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Sunday, 26 April 2020

Diary from the Pandemic Day 37 - Growing Herbs

May is probably the leanest month in the kitchen garden. Food in storage has either been eaten up or is beyond its best. On the plot, the purple sprouting broccoli is coming to an end and the only new crops are rhubarb and asparagus... and there is only so much of either of those that you can eat.

However, what are really coming into their own are the herbs so it is a good idea to think about your herb garden now, ready for next month. Maybe your herbs need some attention, or a few new additions, or maybe you need to start a herb garden from scratch..

Late spring/early summer is prime time for leaves and that includes the leaves of herb plants. They put on a spurt of growth at this time of year and the leaves are fresh, tender and full of flavour. By June many of the herb plants will be putting their energy into flowering, which, although a lovely display that the pollinators enjoy immensely, means that energy is diverted away from the leaves. So make good use of them now and maybe cut some for drying or freezing too.

Herbs are a lovely addition to the kitchen garden, providing interest and flavour to recipes and meals. They are also relatively easy to grow and something that can be grown even if you don't have a garden.

Supermarkets sell growing herbs and you can keep them going on a windowsill for several weeks. Generally, there are more plants in the pot than can reasonably grow in such a restricted space and this is probably the main reason why the plants deteriorate and die after a few weeks. As such, if you split them up and repot them them, not only do you get more plants for your money but they should be able to go on and thrive rather than die.

Many herb plants are perennial, meaning that they survive the winter and will continue to grow for several years. This is another reason why they are easy to grow. Perennial herbs include all the classics such as sage, thyme and rosemary. Then there are some which are biennial, flowering in their second year and then dying. This include parsley. Finally, there are annual herbs that are not hardy enough to survive the winter and must be grown fresh every year. This includes basil.

Most herbs originate from the Mediterranean region and as such they enjoy warm, dry conditions. If possible, plant herbs in full sunlight in well-drained soil. We don't have well-drained soil but we managed to very successfully grow herbs in our sunny south-facing front garden for many years.

A few years ago we had our house extended and during this period our builders used our front garden as a storage area for their building material. We were, of course, expecting this so before they started we dug up our front garden and potted up all the plants we wanted to salvage. Since then, we have continued to grow herbs in pots in our back garden.

Similarly, back in April 2009, I planted up a large half-barrel with 6 herb plants for my mum's birthday and she has had it in her front garden ever since. So, as you can see, herbs grow very well in containers and it a method you can use if you don't have a garden or just as part of your garden. Indeed, herbs such as mint have very invasive roots and should only be grown in containers so as to limit their spread.

It is possible to buy herb plants from garden centres and online plant retailers. This is a great way to get started and can result in an instant herb garden. However, you can also grow many herbs from seed and this is particularly useful for annual herbs such as basil. In late summer, you can take cuttings off most herb plants and leave them through the winter to establish and this is a good way to get new plants.

So, which herbs should you grow?

Well, that depends on what you like to eat. As I say about anything in the kitchen garden, if you don't like it, don't grow it. This is why I don't grow coriander or parsley but these may well be your favourite herbs.

Sage is a good one to grow if you like sage and onion stuffing or a garish on butternut squash. Once established, it will look after itself and often produces beautiful purple flowers. You can also get variegated varieties and purple leaf varieties.

Rosemary is the classic flavour to go with red meat, particularly lamb. Again, it looks after itself and produces small blue flowers that bees love.

Related to rosemary is lavender and this is often grown as an ornamental plant due to its beautiful purple flowers and pleasant smell. It is supposed to be good for relaxation. It can be used as a culinary herb, although it needs to be used with caution so as not to end up with a soapy flavour.

Thyme is another classic and useful herb and there are loads of different types of thyme. We grow both the classic one and a lemon flavoured one, although we did have several varieties in the early days of our herb garden. It is useful in many types of dishes and is part of pizza herb mix. The lemon version is great in fish dishes and a few leaves really peps up a prawn mayo sandwich.

Both marjoram and oregano are important herbs in pizza and pasta dishes and both of these can be grown as perennials. There are green and golden versions of both, although the green ones are stronger plants.

Chives are a useful herb to add an onion flavour to dishes. They have lovely purple pom pom flowers too so are attractive to include in the garden. It is also possible to grow garlic chives, which have a garlic flavour and white flowers similar to wild garlic.

Bay can grow into quite a large bush so think carefully about where to put this before growing it. It can also be killed by very cold weather so it is good to grow it in a sheltered position near to a building or warm wall. It is useful to add to soups and casseroles to add flavour.

Dill and fennel are other herbs to grow at home. Fennel can grow very tall very quickly so, once again, think carefully about position before growing it.

Mint is a very tasty herb and very easy to grow. There are lots of different varieties of it, with subtle variations of flavour. However, it is very important to keep it confined to a pot and to not allow it to be planted directly in the ground as it is very invasive.

Parsley has two main varietys - curly leaves and flat leaved. They both grow readily but need to be replaced every two years as they are biennial.

Basil is a tender annual so needs to be grown fresh each year. There are lots of different variations including lemon and cinnamon flavoured ones and purple leaved ones. They grow readily from seed so are straight forward to grow. Basil does not dry well into dried herb and is best used fresh.

Coriander is an odd herb because it tastes differently depending on your genetic make-up. Some people taste it as a delicious herb with citrusy notes, whilst others taste it as soapy or like burning plastic. I wish I could appreciate coriander but unfortunately it completely ruins any dish it is added to as far as I'm concerned. If you wish to grow it, it is fairly straight forward and it is the best way to get a supply of fresh leaves for the kitchen.

Tarragon is another herb you can grow at home, although you need to make sure you grow French tarragon and not Russian as it has the superior flavour. It can be grown as a perrenial, although it can be killed by very cold weather. We grew some for years but it died off one cold winter.

Savory is another herb we have grown for years. It has a slightly unusual flavour but it pairs remarkably well with broad beans.

So, whatever your favourite herby flavours are in the kitchen, why not try growing them at home and enjoying fresh herbs throughout the summer and dried herbs in the winter.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting about coriander and different genetic makeups. I guess that's why some people loath it so much.

    I love herbs as there is so much variety and so many uses. Just discovered we have lemon balm growing under the hedge. I love the smell of that. Another rampant one though.