Thursday, February 13, 2020

A Knotted Herb Garden

When I turned the page to this picture in my January 1938 Woman's Home Companion magazine I was entranced but thought it was just a painting by a Mr. Harrie Wood and surely not a real garden.

I was wrong. This is just half of the knotted herb garden that belonged to a Mrs. R. M. Littlejohn in Southhampton, Long Island, and it was designed by John Dukinfield.

One Google search led to another and I discovered it was at what is now 107 Great Plains Road in Southhampton, now named Westlawn. The house was designed in the early 1890s by F. Burrall Hoffman for Charles and Lacie Lee. 

For an herb lover such as myself, the article written by Grace Tabor was fascinating. 

The 'knots' are formed by sheared hedges to which certain herbs lend themselves more readily than others and because they were first cut to strew on the floors as disinfecting and deoderizing mediums long ago, they are to this day called 'strewing herbs' as distinguished from culinary herbs and nosegays. These strewing herbs form the knots as you see them here--lavendar, germander, Roman wormwood, winter savory, hyssop and santolina.
 The knots are 'tied' or filled with untrimmed natural growth which includes some of the following and adds many others--lemon balm, pot marigold, sage, borage, pot marjoram, orris, artemesis, feverfew, southernwood, clove pink, sweet marjoram, balm, dittany of Crete, scented leaf geraniums. 

I wasn't familiar with "strewing herbs," are you?

Tabor also says that the dittany of Crete or 'righte dittany,' origanum dictamnus was unknown then [in 1938] in America and growing rare even in native Crete, "probably because the goats love so to graze it." 

Supposedly Venus gathered dittany to heal the wounds of Aeneas. And Tabor cautioned herb gardeners not to confuse it with the species dictamnus, the gas plant of old gardens which is sometimes called dittany.

[Please see Poppy's comment below where she writes about the dittany of Crete that she knows as 'erontas' on the island of Crete where she lives. Thanks, Poppy!]

Another thing that fascinated me was that this knot garden above was only half of the actual garden, the other half mirroring what you see above. Can you imagine the gardening staff that would be required for such a garden today?

Here is a plan detailing the plants used. 

 Can you picture walking through this herb garden at its height of glory? And "outside the knots are rosa gallica and rosa damascena." How I would love to have seen that!

A few other details: The groundcover was viola rosina. There was a smoke tree and pink dogwood. On one side there were mountain ash trees and an arbor covered with passion vine. 

One final touch as I leave you to dream along with me of strolling through this knotted herb garden. 

We would enter through a pleached alley of theifera flowering crab that divides the garden. And I would think I had died and gone to Heaven.

How about you? 


  1. Amazing in 20 different ways! Disinfecting with herbs sounds fascinating. Thanks for this challenge. I'll get on it right away and my backyard will be stunning! hahahaha!!!!

  2. Wow I bet that garden smelled so good with all the different herbs. This is new to me about a knotted herb garden. What a fun thing to learn about. Love those old magazines. I bet you love sitting and reading them. Happy Valentine's Day and have a good weekend.

  3. I've never heard or even read of such a garden. but I love the idea of the 'strewing herbs.'
    it seems to me to be Heaven's Pharmacy! the thought that so many simple plants can affect our human bodies so acutely. and still be beautiful and aromatic. it's overwhelming really! thank you for showing and explaining it to us. I have a very black thumb but I can appreciate it nevertheless! xo

  4. That's incredible! I've never heard of or seen a garden like this before. At first I thought the photo was of a beautiful, intricate wool rug! I can't begin to imagine the work it would take to create and maintain this kind of garden. One of my favorite things about warm weather is my own little herb garden...just a small square of dirt by the back of my house where I grow a bunch of herbs. The pleasure is in being able to just step outside and snip what you need for cooking. :-)

  5. I would love to have a garden like that. I do miss my small herb garden, but we are cleaning up our yard of things to put the house on the market for sale next year.

  6. All I could think when I saw it was the labor involved!

  7. What an informative, well written post! I loved learning about the different strewing herbs, many of which we have planted in our own herb garden for different uses, in addition to cooking, which act as insect repellents, like basil, lavender and laurel.

    Ah, yes, the very aromatic, velvety dittany of Crete, which we consume as tea, since it has many therapeutic qualities. The Cretans call it 'erontas', which means 'love', having derived its name from the stories of young men who used to risk their lives, attempting to climb the very steep slopes of gorges for what was then, an extremely rare herb, making it a precious gift for the object of their affection. Today, it is cultivated in many villages around the city of Heraklion. Personally, I enjoy it as part of an herbal cocktail, as it does have a very strong taste on its own.

    Dewena, the coloured illustration of Mrs. Littlejohn's knotted herb garden is spectacular! How I would have loved to have walked through this beautiful array of scented herbs, some dotted with pretty pops of colour, when flowering! The design is amazing, obviously very well thought out, carried out and the ideal place to hang out, for anyone who adores herbs - yes, a herb haven! We get such joy from our own 10 or so herbs, planted in the corner of our property; imagine the thrill of strolling around this knotted herb sanctuary?!

    In the meantime, I know you love to sprinkle specific herbs in your tasty dishes, and always have little pots of them handy, in addition to planting them in big containers outside, where you snip to your heart's content.

    Right! Time for some Cretan mountain tea, for me!

    Happy Sunday,

  8. Oh, my---I have to bookmark this post for research---amazing detail, Dewena. At first I thought it was some fanciful rug---which I would have ordered, lol. Fun post and full of info!

  9. I can't even imagine the time, effort and hard work that went into this artwork!
    Thank you for the History lesson, too!
    Waling through the knot garden must of been overwhelming with sights and smells.

  10. That garden is amazing! Labour intensive for sure! You get so much knowledge and pleasure from your magazine collection. It's kind of you to share it with us.

  11. What an amazing garden! I love the whole thing - the kinds of herbs, the design, the amazing scents (that I imagine). Wouldn't it be wonderful to walk through such a garden with a basket on one arm and a pair of pretty snips in hand to collect herbs for the day?

    Poppy's comment about the dittany is fascinating, too.

    We visited an Elizabethan knot garden in England a few years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed wandering the paths. Such wonderful imagination and skill it took!

  12. Oh Goodness, Poppy's comment was fantastic to read.. after reading your post. I would love the entire garden. I am wintering several herbs in my south window. So far they are doing very well as we wait for summer.
    xx oo

  13. Hi there Dewena, I somehow missed this, didn't know you'd posted til just now. Anyway....this is a cool post, very interesting! Wow, what a garden!! Just amazing. Can you EVEN IMAGINE having something like that!!? the detail of it is so intricate. Hope you've had a real nice week and wow, it's already the weekend. It's been so so so COLD HERE, how is it in your neck of the woods? I know alot of people are getting alot of rain, us included. And some getting snow!

  14. Visiting Agecroft Hall in Richmond Va. on the floor in one room are lavender scattered on the floor. A disinfecting and deodorizing of the room as you have written here. Very interesting post and I am going to read again.

  15. If I had an acre of land and a full-time gardener that is one of the gardens I would have on my property!

  16. I am so sorry to hear about your mothers passing. Even though she 95 I am sure it was a shock. You are in my thoughts and prayers as you navigate this new normal in your life.

    This knot garden is so interesting and beautiful and I think needs a full time crew of gardeners to keep it looking so beautiful. I admire people who have the patience to plant beautiful gardens, I do not have it.

  17. Dewena, I adore Gladys Tabor and herb gardens; had to leave my kitchen/medicinal herb garden behind when I moved.
    Please accept my condolences on your mother's passing; when I gave a friend's eulogy I said, "We'll never get over her death but we will get through it." Dewena, is it age or what that makes death an unwelcome guest at the table? Dave has been dead more than eight years and I still think of him every day, and the same with friends who've died since my move.
    Perhaps I'll feel better after a good night's sleep; right now I am so very tired.
    Sweet dreams to you and yours...
    Sandra at Thistle Cove Farm

  18. I've always dreamed of a formal herb garden (and a little vegetable patch on the side). The Secret Garden was one of my favorite books growing up and I've had this green fantasy ever since. I'd love to visit yours, we could have tea together.

  19. Dewena,
    Such a fun post with so much energy and information! As fellow gardeners we can certainly appreciate any and all references to gardening. This is a beautiful labor of love. My husband and I are eyeing the garden tour on Mackinac Island in the Fall, fingers crossed that we can go!


RH and I love your comments! They are sent to my email for moderation first but I do hit publish as soon as I read them. A few commenters' comments are not sent to my email for some reason but I try to visit that section on my design page twice a day to see if they're hiding there so I can publish them. I went the first 3 years of blogging not knowing that was there and when I discovered it there were many pages of old comments that never got published. I was so embarrassed and contacted recent ones but hid in shame from those who had given up long ago.

In these busy days I appreciate so much when you take time to comment. Thank you so much!