Growing Culinary herbs

Herbs are easy, undemanding plants, whether you grow them in a traditional herb garden or in pots on a kitchen windowsill.

Herbs are plants that have very highly flavoured leaves, stems, flowers or seeds. There are three main groups: culinary herbs such as basil, bay and parsley; medicinal herbs like feverfew; and aromatic herbs such as lavender, which are grown for their scent. The more decorative herbs are covered in the A-Z of Garden Plants. : Culinary herbs can be grown on I a wide range of soil types providing there is good drainage and fer-I tility. Most species are hard)- and ; all benefit from regular picking. A I great number of culinary herbs : can be seed raised, but pot-grown plants are widely available and : quicker to establish. : Culinary herbs should be sited close to the kitchen. If ground space is a problem, grow them in pots on a nearby path or patio. Small herbs such as parsley, thyme or chives thrive in pots or sunny window boxes.

Herbs will also grow among the other plants in herbaceous borders. Fennel, for instance, has extremely decorative foliage, while man)’ herbs, such as chives and borage, have attractive flowers.

Basil has pale green, spicy-flavoured leaves which are particularly delicious when served with tomatoes. It is a tender annual unable to withstand frost. The most commonly grown species are: sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), which reaches about 60-9()cm (2-3ft); and bush basil (O. minimum), which is less aromatic and grows 15-30cm (6-l2in) tall.

Cultivation

Basil needs a warm, sheltered site with well-drained, fertile soil. For early plants, sow seeds of sweet or bush basil in early spring under glass in seed compost. When the seedlings are large enough to handle, prick them out into trays of potting compost.

Harden oil the plants in late spring, then plant them out into their final site, setting them 30cm (12in) apart. Water well until the plants are established.

Alternatively, sow basil seeds outside in late spring in their growing position. Thin the seedlings to 30cm (12in) apart. Water well during dry weather and pinch out flowerbuds to encourage more leaf growth.

Basil is usually pest and disease free, but indoor plants may attract greenfly and white fly.

BORAGE

Borage (Borago officinalis) is an annual herb; its young leaves taste of cucumber when crushed or bruised and its bright blue, starlike flowers can be added to salads and summer drinks. It grows 45-90cm(18-36in) high.

Cultivation

Borage grows in almost any soil but it does best in well-drained ground in a sunny spot. Sow seeds in mid spring 30cm (12in) apart in groups of three. Remove the two weakest seedlings from each group, leaving the strongest to continue growing.

The seeds germinate readily and the seedlings grow rapidly; young leaves are ready for use about eight weeks after sowing.

Sweet bay or bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) is a shrub or small tree grown for its aromatic, evergreen leaves. Although native to the Mediterranean, it will normally survive outside in winter in all but very cold areas. It will even flourish in coastal areas if protected from cold north and east winds. If a severe winter kills it to ground level, it usually shoots up with renewed vigour in spring.

Bay reaches 6m (20ft) or more if left to itself, but it can be grown in year you should have all the plants you want. Transplant these seedlings before the leaves become rough and hairy or they may wilt and die or fail to grow properly.

Borage is generally disease free, but aphids can be a problem.

A tub or pot and pruned to siz.e. Bay trees can be ornamental as well as functional – clipped topiary specimens are often sold in garden centres. They are costly but ideal for growing in containers. A small untrained bush will grow happily in a mixed border.

Cultivation

Bay does well in most garden soils. Where grown in a container, choose a tub or pot that will hold plenty of compost to sustain the plant and keep it stable in windy conditions. Soil-based compost is particularly suitable, and always ensure that plants in containers are watered regularly.

Plant in early or mid spring and water well until the bush is established. Prune in summer to maintain size and shape. Pick leaves at any time of year.

To propagate, take cuttings in late summer or early autumn. Set them in pots of compost and keep over winter to the following summer in a light, protected position. Water sparingly so the cuttings don’t dry out. Plant the rooted cuttings in their final position in mid autumn.

Bay is generally disease free.

CARAWAY

Caraway (Carum carvi) is a hardy biennial or perennial grown mostly for its seeds – their strong, distinctive flavour is used in cakes, bread, soups, and meat and fish dishes. The young green leaves can be added to salads or soups and the fleshy root can be cooked and eaten like its relative, the carrot.

In its first year caraway produces feathery leaves and grows to about 20cm (Sin) high. In its second year it grows 60 -90cm (2-3ft) high and has a spread of about 23-30cm (9-12in).

White or pink flowers are produced in the late spring and early summer of the second year, followed by dark brown fruits containing two strongly ribbed seeds about 5mm (’/tin) long.

Cultivation

Caraway likes fertile, well-drained soil in a sunny position. You can grow it in window boxes or pots in a sunny position. Sow seeds in early to mid spring. Germination is quick; once the seedlings are large enough to handle, thin them to about 15cm (6in) apart.

The fruits begin to ripen in early to mid summer of the second year. Harvest before the fruits burst open – the plant seeds itself freely and self-sown seedlings could soon be all over the herb garden.

Gently cut the plants at ground level so that the fruits are not disturbed. Hang the plants upside down in bunches in a cool, dry -»^ place and spread newspaper underneath to catch the seeds. Store them in an airtight jar or container until needed.

Caraway is generally pest and disease free.

CHERVIL

Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) is an annual grown for its bright green, feathery leaves tasting of aniseed. The plant grows 30-45cm (12-1 (Sin) high and bears white flowers throughout the summer.

Cultivation

Chervil thrives in most well-drained soils in sun or partial shade. Make successional sowings in the open between early spring and late summer. Sow seeds 5mm (/tin) deep. Thin young plants to 30cm (12in) apart.

Remove flowering stems as soon as they appear, to encourage fresh growth of young tender leaves. Begin picking the leaves six to eight weeks after sowing.

CHIVES

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are hardy perennials grown for their leaves, which have a delicate onion flavour, and for their attractive flowers, which are also edible.

Cultivation

Chives grow in most good garden soils in sun or semi-shade. Buy young plants and set them 30cm (12in) apart, or sow seeds out-doors in early spring. Sow three or four together 5mm (’/iin) deep and 30cm (12in) apart. Thin out after germination. To harvest, cut the leaves close to the ground.

Chives seed freely when they aren’t deadheaded. For fresh chives in winter, plant a clump in a pot in early autumn and place on a sunny windowsill.

Chives are usually pest and disease free.

CORIANDER

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) is a hardy annual, grown mainly for its seeds, which taste hitter-sweet and are used in curries, pickles, cakes and cheeses. The fresh leaves can also be used in curries, casseroles and salads.

The plant grows 45-60cm (18-24in) high. It hears white or pale mauve flowers all summer.

Cultivation

Coriander grows in any well-drained soil enriched with well-rotted manure or compost. It needs a sunny position.

Sow seeds outdoors 5mm (’/iin) deep in mid spring. Once the seedlings are large enough to handle, thin them out to 10-15cm (4-6in) apart. Coriander is ready for harvesting when the brown seedheads have become pale in colour and smell pleasantly spicy (if they are not ripe, they smell disagreeable). Try to harvest the plants before rhe seeds become too ripe or some might drop off and be wasted.

Cut the plants down and leave them to dry on a tray, either out-doors in the sun or indoors. When they are dry, shake out the seeds or rub them off, and store them in an airtight container.

These seeds can also be used for propagation for anything up to the next five years.

It’s perfectly possible to grow coriander in a pot – either indoors or out – but the plants will then benefit from the support of a thin cane, since the seedheads tend to droop or become top-heavy for the stalks.

Coriander is not normally affected by pests and diseases.

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