Five Culinary Herbs Every Gardener Should Grow
Culinary herbs have been grown since early times. Their fragrant foliage was often used originally for medicinal purposes before becoming a food enhancement. Those herbs with the specific name ‘officinalis’ almost certainly had a place in the monastery garden.
The room on a Monastery where medicines and other essentials were stored was known as the officina. Examples include Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary and Salvia officinalis, sage.
Those which had powerful and pleasant flavour and aroma gradually found their way into the kitchen, often to disguise the taste of meat that has passed its sell by date.
The fragrant foliage of herbs was included in sweet smelling nosegays, carried by the well-to-do to detract from plumbing and personal hygiene inadequacies.
Today the influence of Mediterranean cuisine, healthy eating and the celebrity chef has put herbs firmly on the weekly shopping list. Bought from the supermarket fresh herbs are often the most expensive ingredients in the recipe: every reason to grow your own.
Fresh herbs straight from the garden will surpass anything you can buy and you can have them to hand whenever you need them.
Most herbs like a sunny position and poor well-drained soil. Woody herbs such as rosemary, sage and thyme have more aroma and flavour when starved.
Nearly all herbs grow well in pots; they are ideal for the patio and doorstep, they must be convenient to harvest when you are at your most creative in the kitchen.
How to start with herbs
Many herbs such as purple sage, rosemary and lemon thyme are delightful garden ornamentals, so you can incorporate them in sunny beds and borders or in pots on the patio.
These are all woody herbs and they take a long time from seed, also a little goes a long way. Buy one or two plants, that’s all you will need.
Many softer herbs are easily grown from seed: an economical way of producing plenty of those herbs that you will use in quantity, for example parsley, chives and basil. Grow in pots or in the open ground. You don’t need a dedicated “herb garden”.
In my experience herb gardens are usually full of plants that you grow but never use; personally I would rather have sufficient essential herbs to hand throughout the summer.
The five culinary herbs every gardener should grow
Notoriously difficult to germinate: folklore suggests sowing seven times for the devil and once for yourself. Parsley needs a sunny position and adequate moisture in the soil to germinate.
Sow thinly in a large, deep pot if you have trouble growing it in the open ground; cover the seeds with vermiculite and keep moist. Old gardeners poured boiling water along the drill immediately prior to sowing to increase moisture and warm the soil, try it; it works.
Flat-leaved parsley is the best to grow for its texture and flavour. Try it coarsely chopped in salads. Use the chopped stems in stir-fries, risottos, salsas and pasta dishes.
The mild onion flavour of chives adds magic to summer dips and salads and transforms butter-glazed new potatoes. Chives are easy to grow and at their best when young and tender.
Growing from seed produces a plentiful supply of foliage without the tough flower stems of mature plants. Grow in pots on a sunny patio or on your kitchen windowsill. Sow new crops at three week intervals if possible.
Cover the seeds lightly with compost or vermiculite. At the end of the season transplant a few plants to the flower border and leave them to bloom next summer: the bruised purple blooms are delightful with silver foliage and every bit as good as any ornamental allium.
Sweet Basil is the most aromatically wonderful herb and an essential in any Mediterranean dish containing tomatoes. It is not hardy so cannot be grown outside before danger of frosts has passed. It needs warmth to grow well.
The black seeds are easy to handle. Sow seven seeds well spaced in a 12 cm (minimum) terracotta pot. Grow them in the greenhouse, a conservatory or on the kitchen windowsill until early summer.
They can then go outside in a sunny sheltered position until late summer. Keep picking and remove the flowers, use these for cooking as well. Continue to sow pots periodically throughout the summer and bring any that are still going strong indoors in early autumn. Fresh Basil costs a packet; a packet of seeds costs very little.
If you like coriander you will know that you need a lot of it and it can be difficult to get hold of. Fine-leaved coriander is trickier to grow for foliage and tends to run to seed quickly.
Broad-leaved coriander is easier and produces lots of foliage, however successional sowing is essential for continuity of supply. Grow as parley, the seeds are larger and round and easier to space out: thin sowing is essential for good plants. Water thoroughly.
Coriander likes a fertile soil so is a good choice for a sunny spot on the vegetable garden. The green seeds can be used from plants that bolt: try them in ratatouille. Even if the crop is small it is useful: chopped leaves are a delicious alternative to parsley on new potatoes.
You can grow mint from seed, but you are better off buying a plant or scrounging a root off someone with loads of it. It does run and spread so contain it in a pot or plunge a big pot into the ground and grow it in that. Cover it early in the season to bring shoots on.
Also it is worth growing a pot on a sunny windowsill indoors. The variety every garden should grow is ordinary spearmint, Mentha spicata. This is the classic sweet, aromatic mint that makes a wonderful infusion, is superb with peas (especially in soup) and is a must with Pimms and strawberries.
Try it in courgette fritters too and any lamb marinade.