Make the Most of Herbs
Using fresh herbs for cooking is always a joy, while small pots are available with the rest of your grocery shop, they have a limited life on the kitchen windowsill and work out quite expensive. Growing some in your garden makes them always available with little effort and in much greater quantities.
The usual advice is to get several pots or maybe a single container split into sections and plant different herbs in each pot/section. I'm not going to suggest you do that as herbs grow to different sizes at different speeds and containers need attention year round, especially watering. Also, once you've cut some the container doesn't look very good a for a while.
My herbs are all planted into my garden soil, they are also quite large, much more so than those in small containers, this is a good thing. I have a mainly-herb area right underneath the kitchen window, but also have herbs in the vegetable garden and in the ornamental front garden. "Herb" is a rather artificial category that is culinary rather than botanical, the plants are often quite different in the ways that any plants are different to each other.
These are what work for me in my garden in East Anglia, they are also herbs that I use regularly. There are many others available some of which I've tried and didn't like my conditions, others that did but I never used so I pulled them up. One thing I found is that if I grow a herb I like and it grows well, then I end up using it more, I'd never tried fresh tabbouleh until I had a glut of flat leaf parsley, now there is no such thing as a glut of flat leaf parsley.
Mint - herbaceous perennial, 45cm tall, 45cm spread though can go further if you let them.
Use it fresh chopped finely added to cooked new potatoes with butter, in tabbouleh, as a fancy addition to posh drinks and in fresh mint sauce. If you like mint grow it and then find ways you like to eat it, fresh mint is fantastic stuff. There are many types to try, applemint, spearmint, peppermint, pineapple mint, lemon mint, basil mint, eau de cologne mint, curly mint and mountain mint for instance.
Eloquently described by my granddad as a plant that "grows like a bugger" It has a habit of spreading into every nook and cranny once it gets going. The customary advice is to plant it in a bottomless bucket sunk into the ground. I've never tried this but can't see it working too well. Mint spreads admirably on the surface, a stem will root where it touches the ground and shallow roots will soon creep over the bucket rim.
I used to curb its enthusiasm by planting it in a difficult spot in the garden until I planted one I bought nearly dead from the supermarket in a dormant corner of the vegetable plot. It grew and spread and now I harvest it in mid summer before it starts to flower. I put the leaves in the food processor with a little olive oil, shred them and then freeze the mixture in ice cube trays before putting them in a plastic tub in the freezer, keeps us in mint sauce and raita all through the winter. When it goes where I don't want I just pull it up, it's not difficult. Cut the plants down to 10-15cm above ground level in late autumn.
Parsley - biennial, 60cm spread, flower spikes 1-1.2m or more
Parsley has a lovely flavour of its own that you can appreciate more if you grow your own in respectable quantities to use to make a pesto, in tabbouleh, in gnocchi and of course parsley sauce for ham and fish. It can also add depth and richness to dishes such as stews and soups without so much of a defined parsley flavour. Unfortunately most often encountered as a garnish in the form of a little sprig of curly parsley sat on top of something the flavour doesn't really go with.
Curly parsley is possibly the most attractive for use as a garnish, but for flavour and certainly for ease of growth and productivity I grow flat leaf parsley. It is usually a biennial in the UK meaning the seed is sown one year, then it flowers and dies after setting seed in the second, though it may do this in the first if it is sown early and is subject to heat stress. It grows into a fairly large plant, Pesto and tabbouleh use loads of it, I also cut it fairly coarsely and add it to green salads as another salad leaf. The ice-cube thing works well with this too so there is parsley through the winter for sauces and stews.
Chives - herbaceous perennial, 30cm tall and wide.
An incredibly easy to grow and useful herb. Grab a bunch of leaves near to the base and cut with scissors, then snip small sections of about 5-10mm off with the scissors to be used as a garnish, in salads, with cottage cheese, over eggs, potatoes, soup or 101 other uses where their delicate onion flavour and cheery greenness will be appreciated.
They are so easy to grow from seed it's almost a wonder they don't germinate in the packet and are another candidate for the supermarket pot treatment below. If you let a plant establish itself, you can divide it annually for ages, give them away and be everybody's mate. Throw away the old centre of the plant and replant the outsides, giving away or swapping spare bits with friends and neighbors. Pretty pink/purple flowers too. so even if you don't use them in cooking so much, they are a worthy garden plant in their own right.
Oregano - herbaceous perennial, 45cm wide to about 30cm tall
Another really easy to grow herb. Put it in a sunny spot and it almost can't help itself to grow - which is always an admirable quality in a plant that you intend to cut bits off on a regular basis. Oregano leaves can be added to a mixed green salad as another salad leaf. I'm not a great fan of frilly, bitter, variously colored leaves in a green salad, oregano makes for a much more tasty alternative with spinach, watercress or even a traditional (not iceberg) lettuce and a nice dressing (basil, chives and parsley can be added too) and I'm as close to going vegetarian as I'm likely to get. Also known as "pizza-herb" for obvious reasons and good with assorted grilled, roasted, fried meat, fish and vegetables, widely used in Greek and Turkish cooking. Grow in full sun or as near to it as possible for the best flavour.
Later in the summer oregano produces masses of pretty pink flowers that are adored by bees and butterflies, so as far as I'm concerned it's a star plant. Good for the front of a herbaceous border.
Bay tree, bay laurel, sweet bay - evergreen shrub, to 7.5m+ if allowed, usually much smaller.
Bay leaves are a very useful herb that can be used in many ways, I mainly use them in sauces and stews where they add a depth and richness of flavour without specifically tasting of bay, they are really invaluable in this regard and are one of my mainstay herbs. The leaves themselves are usually used whole and removed before serving, fresh leaves are quite mild, they can be dried before use which increases the depth of flavour. Bay leaves are quite stiff and abrasive if ingested so either use whole and then remove or as finely ground powder in recipes.
A somewhat hardy shrub that can grow large albeit very slowly. You will rarely see a large bay tree in the UK as they are hardy down to about -5C and will often have been killed off or at least damaged by a hard frost before they get so large. Can be grown in large containers, often shaped into columns or standard balls in those cases, they are less hardy in containers as the roots are more vulnerable to frosts. Best grown in the soil in a sunny or semi-sunny sheltered position. Allow them to establish for a year or two and grow on before harvesting the leaves, or they'll never grow much. A good columnar architectural plant. Can be grown as a hedge, though I wouldn't recommend it unless you live somewhere that rarely if ever has frosts, there is too much danger of a one-off colder than normal frost that could kill many of the established plants.
Rosemary - evergreen woody perennial, 1-1.5m high and wide
A versatile herb that I only really use with roast lamb where it really shines for me, I'm not so keen on the flavour elsewhere, I need to do a bit of experimenting I suppose.
It is a useful garden plant in its own right, evergreen with attractive flowers that bees love. It can be pruned to keep its shape, whether you want it to spread or become upright. If you buy one, allow it to put some growth on for a year or two before you start cutting bits off to cook with otherwise it will never develop to much of a size. Can be usefully grown in containers if you wish to do that though ultimately gets rather informal - tatty if you're unkind.
Sage - evergreen woody perennial, up 75cm high, 2m spread if you let itSage is an excellent "component herb", i.e. one that works along with others rather than being the only or main flavouring itself. It is perhaps most classically used in sage and onion stuffing. I use it to flavour gravy along with thyme and a bay leaf, it is also good as an addition to stews. You could chop the leaves up very small and use them this way, though I find it easier to cut a small sprig about 5cm high and wide and add that early on in the cooking, removing it before serving when the flavour has pervaded the dish. If you add it as chopped leaves or as the main flavouring then take care to start with as it can become overpowering, also different sources of sage can vary in flavour intensity, whether fresh or dried.
The species has attractive grey green leaves though to my eye is a bit boring as a garden plant, it is likely to be the most productive however. The good news is that there are more attractively leaved cultivars available, notably purple sage where the new leaves come out purple before fading to grey/green as they age, tricolour a green, white and purple variety and golden sage which has an irregular green center to the leaves which are edged with golden yellow. These varieties are not available from seed and need to be bought as plants. My golden sage has been in the border in my front garden for over ten years now, it gets cut back when it encroaches where I don't want it to go. It is large enough to take cutting of sage leaves and sprigs for cooking right through the winter meaning I don't have to harvest and freeze the leaves in summer.
Thyme - evergreen woody perennial, 20cm tall, spread 50cm
One of the herbs that I discover more and more uses for the longer I have it and the more of it I have. A good component herb along with sage and bay when added to sauces, gravies and stews, it is an excellent supporting player in these circumstances I have received many compliments from people who haven't specifically noted that there is any obvious thyme to the blend of flavours, though they would be much poorer without it. Recipes often call for the leaves to be stripped off the stems which can be a right pain, if the stems are young, they snap too easily, if the stems are older, they don't have many leaves. The older stems do however have the thyme flavour in the woody growth, so the easiest way to use them is to cut a single branched rather woody stem and put the whole thing in your cooking. The leaves will detach as it cooks, the flavour will come out and just before serving, you fish out the easily found stem and throw it away. Thyme is also a good addition to BBQ rubs and sauces.
It is another worthy garden plant in its own right with edibility as a bonus. Often described as evergreen, I find it to be semi-evergreen in that most leaves are lost over the winter to grow again when spring arrives. It is a low creeping plant with pretty bee-magnet flowers. It is readily propagated by mounding up some soil over a prostrate stem where it touches the ground, leave it for a couple of months during the growing season and when you give it a little tug, you should find it has rooted and can be cut away from the main plant to be dug up and used elsewhere.
Basil - half hardy annual
A fabulous herb, though one that I've never been able to grow to any worthwhile extent outdoors. It likes a temperature, degree of protection and level of sunlight that is just not easily found in the UK. It will grow, but not not enough outdoors to give enough for culinary use, maybe if you live in the south and can give it protection from wind as well as a sunny warm position you may have some success. Instead I buy it in pots from the supermarket and grow it on the kitchen windowsill during the brighter months, there's not enough light in winter to keep it going, it just about hangs on but doesn't make enough leaves to use.
When gathering herbs, treat it like pruning the plant. You'd never prune by removing leaves and leaving a naked stem so apply the same principle to your herbs and you'll be rewarded with more and more leaves to pick and better looking plants.
Depending on the variety, try to pick whole or part stems that you then strip of leaves. Cut the stem at a point where there are emerging side-shoots. Basil has side shoots at leaf junctions and so tolerates leaf stripping to some degree, whereas mint doesn't and responds better to having whole stems cut at about ground level.
Herbs produce the substances that give them their tastes and flavors chiefly as a defence against insects and other pests. It requires energy to produce these substances, and that energy comes from sunlight. So herbs generally do better in full sun as they have more spare energy to go into the production of their delicious flavors and produce more of them. Likewise, though many herbs will continue to grow through the year if given shelter and warmth, their best flavors are produced when they have maximum light.
Making supermarket herbs last longer
The cheapest herb plants available these days are often from your local supermarket. They're sold in pots of overgrown, over crowded plants that should have been pricked out long ago. This doesn't matter of course if you're going to pick all of the leaves and throw the rest away. With a little bit of effort however it is possible to make a pot of herbs last for months on end and keep a fresh supply on the kitchen windowsill all summer for the price of one pot.
Here's one of my favourite herbs, basil, as bought in its cellophane wrapper. This 7cm square pot cost me 99p.
Remove the pot, you will have around 20-30 individual plants each of which are very leggy and not what you would use normally.
Take another 2 pots however of the same size and some potting compost.
First of all split the roots and compost in two equal halves by pulling apart gently. Take one of these halves and split it again.
Take one of these quarters and split it carefully so as not to damage the delicate stems that are probably intertwined by now, into three of four clumps of a few (3-4) plants each.
Take each of these mini clumps and place one into each of the corners of a new plant pot. Fill in the gaps with potting compost.
You will have two pots that are sparsely filled and should have one large clump left of half the original pot size. Split this into two halves and place the two halves into the original pot in opposite corners filling in the gaps with potting compost - harlequin style with opposing corners either with plants or compost.
The end result is three pots of herbs of different densities from the original one. Water them well and place onto a sunny windowsill.
Leave for a week or so before you begin to pick them and pick first from the densest pot. When this has been decimated, leave it some time to recover and move onto the next densest which should have put a fair amount of growth on by now, then eventually move onto the last.
Water and feed as you would house plants. If you put the plants on a bright windowsill, you will have a good supply for months on end. Sunshine is good, but may be a bit too much for hours on end in mid-summer, open a window for ventilation and don't let them dry out too much. Many herbs do best in the sun, basil along with other Mediterranean types need full direct sun to develop the best flavor.