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Culinary herbs

Herbs – always flavour of the month


Most herbs come from a Mediterranean environment, so to grow them successfully, replicate those conditions.

High temperatures aren’t really needed. Good drainage, gritty, poor soil and full sun is the key. You don’t need acres of space – a kitchen windowsill is ideal for starters.

TARRAGON: Buy French tarragon plants, not Russian. The long leaves have an almost aniseed, but individual flavour, notably used in French cookery. It’s best in egg, chicken, salmon and trout dishes. Tarragon-flavoured vinegar is lovely in mayonnaise or Hollandaise sauce.

BAY: Leaves are used to flavour slow-cooked recipes, added to marinades, threaded on to kebab skewers, or thrown on the barbecue. A bay bush or standard tree is best grown in a pot and overwintered under glass in Northern England.

CORIANDER: An Eastern Mediterranean staple, with a warm, pungent aroma. The leaves impart a distinctive flavour to soups, stews, sauces and sparingly in salads and yoghurt dishes. A half-hardy annual, Calypso is a cut-and-come-again variety which is British bred.

MARJORAM/OREGANO: Goes well with red meats, game and tomato dishes. Oregano is the stronger wild form of marjoram. I grow the golden variety, as it’s pretty and makes a great border edging – bees love it.

ROSEMARY: This woody shrub is used with lamb, chicken, and garlic. Mine is planted with extra grit added to help drainage.

SAGE: Its strong flavour is synonymous with stuffing, or cutting through rich meat. There are many variegated varieties. They need plenty of grit added to soil – or grow it in a pot.

THYME: Adds a warm, earthy flavour to slow-cooked meat and poultry, patés, marinades and vegetable dishes. There are hundreds of varieties (lemon, orange, etc).

FENNEL: Toasted seeds are served with seafood. The sweet, mild liquorice taste is used with meat, vegetables, soups, tomato sauces, cakes, bread, salads, and dressings. The bronze variety seeds itself around my garden. It has beautiful lime-green flower heads.

Temperate herbs

There are other herbs which do appreciate a slightly richer lifestyle and will tolerate some shade.

PARSLEY: Go for the flat-leaf variety. it’s used with garlic and lemon zest to make gremolata. It is a Tuscan staple in an odori (parsley, onion, carrot, celery and garlic, sauteed in extra-virgin olive oil), and tabbouleh, the Lebanese parsley salad.

MINT: Used widely in Greece, Turkey and the Middle East with yoghurt dishes. Never plant mint directly into a border, it’s invasive. Apple and Moroccan varieties are particularly good.

DILL: Leaves have a mild aniseed taste, popular in Greece, Turkey, and Scandinavia. It is chopped into fish and chicken dishes, as well as stuffings and rice. Flavouring for pickled gherkins and cucumbers.

BASIL:  The sweet tender leaves have an affinity with tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, courgettes and cheese. Tear the leaves, don’t cut them, for maximum flavour. Buy British-bred varieties for weather resistance.

LEMON BALM: The variegated variety is lovely in borders and imparts a lovely tang to summer drinks. Easy to grow.

CHERVIL: A bit like mild parsley and needs to be used generously. Widely used in French cooking, it works well in herb butter and with eggs and cheese.

CHIVES: Produces beautiful purplish flowers. Its flavour resembles mild onions. Use as an onion substitute. Look out for the stronger garlic or Chinese chives.

Herbs from seed

Chives in full flower – they are edible too

Growing herbs from seed is easy. Start some off in March – mint, garlic chives, dill and coriander are good – in seed trays in an unheated greenhouse or windowsill.

Prick them out and pot on before moving into final positions, fully hardened off outside after the last frost.

Dill (and fennel) make a lovely ‘full stop’ in the border, with feathery foliage and lime-green flat flower heads.

Flat-leaved Italian parsley needs to be sown direct into a prepared seedbed in April. It needs some shade in summer, so bear this in mind. Cover with netting until the plants are a decent size to protect against cats.

Drive thyme herbs

Golden thyme
Golden thyme

A gravel drive means you can break up the surface with tough little customers like thyme, which craves the sun, sharp drainage and bees love them.

Plants don’t mind being stood on, or even run over by the car once in a while.

I have four varieties – EB Anderson and Doone Valley (both golden/green lemon-scented foliage, pink/mauve flowers); Silver Posie (silvery variegation, pink flowers); Golden Queen (green/yellow leaves, strong lemon scent, lavender flowers).