Sage advice on growing herbs

The time is long gone when thyme, parsley and sage, and the odd bay leaf, were the mainstays of most kitchens. In more recent times, these stalwarts have been joined by a whole range of herbs, many of which can easily be grown in an ordinary garden.

Most of the common herbs are natives of the Mediterranean region, for instance, thyme, sage, rosemary, fennel, bay leaf, wall rocket and marjoram. All of these plants enjoy dry sunny conditions in their native lands and they like to have much the same in the garden.

Not only do herbs grow best in full sunshine, and when grown in well-drained soil, but they also develop their best flavour. The essential oils that give them their distinctive flavour are concentrated in the leaves when growth is not over vigorous.

Herbs are either perennial or annual. Most are perennial, some of which are shrubs and some non-woody plants. The bay leaf is a tree capable of growing to 10m when it is well suited, and a handsome tree it is.

The woody shrubby herbs include sage, rosemary and thyme, and are varied in height. These are best planted where they can be left undisturbed for many years, and have some room to expand.

The non-woody plants include fennel, French tarragon, horse radish, lovage, sorrel and many kinds of mint. Garlic is grown as a vegetable but it is really a herb. The herbaceous herbs are long-lasting but they all have tendency to spread, especially mint and horse radish. These should be given some space to expand but will need to be lifted and divided every three years or so to restrict their size. Weed competition is less in well-drained soil.

This is a good time to plant herbs because the soil is warm for seed-sowing and plants get off to a great start. While they are often grouped together into a herb bed, it is also possible to grow them in an ordinary flower bed, mixed with ornamental shrubs and flowers. Fennel or rosemary are as decorative in their own way as any ornamental plant. Be careful not to put them too close to vigorous plants that might shade them or out-compete them after a year or so.

The other group of herb plants are those that must be sown annually. These are annuals, or more usually biennials, such as parsley, summer savory, dill and coriander, that grow one year and flower the next. They must be sown each year, and in some cases more than once each year to extend the supply.

For example, it’s a good idea to sow parsley in spring and again in mid-summer to extend the season – the second crop will give better leaves in autumn and winter. The same applies to coriander. The second sowing can be made in a greenhouse, if you have one.

The best form of marjoram, closely related to oregano, is sweet marjoram, an annual herb that is sown in spring.

Basil is now available in more than a dozen varieties, large and small leaved, frilly green and purple. All kinds except the small-leaved Greek basil are annuals, grown from seed each year, and these have the best flavour.

Basil is the one herb that must be sown in a greenhouse or on a kitchen window sill; it needs warmth to germinate, and mustn’t be over-watered in the early stages of growth.

By the way, parsley can also be started indoors for the first sowing, since it too likes warmth for germination; cold weather is often a cause of failure outdoors.

Start with a few kinds only, and add on more to the list as your knowledge grows.

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