Whether you garden ten acres in the country, or make do with a window box in the city centre, herbs ought to be at the top of your plant wish list. Not only are they useful in the kitchen, but they are often amongst the most decorative plants in the garden.
A herb garden should be designed with as much thought as any other part of your garden. The foliage and flowers of herbs are beautiful and varied, and will provide lots of interest and colour right through the year. Even their seed heads are attractive and look fabulous in the frosts.
If you have the space to plant a separate herb garden, arrange the herbs in regular shaped beds, edged in box with brick paths between. As the herbs grow, they will spill over the box, so that as you pass by your body will brush them and release the fabulous aromas.
Herbs are also extremely easy to grow. There are annual herbs, like coriander, that need to be grown each year from seed. But the vast majority are perennials, which will come up year after year, without much interference from you, and supply you with years of culinary pleasure.
The Must-Have Herbs
We all have our favourite herbs. In days gone by chives, parsley and mint were essential. Freshly chopped onto new potatoes, or mixed with white sauce and poured over young carrots, these three were to be found in any kitchen garden.
Chives are particularly easy to grow, because they come up year after year. Keep chopping them to prevent them setting seed, and you’ll extend their useful season.
Parsley needs to be sown from seed each year. If you have the space, a row of parsley is a marvellous luxury as it’s delicious by the handful in soups and stews.
Mint is the official accompaniment to roast lamb but is wonderful freshly chopped onto vegetables. It’s best grown in a container though, as its roots spread terribly, and it will soon take over a flower-bed if left unchecked.
Encouraged by gurus like Elizabeth David to experiment a little, the list of essential herbs has now grown. Mediterranean herbs like oregano (also known as marjoram), thyme, sage and rosemary are all now common-place, but no less delicious for that.
Thyme is small and low growing and can easily be planted between pavers or bricks in a terrace. As you walk across the hard surface, your feet crush the leaves of the plant, releasing the delicious scent. Oregano can be grown in the bed or the pot. Just cut it back each autumn and you’ll be rewarded with wonderful fresh leaves in the spring.
Sage belongs to the family of salvias, most of which are grown for their beautiful flowers. Sage also has lovely violet blue flowers, and comes in several varieties of leaf colour too – gold, grey green and purple. Purple sage in particular is a beautiful plant and looks fabulous growing with the grey-leaved Nepeta (Cat mint).
Rosemary is quite easy to grow, although it likes to be in a sheltered spot in the garden. There’s an old saying that, if the rosemary bush grows well in a garden, the woman of the household wears the trousers – so perhaps the site has nothing to do with it!
Tarragon, fennel and dill are three herbs that no keen cook should be without. Dried varieties have nothing on the fresh tastes of these culinary essentials.
Fresh tarragon chopped into a chicken casserole, or roasted with a chicken is divine.
Fennel is a hardy perennial that grows to 1.5m (5ft) or more and has the most beautiful blue-green fine ferny leaves. It produces a beautiful yellow flower that changes in the autumn to produce a highly aromatic seedhead. You can use the fine leaves in fish and cheese dishes, or shred the thick stalks raw into salads. The seeds, which taste strongly of aniseed, can flavour soups or bread.
Dill is a beautiful feathery leaved annual, which is also marvellous with fish. If left to its own devices it will self-seed.
Don’t forget annuals like basil and coriander. Keep pots of basil near the kitchen door and use handfuls of it to make pasta sauces. Coriander is so versatile – curries, soups and Mediterranean dishes are all improved with the leaves of this lovely annual. Collect the seeds in the autumn, dry them and use them crushed in stews and casseroles.
Bay trees look best in pots, either as standards or shaped into elegant cones. Place them in a sheltered, sunny or partially shady site and protect the stem from frost in winter. Clip the leaves for flavouring savoury stocks and sauces – use either fresh or dried.