Indispensable herbs

Sunday, 09 September 2012

Rosemary used as a hedge in the garden at Casa San Gabriel, Umbria, Italy

Some of the first plants I ever grew were herbs, and one of the first gardening books I bought was called Herbs for Australian Gardens and Kitchens. As an astute gardener recently pointed out, growing herbs is how young people get hooked on gardening, as these plants have a tangible function and are easy to grow. I remember how pleased I was a few years ago when my niece began growing some herbs on the balcony of her apartment, and recalled how excited I was when I first planted a parsley seedling and it actually grew into something I could use in cooking. At our local farmers' market this weekend, on a perfect spring day, hordes of people swarmed around the stall that sells all manner of herbs, filling their baskets with lush-looking punnets of baby basil, parsley, chives, coriander and many other types.

Ocimum Valentino

Herbs synthesise two of my favourite hobbies: cooking and gardening. It is delightful to be able to wander outside a pluck a few herbs for cooking instead of relying on those bunches from the greengrocer, which tend to lurk around in my fridge until they turn black and slimy. And it really is amazing what a difference fresh herbs can make to a home-cooked meal, lifting it from ho-hum to yum. In some cases, the herb can be the vital ingredient, as in pesto genovese, where basil has the starring role. Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is one of my indispensable herbs, and I look forward every year to the time when it is right to plant seeds of this annual plant (around now). There are various different sorts, and I have grown a number of them, but a current favourite is an Italian large-leaved variety, the seeds of which I bought in North Queensland a few years ago, called 'Valentino'. I also like to grow coriander (Coriandrum sativum), as its leaves and roots can be used in Thai, Moroccan, Mexican and other dishes. Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) is another interesting herb, with ferny leaves and a slightly aniseed taste.

Coriander

I recently heard an informative talk on herbs from Sonja Cameron, a wholesale plant grower who runs Cameron's Nursery at Arcadia, NSW, who made the point that the annual herbs, such as basil, coriander, chervil and so on, have fairly shallow roots, so it is important to keep these plants well watered and mulched. Sonja recommended the use of Saturaid in potted herbs to retain moisture as well as a layer of cane mulch on the top of the soil. Frequent fertilising helps to keep the plants growing well. Regular harvesting of the plants also encourages more growth and helps keep the plant compact. If flower stems start to develop, nip these out, otherwise the plant will quickly go to seed. Coriander seems to be notorious for doing this, especially as the weather warms up. I had good success growing it through winter this year and we had a great crop.

Chives

Although these annual herbs need to be planted each year, others will last a few years before becoming exhausted. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum), for example, will grow for several years, though they die down in winter. Their mild onion flavour is excellent with many foods, including potatoes, eggs and seafood, and the finely chopped leaves make a good garnish when strewn over the top of a dish. Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) also lasts a few years and is one of those vital herbs for taste and as a garnish. Both of these plants enjoy a rich, moist soil and regular fertilising.

Sage

Other herbs, in contrast, prefer a dry, very well-drained position in the garden. Sonja pointed out that these are Mediterranean plants and will not thrive if grown in part shade or heavy soil. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), thyme (Thymus species), sage (Salvia officinalis) and oregano (Origanum vulgare) are some examples of this type of herb. Generally, they will grow for quite a few years in the garden, though I (and I think many other Sydney gardeners) struggle with sage - it seems to drop dead all of a sudden in our humid summers. For this herb, Sonja recommended growing it in a terracotta pot in a hot position. I am going to try this tip as I love sage - crispy-fried sage leaves are one of my favourite toppings for a pumpkin risotto!

Bay tree growing in a pot

The bay tree (Laurus nobilis) is also a Mediterranean 'herb', though it can grow into a tree up to 12 m tall! I have confined mine to a pot and trained it as a standard, as it responds well to pruning. It is often used in Italian cookery and is an essential ingredient of a bouquet garni (along with parsley and thyme), used to flavour various stews. Another tree-like herb is the curry-leaf tree (Murraya koenigii, originating in India), vital for Indian and Sri Lankan cookery - it is also best confined to a pot.

In fact, most herbs can be grown in a pot, which makes them appealing for people gardening on balconies or in courtyards. Mint (Mentha species) should probably always be grown in a pot as it tends to go berserk if grown in the ground, with questing roots that spread far and wide. I have never had much luck with mint, but I am trying a new one, called Mentha 'Julep'. Mint is one of the few plants that will grow quite well in shade. It really enjoys moisture.

Whilst nurseries and markets will be full of herb seedlings at this time of year, it is fun to grow annual herbs from seed. There are some interesting products around to help, such as Mr Fothergill's pre-sown seed mats, and I am going to try these for parsley this season. They also have cute mini-greenhouses complete with peat pellets to make seed germination easy and reduce transplant shock when the seedlings are planted out.

Growing a few herbs this summer might change your life - as it did for me!

Reader Comments

  • By Catherine 2071 Monday, 10 September 2012

    You"re quite right! My daughter has never shown the slightest interest in gardening, but after buying her first home (a terrace house with courtyard) earlier this year, suddenly she"s growing herbs. And getting pretty excited about it too! I would also recommend growing shallots (as we call them in NSW - spring onions elsewhere?) as a "herb". Like chives, they gradually clump up, make a nice vertical accent & the flavour is superior to the bunches you buy. Thanks for that suggestion re the shallots, Catherine, and great that your daughter is enjoying her herbs! Deirdre

  • By Lana 2073 Monday, 10 September 2012

    Thank you for herb tips Deirdre. last year I" ve try to grow dill in a pot outside but unsuccessful its turn from green to brown red colour and never grow tall, can you give me some advice please I use this herb in my cooking all the time as a part of my traditional eastern European cuisine. Much appreciate, Lana Dumbrell I have never grown dill but I gather it needs good drainage and lots of sun - it is one of the Mediterranean herbs. Avoid overwatering. It should get to about 50 cm tall. Deirdre

  • By Meg 2770 Monday, 10 September 2012

    Just planted a lot of herbs into pots, the most lovely being pineapple sage which has lovely red flowers for my little stingless native bees and also the leaves which do taste like pineapple and go well with chicken. The main herb I have is good old parsley - it just keeps coming up each year. Thanks Deirdre for your great advice. Regards Meg Thanks, Meg. I have never used pineapple sage in cooking but might give it a go. I would never want to be without parsley! Deirdre

  • By Peta 2758 Monday, 10 September 2012

    A lovely blog on an ideal Spring morning after all the wind. Couldn"t live without herbs. Earlier in the year a visitor bought a salad to contribute to lunch and the marjoram in it really gave it a lift. I"m always sad when the frost finally clobbers the basil and agree that coriander is a must have. John Hemphill once told me that he thought coriander was what a squashed beetle would taste like. He didn"t put me off it though. John and Rosemary really pioneered herb growing in Sydney. I remember books written by the Hemphills promoting herbs and how to use them. Coriander is one of those hate or love herbs. In our family, we are all for it! Deirdre

  • By Richard 2112 Monday, 10 September 2012

    I recently lost my beloved "Tuscan Blue" rosemary as a result of age and the recent very wet summers, although I had the forethought to take cuttings a few months back (as well as the stupidity to remove a healthy pink flowering rosemary that I thought superfluous to my needs!) I also grow Greek or Perennial basil, and although the leaves are not as large, and are more course than sweet basil, it is great to have an abundance of basil all year without ever having to think about replanting. Great you have some cuttings of that Tuscan Blue rosemary - it does get pretty woody as it ages so needs to be renewed every so often. The perennial basil is a good idea. Deirdre

  • By Sheryl 2153 Monday, 10 September 2012

    Thai basil is a favourite of mine and I am growing garlic for the first time. I enjoyed readinng about other herbs and might try a few more. Rocket is a must for me too altough you might think it aq vegie and it self seeds which is efforless gardening! I love rocket too, Sheryl - I grow it in a tub. Would like to try the garlic some time. Am about to plant my basil. Thai basil is an interesting variation. Deirdre

  • By Suzanne 2073 Wednesday, 12 September 2012

    I have had considerable success growing leeks and spring onions by planting the bottom 1 cm of bunches bought from the greengrocer. I plant these just under the soil and it is surprising how quickly they regrow.

  • By doreen 2148 Sunday, 16 September 2012

    That sounds like agreat tip Suzanne. I"ll try that next time I buy leeks, they are quite expensive in the shop.

  • By Tiffany 2040 Monday, 22 October 2012

    My oregano went crazy for the last two years, then suddenly just died off and I"m having trouble establishing another. But a runty little sage plant has grown huge and magnificent, covered in the gorgeous purple flowers ... so unpredictable. Waiting for basil and parsley seeds to come up now - tarragon, chervil, chives, curry leaf tree, bay, kaffir lime and rosemary all doing well. I"d given up on coriander but I might try again ... Herbs are definitely a great intro to gardening. Thanks, Tiffany. Coriander seems to do best in the cooler months - doesn"t run to seed so quickly. Lovely to be planting basil now - one of my favourite herbs! Deirdre

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