Essential herbs

By Andy McIndoe

Fresh herbs are easy to grow and can be an attractive addition to your garden, either in pots or beds and borders.

Spring sees a great influx of pot grown herbs on sale in garden centres, DIY stores and a variety of other retail outlets. They also occupy a fair amount of space on seed racks and mail order sites.With increased interest in more adventurous cookery herbs are appealing to grow.

Even if many are readily available in the supermarket veg. section, herbs freshly picked from your garden have to be tastier and cleaner than those out of packets. However, before you rush out and fill your trolley with a great variety of culinary herbs there are a few consideration that will ensure success and greater enjoyment.

What to grow?

In the first place choose herbs you are likely to use and ones that you find attractive. There are a handful that you are bound to use if they are easily accessible, so, if starting out, they are the ones to choose.

Sage after winter

Many herbs are easily raised from seed, however, how many plants do you actually want? A single sage plant would produce enough leaves to satisfy even the most avid sage consumer. Likewise a pot of chives is plenty for most people, rather than a whole row on the vegetable patch.

Buying herb plants

Herb plants are sold in a variety of sizes. The smallest in 9cm (3ins) diameter pots are cheap to buy and a good bet if the plants are really fresh. 1 litre (10cm or 4ins diameter) pots have a longer shelf life and are generally the best size to go for. Larger herbs may seem appealing, but most of these plants grow quickly and the smaller ones soon catch up.

2 litres Rosemary

Rosemary is worth buying as a larger plant, also a named variety if available.There are many named cultivars which grow to different sizes and with very different habits. Rosmarinus ‘Tuscan Blue is a good bet; also ‘Roman Beauty’. Both are bushy plants which flower well and are not too tall.

Where to grow herbs

If you are growing herbs to use in the kitchen they have to be close at hand when you are going to use them. Grow them on the vegetable patch at the far end of the garden and you just will not bother; they are ideal in pots near the house, or as part of the planting around the patio.

Herb plants ready for potting

Different herbs require different growing conditions and also have very different growth habits. The woody herbs: sage, rosemary and thyme are Mediterranean natives. They like sunshine, good drainage and tolerate poor soil. This suppresses the amount of growth, but intensifies the oils which give them the flavour.

Parsley and chives on the other hand like fertile soil and hate drought. You need to encourage lush leaf growth for best results.

Chives in flower

Mint can be the most difficult to position. Ideally it likes good soil, but is quite happy in a neglected corner of the garden where it can run amok. If you want to keep it under control grow it in a pot on its own, it will soon smother other subjects.

Mint

Growing herbs in pots

Most herbs make good subjects for pots if you give them a good growing medium and remember to water them regularly, even the drought tolerant ones! The secret is to choose a large enough container which provides good soil depth. The containers sold as herb pots, usually made from terracotta with holes in the sides are useless. The plants look awkward in them, they are impossible to water and nearly always dry out causing failure of the plants.

Mixed herb planter

A mixed herb planter makes an attractive feature for a season, but usually the plants need to be separated when they get larger.

Rosemary, thyme, sage and oregano work well together. The oregano (or marjoram) needs cutting back regularly to maintain it as a neat cushion.

How long do herbs last?

Some herbs are long-live plants that last for years, others only for a season or two. The woody herbs: sage, rosemary and thyme are dwarf shrubs that live for years. However they eventually get woody and need replacing. Regular harvest and light pruning after winter encourages new growth which helps to keep plants in good condition.It also produces young shoots which are nicer to use.

Sage can look very sad after harsh winter weather and thyme may lost its leaves, however, be patient. It usually recovers and soon produces new growth; that is the time to tidy the plants by removing dead shoots and giving a light trim.

Parsley is a biennial. So in the second season it produces flowers and seeds and the plant declines.If you use a lot, grow it from fresh seed. If just a little, buy a couple of plants.Flat-leaved or French parsley tastes better, curly parsley is more attractive as a garnish. Parsley seed must be fresh to germinate. It is also important to maintain moisture during germination.

Curled and Flat Leaved Parsley

Sweet Basil is one of the most popular and useful herbs, however it is not hardy and needs warm conditions to thrive. Most of us will have more success on the kitchen windowsill or in a conservatory, only moving the plants outside in mid-summer.

Can I grow supermarket herbs in the garden?

Pots of growing herbs are sold in most supermarkets. The growth is soft and the plants are crowded. They are grown in this way to give a quick crop of leaves for use in the kitchen, not for the success of the plants. You may well have success keeping pots of parsley, chives and some others going in the garden, particularly if you carefully separate the plants to thin them and replant in fresh compost.

However this is a bonus and not the best way to start new plants. It is always best to buy healthy fresh plants from a garden centre or nursery.

If you want to learn how to grow a variety of herbs, and find out new ways to incorporate new flavours into your diet, book a place on Dr. Rachel Petheram's online course The Herb Garden.

Andy McIndoe

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