this problem. The consensus was that we should line up the herbs and go from one side to the other with one herb (or at least from the middle of the bed to the outside edge). We would place the sign right at the outside edge between the swath of herb and the walkway so people could read the sign easily, and/or take a photo of it with the appropriate herb behind it. The signs would be placed so that anywhere the herbs approach the walkway, there would be a sign.  We were contemplating how best to do this to work around the installed drip irrigation. Chris Cosby suggested that we plant each plant into crushed limestone when we moved plants, or planted them into the new “lines.” This would help with drainage (offsetting the compaction issue), and help the plants that would appreciate the addition of lime. The regular Herb Garden volunteers were gearing up to do just this: girding our loins, and pulling up our bootstraps.

But then, the plan shifted dramatically.  We would not simply move plants around, but instead remove all (or most) of the plants and start anew! We had some hot work days where the best plants were dug out of the garden. Once the desired plants were removed, Rick Pudwell and Kyle McLane pulled in other Horticulture staff and had the irrigation lines capped on one end and pulled out of the beds. Monico began tilling the beds and adding amendments:

  • soil conditioner (pine bark fines, aka ground pine bark),
  • Black Kow composted manure in bags, and
  • Soil Perfector (a naturally derived, ceramic mineral that is kiln-fired at temperatures in excess of 2000 degrees Farenheit—a process that creates a durable, lightweight granule containing thousands of tiny storage spaces that hold the perfect balance of water, air, and nutrients for an improved soil structure. This soil won’t break down like peat moss or other natural soil amendments, permanently improves all soils, prevents compaction, and improves drainage and moisture retention.)
  • Turface (a calcined, non-swelling, silica containing, kiln fired illite clay that is smaller-particled than the Soil Perfector).

We used Roundup on the plants that were left, then the dead material was removed and steaming began. We have a portable soil sterilizer (Sioux Steam-Flo) that emits steam to disinfect and sterilize soil. This steaming boils and kills dormant seeds, including the nutlets for nutsedge (yay-happy dance!) that came in with the cotton burr compost we used at the beginning. The steam is produced by boiling water; therefore, it can cause 3rd degree burns or worse, and, since the irrigation tubing was still connected on one side and crisscrossed the walkways with tripping hazards, barricades were placed across the north and the west entrances to the formal area to exclude the public. We found out accidentally that the steam will also rise and scald the boxwoods: we thought the tarp would keep the steam off the boxwoods – it did not.

Meanwhile, the replacement/installation plants were languishing in the Volunteer Greenhouse and Nursery area. Some plants held their own pretty well; some plants have flipped us off, then died. This may be a year for just basic plants as we all know we shouldn’t plant new gardens in the heat of summer. Oh, well, it is what it is! (lol)

By mid-July, the four westernmost formal beds (Crafts, Culinary, Beverages, and Moist Medicinals) had been tilled, amended, and steamed.  And re-planting began.

The new garden design includes a re-design of the irrigation system. We will be changing the irrigation to small spray heads that plug into the drip lines (micro irrigation). This will offer more coverage with less irrigation lines booby-trapping the bed. Less lines in the beds means less attention need be given to avoiding cutting said lines (ask the regular volunteers: it is sooooo easy to nick or slice the lines – ugh!). The beds need to be dry to upgrade the irrigation…

On Monday, July 15, John stood out of the rain and recorded the plants as I shouted names in the rain and navigated the jungle of plants. He and I had begun designing the new layout based on the plants we had (the ones I shouted to him in the rain). Since then, we called in the calvary, and volunteers have proceeded apace, to get all the lovely plants back into the ground where they belong!

We had some massive replanting events in July and August. As of August 13, most of the plants in the formal area have been replanted. The only plants that are still languishing in bulb crates are the Tennessee and the smooth Echinaceas. We did lose a LOT of plants in the hold-in-the-too-wet and replant-in-the-too-hot times; hopefully we can regroup and sow or buy the replacements over the winter. There are still a lot of plants to plant for color in pockets throughout the Herb Garden; hopefully we can get the beds tilled and planted before we have to pull them out to plant for fall color. Sigh. It is what it is! A shout out goes out to all the lovely people who have given of their sweat and time to make the Herb Garden look like a garden, again. Without you, this would not have been possible.

Sherri McCalla, Herb Garden Curator

Many herbal blessings,
Stay hydrated,
Yours herbally,
Sherri McCalla

New Herb Garden Planting Photos – July/August 2019

Update as of August 13, 2019

One comment

  1. Brenda Riden

    I can’t wait to return to the area and see your labor of love! So jealous of your green thumb!
    Blessing to you and the staff there,
    Brenda Riden
    From the smokies our new home!

    PS we did go to Your friends herb garden in Clinton!

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