Benefits of urban herb gardens

Whilst studying for her MSc in Spacial Planning at Wageningen University, Ioana-Cristina Musat became the first university intern at River of Herbs in Amsterdam.  It was an absolute pleasure to work with Ioana and the Spacial planning department at Wageningen.  As well as her full report, Ioana kindly created the following summary which outlines the main ideas and concepts resulting from her research. We hope that you find it inspiring and useful – we certainly have!

River of Herbs always welcomes enquiries from well motivated students who have ideas for internships or other forms of collaboration. Please contact Lynn at with ideas. 

Why are herb gardens valuable for the planning of our cities?

Herb gardens

The earliest representation of the herb garden dates back to the 9th century. Herb gardens in the medieval ages were characteristic amenities for monasteries, infirmaries and educational facilities (Hanson et al., 2004). Plants were used for medicinal and culinary purposes. A broad definition of herb gardens is provided by the American horticulturalist and historian Deirdre Larkin:

Herb gardens are defined not by their organization, but by the plants grown in them. If an herb is a plant with a use of seasoning, fragrance, dye, fiber, or medicine, then an herb garden is a garden of useful plants.” (Hanson et al. 2004)

This definition is relevant for spatial planning because it highlights characteristics of design and function: the design is flexible while the identity of the garden is created by vegetation typology and their usefulness.

Literature about the herb gardening practice reveals several opportunities for spatial planning. Herb gardens are sources of:

  • Promoting health (Torri, 2011).
  • Raising awareness about herbs as a food source (Tapsell et al., 2016).
  • Tourism: herbal tourism (Chaiyakot et al., 2012) and medical tourism (Chambers & McIntosh, 2008).
  • Socio-cultural heritage (Bajpai et al., 2013). 

The personal experience in the field (at the different herb gardens) and the information from informal talks and interviews with gardeners revealed complementary valuable insights about opportunities generated by herb gardens, which I listed in 5 main categories:

  • Herb gardens are easy and economical to maintain, as the majority of plants are perennials and therefore self-seeding.
  • High productivity is assured almost all year round from a reduced number of plants (e.g. for food seasoning or tea-making low amounts of plant material are needed), therefore herb gardens can be grown in small spaces and benefit many people.
  • Multipurpose use of herbs: medicinal, seasoning, cooking, cosmetics, remedies and dyes.
  • Numerous types of spontaneous flora or “weeds”, which usually is overlooked or eliminated from regular gardens and urban green spaces, are herbs, and therefore well appreciated in herb gardens (e.g.: stinging nettle, dandelion, wild chamomile, etc.). This is “no-cost” plant material found in abundance in any green space.
  • Weedy herbs can be used as food supplements or foods themselves. E.g. stinging nettle spreads fast and can be cooked mashed or in soups.

In conclusion planning of urban herb gardens plays a valuable role in: raising awareness about health, food and cultural heritage. Herb gardens need lower degree of maintenance (in comparison to urban vegetable gardens), need low input of resources as plant material is mostly perennial and self-seeding and can also be done at “no-cost” if weedy or native herbs are used for the design. There are also risks associated with this type of green space: lack of knowledge and competences for growing, harvesting and preparing herbs; the elimination of useful weedy herbs from green spaces and the challenge of growing herbs for food purposes only.

ROH directly maintained or connected  garden projects

The “Comfrey Patch”

Figure 10. ” Comfrey Patch”. Photo credit: Ioana-Cristina Musat.

The “Comfrey Patch” which is a recently, directly managed green space by the “ROH” organization does not have: tool shed, compost area or water source (see figure 10). Yet the herb gardening practice has been started out with the on-site existing materials: soil and the native plant material (weedy herbs and plants). Seeds and herb seedlings have been also brought in addition during the initial planting. Basic gardening tools were provided as well, yet some gardeners preferred to improvise with sticks, rocks and their own hands (source: field notes).

“Wetering Groen”

Figure 11. “Wetering Groen” garden. Photo credit Ioana-Cristina Musat.

On the other hand in the “Wetering Groen” herb garden (a project which has occasional collaborations with “ROH”), all gardening facilities are provided and in a very good condition (see figure 11). The herbs used in the design are predominantly cultivated herbs (not weedy herbs).

It is important to draw attention on the materials which all gardens have in common, in good or very good state: soil and plants. In the case of the “Comfrey Patch” lack of facilities inspired creative solutions: improvising tools from on-site materials, using and moving useful weedy herbs to create the design, tactical sowing and planting with anticipation of the rain (as a water source was not present).

In conclusion, for the herb gardening practice to take place two basic materials need to be present: soil and plants. In order to create the specific herb gardening practice of “River of Herbs” these two essential materials are together with the meanings of: education and the sense of responsibility for community and environment; and the competences (mainly autodidactic) of herbalism, botany, permaculture and basic gardening.

“The Orchards”

Figure 15. The “Orchards” garden. Photo credit Ioana-Cristina Musat.

Insights from my participant observations as well as opinions stated through informal talks and interviews, show that the sense of isolation has also created a sense of privacy for the “regular” gardeners. It is an opportunity to retreat from the everyday busy urban lives and do something useful and relaxing which contributes to their health and wellbeing. This is the case of the herb garden at the “Orchards” (see fig. 15), where regular volunteers discretely go about their activities and blend in with the park landscape. The soundscapes in the orchards disconnect from the urban hassle and offer a great sense of intimacy with flora and fauna:

It was a very beautiful image, the tree was flowering, the birds were singing, it was a magic sensation. I noticed that although the garden is set in an urban surrounding, you can hardly hear the noise of cars and you are surrounded by the song of birds, insects and leaves blowing in the wind. (Source: field notes)

General steps for creating an urban herb garden

The appropriation process has variations according to the dimension of the green space. Overall I identified the following common steps in appropriating green space for the herb gardening practice:

  • Spotting of overlooked, uncared for public green space.
  • Creating a plan/design involving volunteers -> minimal funds and materials.
  • Contacting the municipality for approval of design/maintenance.
  • Initial design.
  • Maintenance (in some cases).

Once the approval of the municipality for design and maintenance of the soon to be appropriated space is obtained, the appropriation process itself is very flexible (source: survey, interviews).

Regular maintenance creates identity, creates “a place”.

Figure 20. Street in Amsterdam. Photo credit:

Herb gardens have the capacity to create “places”. By regular maintenance people interact with the garden and create place identity. Small scale green spaces (e.g. pavement gardens, tree pits) contribute to place-making, in the sense that people take care of the small green-spaces. Yet it is unclear if such a small scale green space can in itself be a place. They do increase the aesthetical quality and the connection between inhabitants and public space. If there is consistency in these small green spaces (as shown in fig. 20) than they can act as visual connectors between gardens, parks or other green spaces.

The combination between primary data collection methods (prolonged time spend on-field for observations, interviews and survey) and a theoretical framework based on social practices and their effect on the spatial dimension yielded valuable insights for spatial planning. The main insight is that the herb gardening practice has the following qualities:

  • Is a source of awareness on social priority issues (e.g. food sustainability and public health).
  • Creates urban places (i.e. spatial identity through regular maintenance).
  • Increases the quality of life of people taking part in activities (e.g. health, wellbeing).
  • Minimizes resource input from the municipality for design and maintenance of green space.
  • Is a source of example for the urban planning of similar areas. 

These qualities are related to the specific social and spatial characteristics. In the case of the herb gardening practice of “River of Herbs” the main social practice characteristic identified through analysis are:

  • Main meanings committed carriers attribute are: responsibility for the environment and learning about herbs as foods and medicine.
  • Carriers stay involved in the practice because: they feel welcomed in the community and acquire knowledge, skills and materials (herbs).

The spatial characteristics of the herb gardening practice are:

  • Use of already existing green space: parks, squares.
  • Spatial flexibility (permissive rules and regulations) as prerequisite for design and maintenance.

The spatial flexibility makes it possible for inhabitants to express practice meanings into the design and maintenance of the physical space of the garden, and turn it into a “place” which holds identity and emotional value. Through this process a connection between the everyday social practices and the place is created. This connection facilitates the improvement of the inhabitant’s everyday quality of life, and assures an increased involvement, manifested through regular maintenance.

It is important to highlight that for the continuity and the development of the urban herb gardening practice to be assured, support must be mutual, planners need to properly include herb gardening practices which create urban places in visions and zoning plans. The practice characteristics (social and spatial) identified through this research can be used for future quantitative planning studies (i.e. identification of similar urban gardens). These results are further valuable for mapping existing and potential herb gardening practices and introducing them in the green structure and food planning visions for the city of Amsterdam.

Author: Lynn


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