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.


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 growing in the kitchen garden at Jardins des Metis/Reford Garden, Grand Metis, Canada

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.


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