In 1987, an Englishwoman named Jekka McVicar started growing herbs in her backyard. Nothing unusual about that -- herb gardens are rampant in the U.K. But the one Jekka McVicar grew made her famous, and she's left the backyard to create the largest herb nursery in the U.K., growing some 300 herbs. 

She now teaches, works with food folk, consults with researchers, and is constantly learning from her plants. Chef Jamie Oliver has dubbed her, "The Queen of Herbs," and the Royal Horticultural Society recently named her the Ambassador for health and well-being through gardening.  This year, Jekka has created a herb garden for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London. [Ed. note: Jekka's garden received a silver gilt medal.] Lynne got her story. 

[More from McVicar]

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: We do not have anything quite like the Chelsea Show here. Could you explain what it's about?


Jekka McVicar

Jekka McVicar: Chelsea Flower Show is really horticultural excellence at its best. You've got this huge pavilion and in there are all the nurseries. That's where I used to be. And you get visitors from all of the world exhibiting. So we got Carsten Bosch from South Africa. They're putting on a beautiful display. We've got Jamaica there and Grenada. They always put on amazing displays.

Then you've got a nursery that just specializes in irises. Can you imagine that? They're just exquisite. And then you get Beales roses and their roses, the scent is just magnificent. Then you get a lily nursery. That's inside.

Then outside you've got the Show Gardens. That what section I'm in. They're the big really flashy show guns. But mine is so simple. I'm not being flashy. I've not dug down. I've not got spinning trees and all the rest of it. I have just done a herb garden.

LRK: Yeah but you've got a very special herb garden. Tell us about it.

JM: Well you know that I've been in horticulture over 35 years and you know that I have been awarded 14 RHS gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show. But they were for floral exhibits and I've always, always, always wanted to do a herb garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. The last one was over 23 years ago and I had this dream and this year I'm doing it.

I have the most wonderful sponsors. It's St. John's Hospice here in London. They are part of the St. John and St. Elizabeth Hospital.  All their profit goes into the hospice and they treat three and a half thousand people for free in the community and it is just gorgeous. But they have no garden. The garden I'm creating at Chelsea is going into their garden after the show and I'm planting it. It is really the best way to sort of ... like, it's the pinnacle of my career in herbs and horticulture. It's just fantastic. And the RHS have done me a huge honor. They have just made me an RHS Ambassador for health and well-being through gardening. 

LRK: Congratulations.

JM: Absolutely, I'm over the moon and it's like all my dreams are sort of popping around me at the same time, but this garden is about all the herbs in it, which have been under scientific research recently, and it's just so exciting that people at last are listening to what our forefathers knew and researching those facts and then finding out whether it's true or not.

For example, when I was growing up, I was given a herb called bread and cheese and I'm sure no one will know what that means but that is hawthorn, Crataegus, the May-tree. And I was always given leaves as a child in sandwiches and my mom used to cook the berries as well and make teas from the flowers. It is now being proven that it is good for strengthening the heart and good for the circulation. So exciting.

I've got yew in the garden. That's taxus, Taxol. And Taxol is extracted from the yew and that's used with ovarian cancer and breast cancer. I've got woad, Isatis tinctoria. Now woad as you all know is a diet plant. Well that has been under a lot of research in Italy and they found it is better than broccoli. It's stopping tumors grow. Now, if they've also done research into it because the Chinese medicine is being used for mumps and for meningitis and treatment of. And they've just found out that it has a natural antibiotic. Now this is the Holy Grail. We've got to find the herbs that have got natural antibiotics because people are becoming immune to antibiotics.

I can go on and on. I've got celery leaf in there because of the use with arthritis. I've got feverfew because of migraines. I've got a St. John's wort for depression. I've got foxgloves digitalis, the heart. I've got valarian which knocks you out and makes you go calm and sleepy. I've got lemon balm to reduce stress. I've got rosemary for restoring the memory. I've got sage because of all its antiseptic property. I've got thyme, lots of thymes. I've done a centerpiece of this water bowl that is the symbol of life, water, and under it I've planted a thyme carpet.

I've got no corners in the garden. It's a square garden but the actual path is curved. Because if you're in a low mood and you're thoughtful, you're looking down and you don't want to have a crossroads. You want to have to go left, don't have to go right. You just follow your feet. So it's a circle and the paths are curved. I've got two benches in the garden and they're not opposite each other so you don't have eye contact with the person opposite you. And they're small, big enough for two just but they're small enough so that if you're suffering a bereavement or you've just been diagnosed and you want space, you don't feel that you're in a big space. And so I hope that this garden will give the hospice and the patients and the staff and the families of the patients somewhere to sit, to breathe and to be at peace. [Ed. note: You can follow the garden's progress on Instagram.]

 Further listening/reading:

Lynne Rossetto Kasper

Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.

Jekka McVicar

Jekka McVicar is a British horticulturalist who has been called "The Queen of Herbs," and in 2016 the Royal Horticultural Society named her an Ambassador for health and well-being through gardening. Her herb nursery, Jekka's Herb Farm, has won 59 RHS gold medals. She is author of The Complete Herb Book, Jekka's Herb Cookbook and co-author of Vegetables, Herbs and Fruit.