By Hans Wieland
What amazing variety of plant can be easily grown by children, beginner gardeners, people with no garden at all, food lovers, chefs and commercial producers, providing year round produce for culinary, medicinal and cosmetic use and making every patch of garden look great? The answer is: Herbs!
Creating your own herb garden is an adventure and a wonderful pleasure. You can decide whether you want it formal or informal, totally culinary or medicinal.
As herbs are basically ‘wild plants’, it makes sense to grow them in conditions comparable to their natural habitat. In general, herbs like a neutral to alkaline soil. Most culinary herbs originate from the Mediterranean, like a dry, sunny home, and prefer free-draining soil – with the exception of mint, which likes damp ground and grows well in semi-shade.
How to grow?
Herbs can be grown from seed indoors in a seed tray using a good seed compost. You can also sow outdoors once the soil has warmed up in late Spring. Buying herb transplants is an easier but more expensive start, or you can now try softwood cuttings to propagate Rosemary, Sage and Thyme. Cut a shoot from a non-flowering tip of the plant, remove the leaves from the bottom third of the cutting, make a hole in the compost, insert the cutting up to the leaves, water and cover with a clear plastic bag.
Herbs to start with
Basic is good! My suggestions for a basic culinary herb garden is: Coriander, Chives, Parsley, Mint, Thyme, Rosemary, Sage, Oregano and Marjoram. Basil under cover or in a polytunnel.
Coriander: An annual herb which is easily grown from seed. It gives a kick to any salad and has many culinary uses. It goes to seed quickly but then you can harvest the seeds in Autumn and use them freshly ground in curries, etc.
Chives: Can be grown from seed but it is easier to divide clumps of already established plants. Has a mild onion flavour. Use sprinkled on soups, salads and in egg dishes, or blend with sour cream as a topping for baked potatoes. It is always good to have a few chives, so you could let one plant produce flowers, which are excellent in salads.
Parsley: A must in the garden, and not just for using as a garnish. It comes in two forms: the dark-green, plain leaved parsley and the paler, milder, curled parsley. It is high in Iron and Vitamin C.
Mint: Various varieties are available. The one found growing in most gardens is spearmint, which is often used on roast lamb. Peppermint is stronger and makes a good tea. Note: Mint can be very invasive and should be grown in a pot to avoid taking over the herb garden.
Thyme: Garden thyme is the best known of the thymes. Its fragrant leaves are essential in Bouquet Garni. Lemon thyme is another lovely thyme which attracts bees and is good in fish and mushroom recipes.
Rosemary: A hardy perennial shrub which needs a well-drained soil and sheltered position. As it is evergreen, you can pick sprigs all year round. Try it with meat dishes, particularly lamb, and to flavour roast potatoes.
Sage: A perennial evergreen shrub which has a strong distinct flavour. The beautiful mauve flowers are very attractive in the herb garden. Used in many pork and Italian dishes.
Oregano & Marjoram: Perennial bushy plants that attract bees in the garden. Oregano is more aromatic and stronger than Marjoram and is traditionally used in pizzas and pasta.
Basil: The most common is Sweet Basil. Basil needs heat and protection. Can be used in your Pesto recipes or eaten fresh with home-grown tomatoes and homemade cheese!
“Cornucopia at home – The Cookbook” sums it up: Fresh herbs are the most wonderful visual, olfactory and gustatory addition to savoury cooking, both hot and cold…they are working their natural magic for you as you enjoy their tasty tones.” (I couldn’t have said it better myself.)
The Organic Centre offers several courses on growing and cooking herbs, their medicinal uses, identification of wild herbs and their uses. For further details, contact The Organic Centre on 0719854338 or firstname.lastname@example.org or www.theorganiccentre.ie