Herbs have long been a part of our history, yet we often remain wary of utilising them to their full potential. So it is ironic that in the 5th century BC Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician, said ‘let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food’; how relevant this is today. Not only do herbs impart flavour, aroma and texture to cooking, they are also beneficial to our diet and have medicinal and even household uses. They are a great introduction to gardening and ‘growing your own’, for they are the most generous of plants; they not only attract bees and butterflies into the garden they can quite simply transform a meal into a feast.
There is now a huge range of culinary herbs available for the keen gardener. They can be grown from seed or one can buy plants from Herb Farms, Nurseries and Garden Centres. Here are my top tips for ensuring they flourish in your garden:
1. Water seeds in the morning
My top tip to anyone growing herbs from seed is to water in the morning, before going to work, never at night, as this will help prevent the seedlings rotting, especially if we get cold spring nights. For those that do not have the patience and want an instant garden then one can purchase herb plants.
2. Plant in the sun for aroma and flavour
Before planting in the garden it is always a good idea to work out the best planting position to suit the chosen herbs. It is worth noting either where they originated or where they grow as a wild plant as this will indicate the soil type and position the plants prefer. In the majority of cases planting in full sun will bring the essential oils to the surface of the leaf so giving a lovely strong aromatic flavour. This is particularly relevant when planting Oregano, Thyme, Sage and Basil, however Parsley, Chervil, Coriander, Sorrel and Purslane do better when planted in partial shade.
3. Pick regularly
To keep your herbs healthy and productive keep picking. Many have edible flowers that can be enjoyed in salads, drinks, and as a garnish. Once flowering has finished it is a good idea to cut back the perennial herbs as this helps prevent evergreen herbs from becoming woody, this includes Rosemary which is often over looked and left untrimmed. Always cut back with in the green, this means do not cut back where there are no branches growing as it cannot re shoot off old wood. One can also cut back herbaceous herbs after flowering, especially Mint. Cut back to about 4cm above the soil, you will then get a second crop of new fresh leaves that you can use right through until the first hard frosts.
4. Go for pots and troughs
For those of you with little space, herbs grow well in pots and troughs. Use a soil based potting compost this will help prevent the soil from drying out in hot weather and it also holds the nutrients for longer. My top tip for herbs grown in pots is to liquid feed the plants weekly, we use a seaweed feed as this has good all-round nutrients and acts as a tonic to the plants, which keeps them both healthy and productive for use in the kitchen and in the home.
I hope that this year you will be inspired to both grow and cook with herbs and to enjoy the pleasure of these remarkable plants.
A Pocketful of Herbs: An A-Z by Jekka McVicar VMH (Bloomsbury Absolute, £12.99) was published on 7thMarch 2019.