Bordering on Tasty

The Dell Children’s Medical Center, which opened in June 2007, is full of auspicious contrasts: a world-class, million-dollar art collection paired with sustainable linoleum flooring, the most sophisticated operating theaters just down the hall from a small, informal amphitheater where the occasional puppet show is staged. And just outside the first-floor Thyme Out Café, mondo grass—that bulletproof staple of corporate landscaping—hugs a 50-foot curving border of edible herbs that can only be described as homey.

“It’s by far the biggest job I’ve done,” says Becky Barsch Fischer, designer of the herb border, and better known as the Culinary Garden Hoe. Becky worked as a chef and culinary institute instructor for 20 years before reinventing herself as a designer of informal, edible gardens. She’d been in business little more than a year, with gardens for small restaurants and Central Market under her belt, when Dell hospital’s area general manager Judi Bork called. 

The hospital’s comprehensive landscape plan had already been implemented, Judi explained. Brian Ott of TBG Partners had designed seven large gardens, each representing a different area of Texas, as well as numerous smaller plantings in every corner of the building and grounds.

The Coastal Plains garden located just outside the Thyme Out Café featured waves of stones and grasses and a curving rock wall, all surrounded by glass windows, and all visible from the tranquil, naturally lighted café. But herbs hadn’t been part of the plan, and Judi couldn’t stop thinking about them.

“Thyme Out was meant to be a sort of sanctuary,” she says. “When we were in the planning stages, we looked at other hospital cafeterias around the country. Kansas City had a ‘50s diner, a lot of primary colors. In Dallas, it was all about the train. But we realized not as many kids would come here as staff and family. We wanted to create a comfortable space where you can let your shoulders down.”

Herbs exemplified the idea of natural, accessible beauty. Besides, you could eat them. Even if the border never produced enough herbs to supply the entire cafeteria, the plants could contribute to countless catered events, as well as to everyday cafeteria fare.

“We’ll use the cilantro, the thymes, the basils,” says food service general manager Kirk Marsh. “You’ll find them in our pico de gallo, and we do two different soups a day. Definitely in our garden pizzas.”

“The garden contains 126 plants altogether,” Becky says. “Three different kinds of thyme—classic French, silver and lemon. I was really excited to get pineapple sage and chocolate mint.”

The garden’s 100 organically grown herb starts were installed in just a day, with no special preparations other than a few loads of good compost and the removal of a few dozen monkey grass plants. It occupies only a small percentage of the Coastal Plains garden’s total area, but it may have outsize potential, Bork says. Having small hospital patients spend time in the herb garden—crushing, smelling, tasting—seems only natural.

“All herbs want is to be used,” Becky says. “The more you use them and cut them back, the fuller and more lush they become.”

Dell Children’s Medical Center: 512-324-0000, dellchildrens.net