Discover Home Herb Gardening
No kitchen garden is complete without herbs, and perhaps nothing reflects the culinary idiosyncracies of a household so closely as the herbs they cultivate. Besides the hard core of common herbs — , mint, , thyme, sage and rosemary — every gardener has some special favourites. Here then, are brief notes on a few of my personal favourites among the slightly less common culinary herbs.
This tender Mediterranean herb, with its unique clove-like flower, is rarely on sale fresh. Dried basil is a poor substitute for the real thing, so it is well worth growing your own. Common or sweet basil grows at least a foot high and has large leaves, while bush basil is dwarfed with narrow leaves, and is better grown in pots. There’s also a pretty red-leaved form, ‘Dark Opal’.
Basil loves warmth, and is best grown in a greenhouse or frame. Otherwise plant it in a sheltered sunny spot outdoors. Sow in March or April indoors, and plant outdoors after all risk of frost is past, about 12cm (5in) apart. Outdoor plants will be killed off in late summer by the first hint of frost. To extend the season, cut back a few plants (preferably of bush basil) in early September, pot them up and bring them indoors for fresh leaf until November or December.
Basil is marvellous in many summer dishes, especially with tomatoes. It is a vital ingredient of the famous French vegetable soup piston.
A pretty-like annual herb, chervil is normally about 20cm (8in) high, though it shoots up to 60cm (2ft) high when it runs to seed. It is relatively hardy, remaining green all winter, so is especially useful in the winter months when many herbs have died down.
Sow from February to April in situ outdoors for summer use, and in August, outdoors or in a cold greenhouse or frame, for winter and spring use. It runs to seed rapidly in hot weather and in dry, so make several sowings for a continuous supply. Choose a slightly shaded position in summer, but a warm sheltered position for winter. Thin to about 10cm (4in) apart.
Chervil, with its delicate aniseed flavour, is good chopped in sauces, green mayonnaise, herb butter, salads, egg dishes, and generally as a parsley substitute. Chervil soup is excellent.
Also known as Chinese parsley, coriander is a hardy annual resembling broad-leaved parsley in appearance, and growing up to about 45cm (18in) high. It is one of the commonest herbs in the world, but has been neglected in modern times in this country. The leaves have an unusual, musty, mild spiciness, and the seeds a flavour said to be reminiscent of oranges.
Sow in February (indoors) and March to June (outdoors) for the main summer crop. (The earlier sowing is necessary if it is being grown for seed.) Sow in situ outdoors, or in a frame, from August to September, to overwinter for early summer use. Thin to about 22cm (9in) apart. The fresh green leaf can be sprinkled on curries about ten minutes before serving. The seed is used as a pickling spice, and in many Arabic and Greek dishes.
This is a most attractive annual herb with feathery bluish foliage and bronzy yellow umbelliferous (parsley-like) seedheads, both of which are used in cooking. It is easily confused with fennel, but is smaller and daintier, growing up to 90cm (3ft) high.
Grow dill in well-drained, reasonably good soil in a sheltered position, keeping it watered in dry weather. Sow from April to June in situ outdoors, sprinkling the seed on the surface. Thin to about 10cm (4in) apart if growing it for the leaf, 22cm (9in) apart if seedheads are required. Keep it well weeded or it may be overrun. Plants left to seed in autumn tend to self-sow themselves, producing offspring the following year which seem to be more robust than the parents! With its distinct aromatic flavour, dill is used with fish, or combined with yogurt or sour cream in soups and sauces, or used in open Scandinavian sandwiches. The sharper flavoured seedheads are essential for making dill pickles.
Lemon Balm (Melissa)
A spreading and tenacious perennial herb, lemon balm is not unlike dead nettle in appearance. It is ground-hugging early in the year (in fact is a useful ground-cover plant), growing to about 60cm (2ft) high when flowering, dying down completely in winter. Its leaves have a very pleasant lemon fragrance and flavour.
Extremely easy to grow, it is usually raised by dividing old plants and replanting pieces of root. It can also be raised fromtaken in spring or autumn, or by sowing seed in spring, for transplanting in autumn Germination, however, can be very erratic, so be patient. Space the plants about 45cm (18in) apart.
The leaves are generally chopped and used alone or combined with other herbs in salads, soups, drinks, or for flavouring lemon ice cream. A single leaf makes a marvellously refreshing lemon-flavoured tea.
A perennial shrubby plant growing up to 3m (10ftft) high outdoors, lemon verbena is frequently grown successfully in tubs or large flower pots. It is slightly tender, but withstands low temperatures better if grown in well-drained soil.
Buy a plant, or raise it from soft- or hard-wood cuttings. Plant outside in well-drained, light soil in a sheltered south-facing position; it should be on poor soil or the growth will be too lush. Protect the roots in winter with a mulch of leafmould. The leaves die in winter, and there is often no sign of life until May. So don’t write the plant off for dead after a severe winter: the odds are it will recover.
The dried and fresh leaf with its long-lasting lemon-lime scent and flavour makes a wonderful tea. It is also a valuable substitute for lemon and vanilla flavouring in desserts such as custards, infused in milk; it can be chopped into jellies and fruit salads, and is also used in savoury sauces.
One of the most handsome of herbs, lovage has dark green, shiny, celery-like leaves borne on tall hollow stems and has a very strong celery flavour. A large plant growing up to 2-1/2m (8ft), it has the flat seedheads characteristic of an umbellifer.
It is one of the first herbs to appear above ground in spring; the young shoots are a very beautiful bronze colour. In the past they were blanched for use as a spring vegetable. Although lovage prefers deep, moist, rich soil, it tolerates a very wide range of soil and conditions, doing well even in shade. It is usually propagated by dividing established plants in spring, making sure each piece of root has a shoot. It can also be raised from seed, preferably sowing fresh seed in August; otherwise sow in spring. A third method is to allow plants to seed naturally, transplanting self-sown. Planting is best done in spring, allowing 60-90cm (2-3ft) between plants. One plant would be sufficient for most households.
Pieces of stem can be candied like angelica. The seed can be used as a substitute for fennel and aniseed in cakes, bread, biscuits and desserts. Crushed leaves can be rubbed around a salad bowl to impart a celery flavour; chopped leaves can be added to a salad, but no more than half a teaspoonful. They can also be used in sauces and stews, but above all lovage is the herb to flavour soups, mellowing deliciously with cooking.
Natives of the Mediterranean, the many forms of marjoram have a long history of cultivation. Sweet or knotted marjoram is perennial in mild climates, but half-hardy here. It is a neat, bushy, soft-leaved little plant no more than a few inches high; the name comes from the knot-like clusters of buds which forth on the stem in late summer. Wild marjoram or oregano is much hardier, truly perennial, with woodier stems. (Note: the name ‘pot marjoram’ is misleadingly used both for wild marjoram, and for the uncommon French marjoram, Origanum onites.) Wild marjoram is a spreading plant making pretty ground-hugging mounds from which tall flowering spikes are thrown up in summer. There are several very attractive forms — golden, variegated gold, and pink and white flowered. Some are compact, others sprawling.
One of the hardiest of all the marjorams is winter marjoram, a tiny neat plant with bright green leaves, white flowers and a good flavour. It, too, is perennial and grown like wild marjoram.
The marjorams have a subtle pleasant flavour, not unlike that of thyme. Sweet marjoram is sweeter and very strong, but the flavour is destroyed by prolonged cooking; wild marjoram has a slightly bitter edge but is more durable in cooking. Both dry well for winter use; sweet marjoram freezes well.
Marjoram does best in light, well-drained soil in a sunny position. Sweet marjoram is raised from seed sown in spring. The seeds are tiny and not too robust, so are best sown indoors, keeping them in warm moist conditions until well established. Plant about 18cm (7in) apart. For winter use, pot up a few plants in late summer and bring them indoors, though established plants may retain plenty of leaf throughout the winter in favourable areas.
Wild marjoram can also be raised from seed, but is usually propagated by cuttings in spring and summer, or by dividing established plants in spring or autumn. Plant them about 30cm (1 ft) apart. Trim back the straggly growths in autumn.
Marjoram is often used as a substitute for thyme or mixed with thyme. It can be chopped into salads, omelettes or stuffing, or used to flavour meat dishes, sausages, poultry, game and tomato dishes. Altogether a lovely and versatile herb.
Like basil, tarragon is a superb culinary herb. It’s worth cultivating as it is difficult to buy and scarcely recognizable when dried. A bushy perennial plant 75-90cm (2-½ – 3ft) high, tarragon dies down completely in winter. It is much hardier than it is reputed to be. There are two forms: French and Russian. Gourmets say the French is infinitely superior with a strong, unusual, and very individual flavour.
Tarragon needs a sunny position in well-drained but not particularly rich soil. (Like many herbs, the flavour is diminished by growing it in lush conditions.) Because French tarragon is nearly always sterile, seed is virtually unobtainable at present; so either buy plants, or divide old plants, planting shoots with pieces of root attached. Plant in spring, about 60cm (2ft) apart. Autumn plantings are very likely to fail. Traditional advice is to lift, divide and move the plants every three or four years to prevent the flavour deteriorating. Not everyone agrees. If your tarragon bushes are performing well they should probably be left undisturbed.
It is an essential element in French cooking and is used in salads, with vegetables, meat, fish, game, cheese, in soups, in many sauces, to make tarragon vinegar and even to make a liqueur.
Preserving Herbs for Winter
There is nothing to touch fresh herbs, but as only a handful remain green in winter, it is worth preserving one’s favourites, either by drying, or in the case of succulent herbs like parsley, chives and basil, by freezing.
For drying, herbs should be picked in their prime, usually just before flowering. Pick them in the morning just after the dew has dried. Dry them slowly and gently out of the sunlight. This can be done in a very low oven, stirring them from time to time, or by hanging them in a kitchen, protected with a muslin cloth to keep them clean. When the leaves are brittle rub them off the stems, and store them in airtight jars.
Sprigs of herbs can be frozen fresh, or chopped into water in ice cube trays so that they freeze in the ice cube blocks. When required, the blocks are simply melted in a strainer, leaving the herbs ready for use.