A Florida Rock Garden

If you find that many of your favorite culinary herbs wilt, “melt,” and otherwise succumb to the Florida heat and humidity, consider creating a rock garden. After years of basically abandoning the “kitchen” garden during the summer, I finally decided to return to a passion of my childhood.

When I was growing up New Jersey we lived on a sloping quarter acre that curved around to a very steep embankment, a favorite place for sledding in the winter. Once on a trip with my parents, I saw a rock garden and fell in love. When we returned home, I went to library and took out every book available on rock gardening. My dad helped me put together a plan, we located rocks (an easy task in New Jersey’s rocky Appalachian Ridge and Piedmont areas), and set to work. It was beautiful and I tended it enthusiastically until we moved.

So with that memory, I decided what my culinary herb garden needed was some rocks–clearly a challenge to come by in Florida. My husband picks up rocks and stones wherever he can find them on trips and visits to friends. We salvaged rocks, cement slag, pavers, and bricks just before one of his clients bulldozed some old apartments. We rescue old bricks whenever we can. Of course, you can buy rocks and stones at a number of place throughout the state, but what fun is that? Better to scavenge them or ask friends to bring you rocks when they visit from out of state (if they are driving, that is). You can even make your own “rocks” by mixing gravel with cement and letting it dry in various shapes.

Rock Garden
rock-garden-with-path

The kitchen garden was already located on a slight slope, so we exaggerated it a bit and created the illusion of terracing with our ragtag collection of stones and rocks. I then laid a basket-weave pattern of bricks down the center. After Max took a romp through it the first day, I prudently edged it with inexpensive coated metal “fencing.”

The concept of a “rock” garden in Europe began when people tried to recreate the growing habitat for Alpine flowers, and, of course, Asian cultures, particularly China and Japan, have a tradition of magnificently designed ornamental rocks gardens. But it is the craggy hills in southern Europe that we need to emulate in order to grow the culinary herbs we use most. Mimicking that hot, dry environment, even partially (no way to get rid of the humidity, of course), is the key to significantly improving the quality of your favorite kitchen herbs. Because they naturally grow in poor soil tucked in rocky crevices, many culinary herbs benefit from limestone, and so the cement slag is good choice for creating a rock garden and adding pieces or chips of limestone is beneficial. Good drainage is must to maintain robust herbs in this damp climate.

The rewarding part of cultivating culinary herbs in Florida is that most of them thrive in the worst soil, so the sandy and acidic Florida dirt is not a problem. As a matter of fact, I have found that some of the kitchen herbs do poorly in improved soil, particularly oregano, thyme, catnip, rosemary, and rose geranium.

Sage and lavender struggle in the Florida heat humidity, but they have both fared better in the rock garden. Dig in extra sand when you plant these and similar plants and then spread sand around under the leaves and stems to keep the area from holding too much moisture. If you like lavender in your Florida herb garden, consider the Goodwin Creek cultivar, which fares well in the humidity here. And be realistic, there are some culinary and cultivated medicinal herbs that you can only grow in the winter months: cilantro and chamomile, for instance.

Close up of Rock Garden
rock-garden-close-up

Another pleasure of having a rock garden is that it tends to stay free of unwanted plants because your herbs will spread out over rocks, creating shady areas underneath where the “weeds” get less sunlight. Don’t get too complacent though, after only a few weeks of neglect, you will find grass poking through the basil and oregano, and Phillanthus, matchweed (Phyla nodiflora) or poor Joe (Dioda teres) tangled in your thyme. Note that these green friends should not be dismissed as many have medicinal properties; however, they don’t necessarily make good company for your more persnickety culinary herbs.

Some Medicinal Uses for Your Culinary Herbs

  • Basil (Ocimum basilicum ) – Digestive, sedative, anti-bacterial
  • Oregano (Origanum vulgare ) – Antiseptic and warming; reduces anxiety and insomnia, and calms nerves; a good digestive, and helps treat winter colds
  • Parsley (Petroselinum crispum ) – Nutritional and antioxidant (high in vitamins and minerals: A, C, and B complex, boron, iron, calcium); laxative (dried root); diuretic
  • Peppermint (Mentha piperita ) – Digestive, carminative; relieves nausea and flatulence
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ) – Astringent, diaphoretic, expectorant, rubefacient (essential oil)
  • Thyme (Thymus vulgaris ) – Antiseptic, antispasmodic, digestive; treats upper respiratory infections and sore throats, strengthens the immune system
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