designing a herb garden
I have a little courtyard with walls on three sides (about 2 metres by three). It is semi-sunny, i.e. gets probably 3-4 hours of direct sun during the summer, and you enter through an archway. The only requirement is that it have a path running through it, to access a door in one of the walls.
I am removing the bricks currently covering it and turning it into a herb garden (veg will go elsewhere, in a sunnier location). So for all of you that have designed a herb garden from scratch, what advice would you give someone about to design and plant their own? There are just two of us at home, but we cook extensively with herbs (previously grown in pots).
If you're looking for actual garden plans to give you inspiration check out the gardening shelves of your local library. I found a wonderful book there (and I'm sorry, I can't remember the name of the book) that had designs for all types of gardens and light conditions, included the botanical and common names and culture needs for the plants used in each design. It was for perennial gardens but had lots of plans specifically for herb gardens. Look for books on perennial designs as well as herb garden designs. I actually found more help in the perennial books.
As gilintx says, amend your soil well. There's a perception that herbs thrive in poor soil, but that's only true for a few, mostly the Mediterranean ones like rosemary, lavender, sage, and thyme that grow wild on the dry hills. Most others like well-prepared soil.
Think about their water requirements (e.g. very low water for rosemary, low for sage, regular for basil), whether they're annuals or perennials, and whether they'll really get enough sun there. Some herbs (rosemary, oregano, lavender) really prefer full sun, so their growth will be weak with only 3-4 hours. They probably won't die, just may not be very robust.
Plant your basil with your vegetables instead of the herb garden. It likes rich soil, full sun, and plenty of water. Be sure to plant your mint in pots in the ground to keep it from taking over the whole garden! Dill and cilantro both bolt (go to seed) quickly, so your best bet is to make successive plantings every 2-4 weeks to be sure of having some on hand.
Below is pasted from a chart on herb culture requirements. The formatting is screwed up, but you can still get the basic idea for each one (annual/perennial, water needs, sun needs).
Herb Life cycle Water needs Sun needs
Basil, Sweet Annual Average Full sun/ Part shade
Bay Laurel Perennial Low to Average Full sun/ Part shade
Chervil Annual Average Part shade/ Shade
Chives and Garlic Chives Perennial Average Full sun/ Part shade
Cilantro (Coriander) Annual Average Part shade
Dill Annual Average Full sun/ Part shade
Lavender Perennial Low Full sun
Lemon Balm Perennial Average Part shade
Lemon Verbena Perennial Average/ Low Full sun/ Part shade
Lovage Perennial Average Part shade
Marjoram Perennial Average/ Low Full sun
Mint Perennial Average/ High Part shade
Oregano Perennial Low Full sun
Parsley Biennial Average Part shade
Rosemary Perennial Very low Full sun
Sage Perennial Low Full sun
Savory, Summer Annual Average Full sun
Savory, Winter Perennial Low Full sun
Tarragon Perennial Average Full sun/ part shade
Thyme Perennial Low Full sun
The main things I learned from my herb gardening experience were to plant according to what the garden is going to look like next year, plan ahead for your water supply, and amend your soil.
Dig down in the top 6" of soil or so. Mix in a healthy amount of compost. Set up either a soaker hose or a drip tape system before you plant. When you do plant, give everybody lots of room - you'll need it two years down the road when your rosemary is the size of a tricycle and your oregano seems to actually enjoy getting pruned back. Your garden will look under-planted at first, but not for long.
The only other thing I would add is that you should make sure you can actually get to everything without stepping in your beds. It stinks to discover that your beautiful herbs are just beyond your reach.
Finally, get used to the idea that your design is going to evolve over time. They always do, and it's one of the most beautiful things about gardening. Good luck!