Anyone can grow herbs and you don’t even need a garden so next time you open a dingy jar of dried herbs from your kitchen cupboard imagine how much tastier your meals will be if they are laced with the freshness and vitality of home gown herbs. And you don’t end need to have a garden to grow herbs, the only essentials are sunshine, the odd shower and some soil!
Herbs are perfect for pots and given at least 8 hours of sunshine each day they’ll give you the strongest fragrance and flavour
The main advantage of growing herbs in pots, window boxes and hanging baskets is that you can move them around the garden. Aim to keep a few near the back door and also by the barbecue so they’re within easy picking reach.
Surround sitting areas with wall to wall herbs too, so you can enjoy their mood-enhancing sweet and earthy aromas at close quarters. Vertical hanging wall planters will double the growing area of your patio or balcony and a perfect for making an herb feature in the smallest of gardens
If you’re a foodie and have got the space, dedicate a patch of earth to herbs. Most herbs prefer growing on dry land, so if your soil is heavy and easily gets waterlogged plant them in raised beds filled with gritty well draining soil or in containers.
For easy harvesting, it makes sense to grow your culinary favourites in formal beds. These are traditionally a geometric shape with partitions made with brick or gravel paths running in-between and edges reinforced with neatly clipping box, lavender and dwarf santolina hedging or low willow hurdles
The best herb bed designs can be a grid of squares or a more complicated “knot” layout with large and small compartments for the different herb types. In a small garden, a simple cartwheel or sunrise design is perfect and can be used as a focal feature in a lawn, patio or potager.
Queen of Herbs, Jekka McVicar, author, broadcaster and organic gardening expert, created this unique Modern Apothecary Show garden for St John’s Hospice at the 2016 RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Jekka used plants selected for their medical uses, which were then recycled to a hospital or care home in the UK. Her inspiration came from conversations about what we can do to improve our own health within the context of gardens and plants, as well as the healing power of plants and the quote by Hippocrates, ‘Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.’
Growing herbs will give your garden an array of wonderful aromas, so scatter decorative varieties liberally through your flowerbeds too. By growing herbs, you’ll discover that they are a magnet for beneficial insects like hoverflies and ladybirds as well as butterflies and bees, which means that it’s a good idea to plant them around fruit and vegetable plants to improve their flavour and cropping potential. Herbs also have the power to keep neighbouring plants pest-free.
What to grow
When designing a herb bed, your aim should be to provide a ready supply of kitchen staples such as rosemary, bay and thyme that are used in most recipes to flavour the simmering liquid of a meaty stew.
Grow herbs that are in the list of ingredients for your favourite recipes
In summer, basil, which is useful for salads and pizzas, surprisingly comes with different flavours such as Cinnamon, which has an aniseed flavour and Mrs Burns’ Lemon that has a fresh citrus tang that go well with chicken dishes. The basil variety Sweet Genovese has the classic basil taste, so is a must-have for Italian recipes. Add to your list parsley, both curly and flat-leaved varieties, as well as lemon thyme and dill if you have a penchant for fish.
Rosemary whilst mostly used for cooking lamb, roast chicken and game plus potatoes, has a camphor or woody, balsam and minty scent, which has brain-boosting effects with the power to de-stress, so plant it close to your garden gate ready to crush a few sprigs before going to work for an important meeting! It makes a tall evergreen shrub, which can be clipped and shaped as topiary, so is ideal for pots on a sunny patio. It is also drought tolerant although if allowed to become root bound, the needle-leaves will turn yellow and drop off.
On a south-facing patio where other plants might shrivel, drought-busting Mediterranean herbs like the oregano, thyme and chamomile, eau de cologne mint and sage, which will thrive and supply plenty of leaves and flowers for making soups, stews and teas and salads.
Lavender is another must-have Mediterranean herb for a hot spot. It can be used to flavour deserts and vinegars and the smoky sweet aroma will aid relaxation, which makes it a great plant to use around sitting areas. During difficult times, consider placing a potted plant in your bedroom to aid a calmer nights sleep!
A bouquet garni is used to flavour French-inspired soups, sauces and stews or made into a marinade
Adventurous cooks will always want plenty of thyme, savory, rosemary and an aniseed-scented herb such as fennel or tarragon so that sprigs can be tied in a bundle to make a bouquet garni.
Foreign cuisines always rely on herbs to give them their distinctive flavours and ones that are typically used in recipes grow native or are cultivated in that country. For example, basil is synonymous with Italian food along with the classic Mediterranean herbs such as thyme and oregano, while coriander is widely used in Indian and South-east Asian dishes where it is added last minute to bring out the flavour of the food, so when planning your plot consult your family recipe books for ideas.
HOW TO PROPAGATE HERBS
Small plants will set you back £2 or more from garden centres so it’s worth considering raising your own from seeds and especially the annual types such as basil and coriander that need replacing every year with new stock
Seed packets will give growing instructions although typically they are started off in spring in pots on a warm windowsill indoors and when the seedlings are large enough to handle, are thinned and transferred to larger containers ready to be put outside when the threat of frost has passed. You’ll get plenty of plants from one packet of seeds so it’s worth sowing a few seed every 3-4 weeks to have replacement plants. Rocket, coriander, parsley and chives grow particularly well from seed.
If your friends have vigorous plants of perennial varieties such as rosemary, bay, sage and thyme growing in their gardens you might like to ask if you can have a few cuttings or do a plant swap.
Cuttings should be taken in the spring before stems become too woody. Simply snip off the growing tips, 7-10cm long from the side shoots of a healthy plant. Then trim the cuttings neatly below a leaf joint and remove all but three or four leaves before planting in good quality organic compost. Cover the pots with clear polythene bags and grow them on a warm, windowsill indoors and the cuttings should grow well. Once rooted, the bags should be removed and the young plants potted on. A few weeks later, wean the tender plants to withstand cooler temperatures before planting them outdoors at the end of May.
Grow basil alongside tomatoes and it will improve their flavour and protect them from the ravages of pests
Basil, which comes in five flavours and aromas including cinnamon, lemon, lime, licorice and a mixture of mint and cloves is especially useful as it is a prime flavour-enhancer.
Never plant invasive herbs such as mint and lemon balm in a container with other herbs. They will swamp the other plants and take over. It’s better to grow them in separate pots instead.
Thyme makes low-growing bushy plants that not only can be used as a pretty dwarf edge around flowerbeds but the creeping varieties can be squeezed between paving slabs to make scented paths or used to trail over the rim of containers.
Pick perennial herbs like sage, which comes in decorative golden, purple and variegated forms as well as plain green, regularly or the stems may become woody
The taste of herbs varies slightly depending sunshine – the sun draws out pungent aromas and strong flavours of most varieties. Wherever they are growing though, you will need to harvest plants early to catch leaves at their sweetest or seedlings at their most flavoursome.
When drying lavender, bundle stems together so that flower heads are lined up. Use two rubber bands per bunch, placing one just beneath the flower heads and one at the base of stems. Hang bundles upside down to dry in a dark, warm spot
At the end of the summer make sure you preserve herbs for winter use by air drying them. Tie them in loose bunches and hang them upside down from a rack or piece of twine strung across the room. Do not mix the herbs in each bunch or sit them too closely along the rack otherwise they’ll develop off-flavours. Store the dried leaves in individual airtight jars in a dark place.
You can use herbs to keep pets happy and healthy. Simply rub your pet’s coat with crushed tansy leaves to deter of fleas or get rid of them by bathing your dog in a strong rosemary infusion.
Jekka McVicar created an ‘Herbetum’ with her collection of over 300 herbs in the grounds of Jekka’s Herb Farm in 2013, with the aim to inspire visitors and to ensure that the history, culinary and medicinal usage of herbs is not lost for future generations. She holds open days from April through to September when you’ll be able to enjoy a unique interactive experience, whatever your age and buy plants from the traditional to the rare varieties of herbs.
For details of Jekka’s open days and the plants she sells, visit jekkasherfarm.com