By: Jonathan Sturm
Herbs are the least developed of our food plants. They have suffered far less than most vegetables from the ill effects of the plant breeders. As a consequence, pests and diseases bother them far less. This property makes many of them useful as companion plants to repel pests, when they are planted throughout the vegetable garden.
Most books seem to say that herbs grow best in poorer soils. Nothing could be further from the truth in my experience and in the experience of many other organic growers. In general, the richer the soil is in humus, the better the crop.
Most herbs are prolific and a small space will produce all the family's needs. Many are readily dried for winter use. This is done by gathering the herbs as soon as the dew is gone and hanging them in bunches under cover. They should not be dried in sunlight as this destroys some of the delicate flavour and aroma. They are best stored in airtight glass jars when they are thoroughly dry. Store the dried leaves whole and pulverise them only immediately before use to reduce the amount of oxidation of the leaf contents.
Another method of storing herbs is to use them to flavour vinegar or vegetable oil. The herbs are steeped for a period before being strained out and discarded.
The germination of herbs seeds is often erratic, like weeds. Soaking them in dilute liquid seaweed overnight before sowing helps. Parsley should be covered with a sheet of newspaper after sowing. Pour boiling water over the newspaper and remove when cool.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) annual
Basil is the king of herbs and goes particularly well with tomatoes. It needs plenty of heat, shelter from the wind and light, well-drained soil. It needs plenty of water to keep the leaves succulent. Basil takes longer to dry than other herbs because of this and bruises easily. Handle it as little as possible. Plant out indoor raised seedlings 20 cm apart as soon as the weather is suitable for tomatoes. In hot climates it is perennial.
Borage (Borago officinalis) annual
To stimulate your mind and fortify the spirit, add a sprig to your wine. The brilliant blue flowers and leaves are used in salads to impart a cucumber taste. Borage needs a sunny spot that is well drained. It self-seeds prolifically, so once you have it, you have it forever. Sow direct about 90 cm apart.
Burnet (Poterium sanquisorba) perennial
The young and tender leaves of burnet give a cucumber flavour to salads and iced drinks. They go well with cottage cheese. It likes dry, light, well-limed soil. Sow from seed in early spring about 30 cm apart. It can also be grown from cuttings. It self-sows readily. Full sun is essential.
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) annual
This herb is chiefly grown for medicinal purposes. The tea made from its flowers is an aid to digestion and is mildly fungicidal. Thin the plants grown from seed sown in early spring to 20 cm apart. The flowers are picked on sunny days when the oil content is highest. There are several chamomiles. You can tell the medicinal one by cutting a flower head in half. The one we want is hollow inside, the others are not.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) perennial
Chives are used chopped green to impart an onion flavour. They are used in salads, on baked Idaho potatoes, in omelettes, and soups. Sow from seed in early spring or from a divided clump. They will grow into a mass that needs dividing once every couple of years. Plant divisions about 10 cm apart. Harvest by cutting them with scissors close to the ground. They like a warm, shady spot and like plenty of water.
Marjoram, Pot (Origanum onites) perennial
This perennial marjoram has less flavour than the sweet annual. It prefers light, dry soil in full sun. Sow in spring and transplant to 30 cm apart.
Marjoram, Sweet (Origanum majorana) annual
The spicy flavour of this herb is an excellent adjunct to soups, stews and poultry stuffing. It likes plenty of compost and a warm sheltered spot. Sow under glass in early spring and transplant in early summer to 30 cm apart.
Marjoram, Wild (Origanum vulgare) perennial
This perennial is also known as oregano and has the strongest flavour, so use it in spicy dishes. It needs warmth and well-drained soil. Sow in early spring and thin to a distance of 20-30 cm. It can also be grown from cuttings.
Mint (Mentha sp.) perennial
Though there are many sorts of mint, they are all cultivated in the same way. They need rich, moist soil and should be confined by some sort of container to prevent them taking over. Their roots are very invasive and will travel quite long distances. Plant out roots or runners in autumn or spring. It needs full sun for the best flavour. Frequent cutting keeps the plant growing well, but do not cut in rainy weather.
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum major or minus) annual
The round peppery leaves are a delicious addition to salads, as are the flowers. The young seeds can be pickled and used as a substitute for capers. They grow almost anywhere, but like well-drained soil, rich in compost. Sow in late spring near plants that are troubled by pest attacks. Spacing depends on the variety as some are dwarf and others runners.
Parsley (Carum petroselinum) biennial
There are two main sorts of parsley, curled and plain leaf. If it's flavour you want, go for the plain leaf. If you want appearance the curled stuff doesn't taste too bad. The seed takes a long time to germinate, so sow it into weed free soil. It needs lots of compost. Sow two or three times between early spring and autumn for a year round supply. Thin to 20 cm apart. Remove the leaves where they are attached to the stalk by pulling downwards and sideways.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) perennial
The Greeks used this shrub to stimulate the mind. We use it to stimulate meat, fish and potatoes. It will grow up to 1.5 m tall, albeit very slowly. It likes a dry, sheltered position and lots of lime. Plant cuttings about 15 cm apart for a season of growth. Plant out in the final position about 90 cm apart. Leaves can be picked from the second year on.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) perennial
Sage is best known for its use in stuffing for meats, but is an excellent medicinal herb. A tea made from the fresh leaves will quickly cure a tickly, unproductive cough. It grows to around 60 cm tall and needs about 60 cm between plants. Second year plants are best for flavour. Narrow leaf is grown from seed sown in spring, broad leaf from cuttings taken in spring. Keep the plants pruned to stimulate fresh growth.
Savory, Summer (Satureja hortensia) annual
Summer savory is the bean herb and is used to enhance the flavour of all bean dishes. Sow seeds in late spring and thin seedlings to 15 cm. The plants grow to 30 cm in height. There are two cuts for drying, one in midsummer and the last in autumn.
Savory, Winter (Satureja montana) perennial
Winter savory's strong flavour goes well with fish, lamb and sausages. It makes a good hedge in well drained soil with plenty of lime. Propagate by cuttings in spring about 60 cm apart. Use shoots and tips from early summer in the second year and onwards. The flavour is best before flowering starts.
Tarragon (Artemesia dracunculus) perennial
Shellfish, chicken and omelettes benefit greatly from tarragon; the right sort, that is. French tarragon is a sterile perennial that does not set seed. Russian tarragon, which does set seed, tastes terrible. It needs plenty of space, about 60 cm apart and it grows more than a metre in height and likes full sun. Pull underground runners in late spring, or take cuttings in spring or autumn to propagate.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) perennial
There are lots of different sorts of thyme, but they are all used the same way. It is very strongly flavoured, so use sparingly to complement rich food. It aids digestion. The oil in thyme is also antiseptic, so it can be used on cuts and for sore throats when made into a tisane. Sow seed in spring or take cuttings. The plants should be 30 cm, or a little less, apart. Some are prostrate, which make good ground covers. Some are upright. Trim the plants after flowering to stop them becoming 'leggy'.