How to Grow Herbs Herbs
How to Grow Herbs
“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows…”
Oberon, King of the Fairies, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream/William Shakespeare
by Barney Bardsley
There are so many layers of loveliness to a summer garden. From the soft shady greens of the trees in leaf – cherry, apple, rowan, plum – to the multi-coloured pyrotechnics of the flower borders. Everywhere is abundance and growth. But there is one – far less showy – member of the garden family that I simply could not be without, at any time of year. If the trees were to drop and the flowers wither, I could survive, if I only had these: rosemary, lavender, sage and mint. Herbs: the quiet sensualists of the plant world.
Everyone should grow at least one little pot of something herby on their window ledge – rooted plants will far outlast, and out-taste, the sad little plastic packages of leaves sold (at extortionate prices) by supermarket chains. There is something deeply reassuring, verdant and protective about herbs, whether perched by the kitchen window, clustered in pots at the back door, or romping around a sunny border; their stems are both aromatic and velvet to the touch. Their delicate design – of leaf and flower – matches a workaday usefulness for both cook and hungry consumer. They look good – AND YOU CAN EAT THEM TOO!
The herb family is vast and varies enormously. They come from all corners of the globe, and have growing habits which differ according to their origin. But if you learn what they need – just a few simple rules – then they will re-pay you loyally. It really is worth the bother, believe me.
“An appetite for territory”
Let’s start with the tough guys – rosemary, lavender, mint and thyme. All are perennials, so they come back, year after year, and just need cutting back a bit after flowering. You can pick up starter pots very cheaply from garden centres, then put them in a nice container, or in a corner of the border, and off you go. They like space to spread, fresh air and sunshine, so give them free rein – except for the invasive mint, which has a dictator’s appetite for territory, and a thirsty habit, so it needs a bed of its own, or sink a pot into the ground to contain the roots. And water well. Rosemary and lavender on the other hand, thrive in dry and poor soils.
Rosemary in particular is a grand old Mediterranean geezer. The crack and gnarl of its branches jutting out from stony Greek hillsides, never happier than when it’s baking in the sun. Strangely, it will survive in cold, rainy Yorkshire, but not in waterlogged soil. So add lots of grit to its roots. Treat it mean, it loves a challenge!
Thyme likes to creep and crawl along the ground, its tiny leaves releasing intense, gorgeous lemon and apple aromas, with a show of lilac and white flowers in the summer, which the bees adore, but it gets woody very quickly, so keep trimming it back and shaping its wayward branches. Sage, another Mediterranean perennial, thrives in pot or border. You can buy little starter plants in purple and variegated green – but the strongest and most musky is the common sage, Salvia officinalis, its pointy grey foliage pleasingly rough and hairy to the touch, its willingness to grow marred only by its tendency to turn suddenly to dust if you forget to keep it watered.
But herbs do not just come in shrubs and mounds. They can be tall and willowy too. Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare (don’t confuse it with the Florence fennel bulb – a completely different animal) is a particularly lovely plant. It comes in bronze or green, whooshes up to a height of three feet in summer and then dies back in winter. Only to push out new, lacy-head growth the following spring.
Its foliage tastes of aniseed, and the seeds from its starburst flowers can be dried and used in aromatic dishes, or even for a fennel tea. Similar in looks, but best kept apart (or the two plants mutate and hybridise), is the pea-green dill, Anethum graveleons. Fish lovers will know this one, as a key ingredient of the delicate salmon dish gravlax. Like fennel, dill is easy enough to grow, but is an annual, so will need replacing year on year.
Every herb is a winner to me – each with their own character, distinct beauty, quirks and foibles. But there are two that are particular favourites. They are the ones I use most consistently in my cooking, and, perversely, they are the ones I have the most difficulty growing. These are the prima donnas of the herb garden: basil and parsley. Don’t even think about using these as dried herbs – they will taste like funeral ashes.
The succulence of the fresh growing leaves of basil, their wrinkled little faces like new-born babies as they unfurl from the stem – and the jaunty, dew-fresh vigour of parsley, picked straight from the plant and chopped and used immediately – is unsurpassed. Each can be grown from seed, and basil is particularly enchanting to watch growing, but they are slow to germinate and they do need to be kept warm – even watering with warm water from below, to keep the leaves dry. Fussy little blighters. They will do well, too, if bought as small plants from a nursery – but it’s best to keep them indoors on a sunny window sill unless your garden is very sheltered.
Basil is held in great reverence in India, its country of birth, where it is seen as a holy and protective plant. I can see why. Once I bought a small pot of ready-to-use basil in a supermarket, and the tiny, exquisite Indian lady who served me buried her nose in the plant and wrinkled it in disappointment. She explained that elegant tubs of basil were placed around the houses and in temples back in India, on high days and holy days, and that the pungent, sweet, seductive smell released from the leaves was quite intoxicating. She pointed at the pot I had just bought. “I can’t smell anything”, she said. I vowed on the spot to grow my own in future. And I do. I urge you to do the same. In fact, grow any herb you can, in any space you have. You will never regret it.
“A Handful of Earth” by Barney Bardsley is published by John Murray