Two traditional English herbs: Borage and Lemon Balm
Cucumber-flavoured borage and delicate, lemony balm are two of the prettiest plants you could choose to grace herb garden or windowbox.
Borage and balm are two of the loveliest and easiest to grow of all herbs. Both are happy in virtually anyor in any site, and both will grow equally well indoors or outdoors. Try them both, for carefree plants and refreshing flavours for summer drinks.
Borage (Borago officinalis)
Borage is a hardy annual which grows to between 30-75 cm (1- 2-1/2’) high. The heavily-veined, deep green leaves and hollow, rounded stems are very rough and hairy, and both have a cucumber-like flavour and fragrance although it is only the leaves which are used. The flowers are star-shaped and intensely blue; they are produced in abundance and are extremely attractive to bees. If your garden is sheltered, borage should flower right through the winter, although a heavy frost could kill it.
A singularly unfussy plant, borage will grow in sun or shade, whether in bank or border, rock or herb garden, and in any type of soil. Sow the seed in early spring, but just before sowing, fork the soil deeply so that the long tap root can grow unimpeded. Sow the seeds thinly in narrow drills, and cover with about 1.2 cm (1/2”) of soil. When the first pair of true leaves is well developed, thin theto a final spacing of 30 cm (1’) and firm the soil well around the remaining plants. Do not try transplanting the thinnings, as this is rarely successful.
Borage is as unparticular about its cultivation as it is about site and soil. A minimum of care is needed, merely watering during dry weather and a light hoeing between plants to keep the soil friable and weed free.
You can cut the leaves, starting at the bottom of the stem, from early to mid-summer onwards. Use them fresh to add a refreshingly different taste to salads, or to give an exhilarating lift to your summer drinks and punches. Remember that the flowers are also edible; use them for a beautiful touch in special salads, or candy them to use on cakes and desserts. The flowers are also attractive in flower arrangements or can be dried to provide a touch of blue in potpourris.
Borage reseeds itself freely, and it can be a nuisance if allowed to do so. Cut the seedheads before the seed has a chance to disperse, and save it for planting the following spring.
To grow borage indoors, fill 12.5 cm (5”) containers with good potting, and sow the seed anytime in the year. Keep the pots in a reasonably light and warm place, and you will have fresh borage leaves for cutting in about three months.
Balm (Melissa officinalis),
Balm, like borage, will also grow well in any site and soil, although it needs protection from both severe frost and high temperatures. It is best to start balm from a young nursery plant, either in mid-spring or mid-autumn. As balm has spreading, invading roots, it is a good idea to sink a bottomless bucket or a piece of drainpipe in the site before planting. This will prevent the roots from getting tangled with neighbouring plants.
If you cannot get young plants, you can grow balm from seed. Sow the seed in mid-spring, in drills about 1.2 (½”) deep. The young plants should appear in three or four weeks; thin when they are large enough to handle to a spacing of 30 cm (1’) apart.
When your plants are established, you can propagate new plants by root division in spring or autumn. Space the root sections 30 cm (1’) apart in soil which has been dug over and treated with well-rotted garden compost.
Balm requires as little care as borage. Water it well in dry weather, weed occasionally, and keep a particular watch for any unwanted balm seedlings. An established balm plant will set a lot of seed, so weed out any seedlings before they become a nuisance in your garden by taking it over.
Leaves for use in sweet dishes, in cool summer drinks, or for a refreshing tea can be picked as required throughout the spring, when they are at their most tender. They can be used generously, as their flavour is delicate. They are also good with salads, and mixed with pea and bean soups. After the plant produces its small white flowers in early summer, the leaves begin to toughen.
Unlike borage leaves, balm leaves can be dried. Cut the leaves between early and late summer, hang them in a dry, dark place and a temperature of no more than 38°C (100°F) until thoroughly dried, and store them in an opaque, air-tight jar. In autumn, cut the stems down to the ground, and if your garden gets a lot of frost, protect the plants with straw. Balm is one of the earliest plants to begin growing again in spring.
Balm plants can be grown in pots, tubs or window-boxes, so long as they are kept well watered. A pot of balm will grow-well indoors on a sunny windowsill, and it is a useful fresh herb for bringing a lemony, summery taste to winter dishes and drinks.
The second top wire and attach them one on either side, leaving the centre empty, with about a 75 cm (2’6”) space between them. Now weave them down to the bottom wire and up again, working outwards from the middle. Tie the canes to the wires with strong garden twine or plastic-covered wire as you proceed. Now take the second pair of canes up to the second top wire, about 22 cm (9”) outside the first pair, then repeat, and so on, until all the canes are tied in.
Each summer, as new shoots are produced, tie them vertically up the middle, and when they reach the top wire, spread them out on either side and tie them along the top wire to stop them whipping about.
There are two periods during the year when pruning is normally carried out: immediately after cropping, and in late winter. When cropping has finished, cut out the canes which have fruited, either completely, or to the strongest new shoot low on a cane. It is far better to use new shoots growing directly from the ground, though, and only use canes growing from old wood if there are not enough new ones.
Summer pruning of the old canes is a much easier chore if two people work at it, so if you can get someone to help you with this task, so much the better. One person can then do the actual cutting, while the other takes and gathers up the prunings from the plant and moves them to the bonfire.
Untie the new canes and disentangle them if necessary. Lay them out singly on the ground and divide them equally into two groups. It is usual to retain only 8-10 canes on each plant. These are then tied in the pattern AS previously described. In late winter or early spring, check the new canes for -die-back, or excessively vigorous growth and prune accordingly. This is the best time to inspect the new canes springing from the base of thornless varieties. Occasionally, these plants revert and send out canes with thorns. Thorny canes tend to be stronger-growing than thornless ones, and would, if given a chance, quickly overwhelm the weaker thornless types. Dig out these suckers, and cut them off below ground, where they join the main roots.
Cultivation and care
You should provide temporary protection from strong winds until the plants are established, and again, every year, when the plants are in full flower. If it is too windy at this time, insects will be less likely to visit the flowers and adequate pollination may not take place.
In the summer months, while the fruits are forming, water if the weather is dry. The best method is a perforated hose laid along each side of the row in turn. In a normal year, watering increases the yield; during a drought it is doubly vital. If water runs short not only will the berries be hard and small, but the production of new canes will suffer. Since next year’s fruit will be produced on these canes, weak stunted-canes will mean poor future crops.
Top-dress the plants every year in early summer with well-rotted manure or garden compost 2.5 cm (1”) thick. If this is not available, use a compound fertilizer and mulch with straw. If the soil is dry, water thoroughly before mulching, and the mulch will help conserve soil moisture, as well as keepingdown.
Because fruit is produced on the previous year’s wood, there will be no crop the first year. Depending on the varieties planted, cropping starts in midsummer from the second season onwards. Harvesting can continue to mid-autumn, and even later.
As with raspberries, avoid picking the fruit in rainy weather. Mould forms on wet blackberries very quickly. If you have to pick wet berries, eat or preserve them as soon as possible. Blackberries for freezing, jam-making and bottling should be picked when ripe, but slightly firmer than those used fresh for dessert.
To encourage more fruit to ripen, pick over the canes every few days, or even daily for heavy-cropping types. Overripe berries a’re particularly vulnerable to insect infestation, as well as fungal and viral infections, so make sure you remove and destroy any you find.
As with raspberries, propagation of blackberries is easy but risky. This is because diseases infecting the parent plant will almost certainly be transmitted to the new stock. Virus infections, particularly, can make the whole exercise a waste of time, because there are no symptoms in the earliest stages of infection, and seemingly healthy parent plants may be infected. It is safest not to propagate new canes from your own fruiting stock, but instead buy in fresh stock. Unfortunately there is no virus-free certification scheme for blackberries, making it doubly important that your canes come from a reputable grower.
If you do want to propagate blackberries, it is most easily done by tip-in summer. When the new canes are long enough to be bent over to the ground without snapping they are ready for layering. Make a hole a hand span deep; if the soil is at all heavy, it pays to dig some of it out and replace with friable loam or compost. If the soil is dry, water it thoroughly before inserting the tip. This should be buried about 15 cm (6”) deep in the soil, at an angle of 45 degrees, and held in place by a wooden peg or bent wire, so that it does not spring out. The new plants should be well rooted by late autumn, but it is best to delay moving them until early spring, when they can be transplanted to their permanent position. To do this, sever the cane about 30 cm (1’) from the tip, and lift the young plant carefully with a fork so that the roots are damaged as little as possible. Cut back the remainder of the parent cane to ground level.
Blackberry plants occasionally throw up suckers, sometimes some distance from the parent plant. The best time to propagate from suckers is during the autumn. Gently loosen the rooted suckers with a fork and then sever them from the parent plant with a sharp spade. Make sure the suckers have a strong, healthy root system and discard any which are weak or spindly. Plant the suckers out in their permanent positions, and immediately cut them back to 23 cm (9”) above ground.