Herb Growing Simplified

Apart from their culinary value herbs are highly decorative plants and can be grown on any old patch of ground. Also, they can be grown in some formal, decorative ways, and various stately homes boast herb gardens of this type. However, you have to decide on your primary reason for growing herbs, and most people settle for their food value – and rightly so! No cook should be without his or her border of mint, parsley, sage and thyme, to name but a few, handy by the back door.

Herbs not only give a subtle flavour to your food, they are also bursting with health-giving ingredients. Parsley needs no description as it’s so well-known for flavouring and garnishing. Angelica enhances sweet sauces, and you can dry the leaves for a pot-pourris. Basil is a ‘must’ in all pizzas, cheese dishes, salads and sauces, and the cucumber-like taste of borage works wonders in salads and drinks of various kinds. Carraway seeds go into cakes and casseroles too. Chervil enriches eggs, fish and soup. Chives, delicious in egg and cheese dishes and salads, grow in clumps and must be divided every three or four years. Then there’s coriander, dill, fennel, marjoram, thyme – all worth investigating. Once you’ve cooked with herbs you’ll never want to be without them.

The herb plot should be sited in a sunny, sheltered place with some shade. Seeds are sown in spring in pans of seed compost in a frame or greenhouse and pricked out when large enough. Most annual herbs take about three months to mature. Planted out in May they should be ready for use in August. Parsley and chervil can be sown in situ.

Herbs for drying must be gathered when the flowers are in bud. Hang them upside down, in bunches, somewhere cool, and when they’re quite dry crumble them between your hands and store them in air-tight glass jars. Rosemary and sage, when dried, should be kept on their skins. Make sure of a good supply of parsley in the herb garden; it goes so well with dried herbs, apart from its many other uses.

Incidentally, some herbs, particularly soft-leaved types, can be stored in a deep freeze; chives, mint, parsley, sorrel, fennel and balm are all examples. The method is to wash them under running water, plunge them into boiling water for about half a minute to blanch them, cool them under running cold water, pack them into plastic bags, then seal and store them. They need to be very gently thawed out before use.

Herbs are also credited with healing powers. The Romans, in their colonisation of this country, introduced a number of them – chervil, chives, celandine, parsley, rue, onion, sage, thyme, fennel, borage and others – for medicinal purposes.

Since then, and perhaps not without, reason, herbs have been credited with curative powers. Certainly this is the reason for the presence of herb gardens in monasteries which were established in the Middle Ages. No doubt they were looked on as ‘garden medicine cupboards’ or first-aid posts! Calendula, for example, is said to be a sure remedy for varicose veins, ulcers and weak hearts! Then there’s peppermint for sound sleep, calm nerves and indigestion… yarrow for kidney disorders… cat nip for hiccoughs… the list is endless! The medicinal properties of herbs need to be carefully studied, however, before you turn yourself into a herbal home doctor, and it’s as well to have a word with your G.P. Before trying out the various remedies.

Incidentally, you can make herb tea from the leaves (fresh or dried) of angelica, borage, basil, balm, mint, sage and fennel. At the rate of one teaspoonful of leaves to the cup of boiling water, herb tea is really delicious. It also cleans the blood and settles the digestion!

How tall do herb plants grow? When should they be planted? What colour are their flowers? The following, dealing with the best known types, will answer these questions.

Basil grows to three feet with a spread of one foot. It is an annual plant with light green, aromatic leaves, green-grey beneath. White flowers appear in late summer. Plant in well-drained light soil in shelter. Propagate by seeds in May. Harvest leaves from July to September.

Bergamot grows up to three feet. It’s a perennial plant with dark, aromatic leaves. It bears red, pink, mauve and white flowers in summer. It likes rich, moist soil in a sunny spot. Cut leaves before flowers appear.

Chervil grows to one foot with a nine-inch spread. An annual with feathery leaves and white flowers from June onwards. It likes semi-shade.

Chives grow to a foot with an eight-inch spread. Perennial with grass-like foliage. Mauve flowers appear in July and should be removed before they flower fully. Pick leaves as required.

Dill grows to three feet and spreads two feet. An annual with fine, blue-green foliage it bears yellow flowers in summer. Likes a dry, sunny spot. Sow in March. Harvest leaves before seeds are ripe on the plant.

Mint grows to two feet. It is perennial with mauve flowers. Likes shade. Propagate by division in March. Harvest leaves any time.

Sage – height and spread four feet. Evergreen with blue flowers. Propagate by cuttings in May. Harvest leaves any time.

Thyme grows to ten inches. A creeping evergreen with mauve flowers, you can pick the shoots any time.

Rosemary grows to six feet. It’s an evergreen shrub. Propagate by cuttings in August. Harvest leaves any time.

Bay is an evergreen tree which grows to thirty feet with a spread of up to twenty feet. It grows in a pyramid shape and has aromatic leaves. It likes plenty of sun and shelter. Propagate by cuttings in August..

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