If we consider every inch of our yard as potential wildlife habitat, we need to rethink how we can maximize what the herb garden offers. I’m not suggesting planting them instead of native plants, but of rethinking the ways our herb garden can contribute to a healthy ecosystem. With a few exceptions, herbs aren’t native and are planted for culinary use, not for nature. Yet herbs can benefit both people and wildlife. Most have a mutually beneficial pact with pollinators when they bloom, some are butterfly host plants, their seeds can attract wild birds, and a few can house stem dwelling native bees.
There are some simple ways the herb garden can nurture nature:
No pesticides! Think of your yard as an insect nursery. If an herb like parsley is attracting caterpillars, lucky you. Plant more of it and help stop the insect decline. Pesticides contaminate herbs and make them inedible.
No herbicides! Would you like your thyme sprinkled with a little poison?
No chemical fertilizers! These affect the microbiology of the soil, leach into our water system and herbs don’t even need them.
Create biodiversity by planting a variety of herbs. The more the merrier!
Let herbs flower They’re beautiful, edible and offer nectar for pollinators of all sizes.
Let herbs go to seed for the wildlife in your yard. You’ll also save on buying new plants every year if you let annual or biennial herbs self-seed.
Let herb seedheads dry and remain in your yard until the following spring. It's okay to have dried stalks and seedheads throughout the winter. They offer cover for wildlife and food for birds.
The following basic list of popular herbs in alphabetical order includes a focus on how they are beneficial for wildlife. Observations are from my naturescaped Atlanta yard. Check out a gardening resource for information and details about how to grow and use these herbs.
Basil – I never get close to needing all the basil I grow for the native bees! I plant it in pots and tuck it into the edges of my herb garden next to native plants. It flowers starting in late summer and attracts hordes of bees. African blue basil is a famously desirable variety for pollinators but it's sterile so can’t be propagated by seed and a bit tricky to find. Hungry birds will climb basil stalks and forage for dried seeds.
Borage –Is also called bee bush or bee bread because of how attractive its gorgeous true-blue borage flowers are to bees.
Chervil – This cool weather biennial will flower in the spring if germinated in the fall. The flowers look somewhat like cilantro and attract the same miniscule pollinators. The seeds look like thistle. Last year I was trying to figure out why I saw finches darting to and from my herb planters and realized they were going after the chervil seeds!
Chives – Pollinating bees seem to adore the purple clusters of flowering chives in the spring. It forms big clumps in pots, a sunny herb garden or along a pathway.
Garlic Chives – The highly ornamental white clusters of flowering garlic chive blossoms are covered in a variety of bees when they bloom in late summer. Like regular chive, garlic chive will form attractive ornamental clumps.
Cilantro – The flat-topped clusters of tiny white cilantro flowers are both edible and great for itty-bitty pollinators. I’ve watched finches bend cilantro stalks to the ground to get the seeds off it. Cilantro will self-seed if you just leave it alone.
Fennel, Bronze – This is one all-star habitat plant! With its romantic feathery fronds, bronze fennel makes a faboulous naturescape herb that I let gently self-seed throughout my yard because: 1) It’s a host plant for black swallow butterflies 2) When it flowers it's covered in tiny flying creatures 3) Goldfinches and other small seed-eating birds will sit on its dried seedheads and peck off the seeds. 4) The dried hollow stalks of fennel offer a habitat for stem-nesting native bees.
5) In early spring aphids will sometimes take over a fennel plant or two. In a healthy yard this is okay because there are dozens of predatory and beneficial insects that feast on aphids and plenty of birds that in turn eat them.
Mint – Unless you are planting mountain mint, which is native, plant all non-native mint in pots, not in your yard where they will travel far and wide and outcompete less aggressive native plants. Peppermint in particular is considered a category 3 invasive exotic plant that is a minor problem in Georgia natural areas. If you grow your favorite cooking mint just make sure to let them flower and the pollinators will thank you!
Oregano – Oregano is a bit greedy and if it wasn’t an herb it wouldn’t be allowed in in my yard. Plant it in your herb garden where it can form a nice big tangle and flower to its heart content. The bees just love, and I mean love, flowering oregano which is great because it has a longer flowering time than most.
Parsley – A true biennial, parsley flowers the second year it grows then dies back. Leave it in the ground to complete this life cycle and you’ll always have fresh young parsley as well as flowering parsley for pollinators. Parsley is also a host plant for black swallowtail butterflies, so I let it generously self-seed throughout my yard.
Rosemary – If you’re lucky and plant it in direct sun, rosemary will flower in early spring for the bees who are emerging to forage for nectar. Rosemary will form a large bush and take up valuable garden real estate in a small yard, so keep it cut back unless you have plenty of room to spare.
Sage – The purple flowers are so pretty on sage that it looks like it was grown as a landscape plant. It attracts bees and hummingbirds.
Thyme – It’s amazing how even the tiny flowers on thyme seem to have plenty of pollinator fans.