Herbs

Even people with no garden at all can grow a selection of herbs in pots on the windowsill. They are easy to grow, generally hardy, and will make a fragrant and attractive display. Many can be grown and harvested throughout the year (especially those grown indoors) and as well as flavouring food they have many other uses: attracting and feeding wildlife (bees, butterflies, other beneficial insects and birds), repelling garden pests (used as companion plants), providing edible flowers as well as leaves, and making potpourris. Herbs also have many health-giving properties whether used directly as medicines or generally in food.

Most herbs are either annuals (completing their life-cycle in one year, and therefore needing to be re-grown from seed each year, such as basil) or perennials (that live for more than two years, rosemary for example). While perennials will do well in a herb rockery or spiral, annuals are more often grown in pots or raised beds. All will also do well in hanging baskets, window boxes or other containers. In general they like good drainage, so mix some horticultural grit into the compost you use and make sure they don’t sit in standing water. Many herbs are Mediterranean in origin and like warm, sunny positions. For annuals you will need to collect or buy seed, whereas some perennials can also be propagated by taking cuttings or dividing larger plants.

To take cuttings, choose a shoot about 10cm long and cut just below a leaf node. Remove leaves from the lower third of the stem and plant in a pot with free-draining compost. Cover the pot with a plastic bag, without it touching the leaves, and place in a sheltered spot. Check regularly and water lightly if the compost starts to dry. Once new growth is seen, remove the bag and place in a sunny position to grow on.

Ideally you should pick herbs on the morning of a dry day shortly before they flower. Choose the growing tips for the best flavour. Some herbs won’t need storing as they can be grown all year round, but for those that are more tender there are various methods.

Freezing is a good way of keeping the flavour of herbs. One useful method is to chop them and freeze small amounts in water in ice-cube trays. In each cube put as much as you like to use in your favourite recipes. You can either freeze each herb separately or make up your own mixtures. Once frozen, the cubes can be tipped into labelled plastic bags and placed back in the freezer so you don’t run out of cube trays. Cooking with them is simple – just add a herby ice cube or two to your recipe as required.

Alternatively, sprigs of herbs such as parsley, coriander and mint can simply be washed, dried and frozen in plastic bags. They can then be crushed straight from frozen when required.

Drying will concentrate the flavour of herbs and enable you to store them in jars for long periods (though they do gradually lose their flavour over time).  A warm, dry place is needed for drying: an airing cupboard may do but will take a few days; a warm oven (at about 50°C) will take a few hours. Herbs can be hung in bunches or laid out on a baking sheet. When the leaves are dry, crumble them into glass jars, seal, label and store in a cool, dark place. Again, you can make up your own mixture of favourites to use as general ‘mixed herbs’ for many dishes. Our own general mix includes sage, thyme, oregano and parsley.

In some cases you may want to store the seeds instead of, or as well as, the leaves. Coriander is a good example, its aromatic seeds are often used in dishes such as curries. To collect and store the seeds, simply hang the whole plant, when the seeds have fully formed, to dry in a warm sunny room or outbuilding. Then shake the seeds off in a bag, and store in glass jars in a cool, dark place.

Many herbs can be added to vinegars to impart their flavour. These vinegars can then be used in salad dressings and to pickle other vegetables. To make a herb vinegar dressing, crush a few leaves of the herb (or herbs) and add to a jar of wine vinegar or cider vinegar. Keep in a warm place for a few weeks, shaking the jar every now and again. Then strain out the leaves and use or bottle the vinegar. Try it with thyme, rosemary, tarragon, basil, bay, dill or your own favourite herbs.

The same technique can be used with oils like olive oil to give them a particular herby flavour. The resulting oils are great for cooking savoury dishes with, as well as for using in dressings.

There are hundreds of different herbs and their varieties available; here is a guide to the most commonly grown:

Basil  

Annual. Sweet Genovese is the most common variety with large, strong-flavoured leaves that have a sweet clove-like spiciness. Other varieties include Bush, Lemon, Cinnamon, Red Ruben, Greek and Lettuce Leaved. The leaves are the main ingredient in pesto (see our recipe in the Cooking Throughout the Year chapter) but can also be torn up in salads, soups and sauces and to flavour vinegars and oils. Basil goes very well with tomato and garlic. Putting the whole plant on a windowsill can deter flies; a tea made from basil leaves can aid digestion. Sow from seed. They will do well in pots indoors as well as in the garden.

Bay

Also known as Sweet bay – a perennial grown as a shrub or small tree, usually purchased as a potted young plant. Generally hardy but watch out for hard frosts. The leaves are often added to stews (but removed before serving as they are quite tough) and can also be used to flavour vinegar. Sweet bay is a type of laurel, but do not confuse this with other laurels, as they are poisonous. Cuttings can be taken in late summer to propagate further plants.

Chives  

Perennial. It will die back in the winter if grown outdoors, and recover in spring, but grow new plants from seed every few years as old plants lose their flavour. Both the leaves and flowers can be eaten. Finely chopped chives are a classic addition to a potato salad but will go with any dish that would benefit from a mild onion flavour. The flowers make an attractive topping for salads but leave plenty on the plants as they are a magnet for bees. Garlic chives have flatter leaves and a sweet garlic flavour. Chives can be used as a companion plant to deter aphids.

Coriander  

Annual. Coriander (Cilantro) is a variety suited for leaf production for use in salads and cooking. Collect the dried seeds in August and use in pickling, chutneys and cooking – grind with a pestle and mortar for adding to curries, for example. Save a few seeds for sowing next year.

Cumin  

Annual. Produces spicy seeds, classically used to flavour curries, either ground or whole. When the seed heads turn brown, cut the plants and hang indoors to dry. The seeds can then be collected and stored in glass jars in a cool dark cupboard.

Dill  

Annual. Both leaves and seeds can be used to flavour sauces, vinegars and pickles. The fine leaves can also be chopped and used to flavour soups and salads. In the garden, allow some flower heads to form and they should self-seed and grow new plants next year.

Fennel

Perennial. The leaves and seeds of common fennel have an anise flavour and can be used fresh or dried to flavour food such as bread, salads or soups. Plants can be divided in the autumn, but should also self-seed in situ.

Lavender

Perennial. Usually grown as a small shrub in a border. The mauve flowers can be used sparingly to flavour sweet foods such as biscuits and jams. Lavender is a super plant in the garden for attracting bees and butterflies over the summer flowering period. A tea made from the flowers can relieve headaches; it has many other healing properties, as well as being said to promote good sleep. Once the flowers have faded, cut the stems back and, as plants become straggly, cut them back in the spring. Stem cuttings can be taken in spring or autumn.

Lemon balm  

Perennial. Produces lemon-flavoured leaves, perfect in salads, cooked dishes, drinks and fruit salads. Lemon balm tea is said to relieve headaches and feverish colds. The plants can be divided in the spring. They will also do well in pots indoors.

Marjoram and Oregano

Sweet marjoram is an annual, pot marjoram a perennial. Use fresh to flavour salads and vegetable dishes or dry the leaves for winter use. Excellent for pizzas and most tomato-based dishes or sauces. Make tea from the flowering tops to relieve colds and headaches. There is often confusion between marjoram and oregano. Oregano is the name of the genus, within which are many species and varieties including the marjorams, which tend to be milder in flavour than other oreganos. All have similar uses. The plants can be divided in the spring.

Mint  

Perennial. There are numerous varieties including peppermint, spearmint and apple mint.  Each has a different flavour and strength. Use to make mint sauce and for flavouring dishes such as peas and/or potatoes. Mint tea is popular and is good for aiding digestion and relieving colds. It can be grown as a companion plant to deter aphids. The plant spreads vigorously so is best contained in a pot. They can be divided in spring to propagate new plants.

If you like Mint Sauce with roasted vegetables here’s a quick and easy recipe to make your own:

1 handful of mint leaves, 125g sugar, 200ml malt vinegar

Wash the mint, chop it very finely and place in a glass jar. Heat the vinegar and sugar in a pan until the sugar has dissolved then allow the mixture to cool. Fill the jar with the vinegar mixture and seal immediately. Store in the refrigerator once opened.

Parsley

Hardy biennial (completes its life cycle in two years). Recommended varieties: Champion moss curled (classic tightly-curled leaves, crops over a long period), Italian giant (hardy and vigorous with large flat leaves). Rich in vitamins and iron, parsley is one of the most commonly grown and used herbs. Finely chopped parsley is often used as a garnish for many dishes but can also be used in salads, soups, sauces and in sandwiches. If used in a cooked dish, add the parsley towards the end of the cooking time. Use in generous amounts and include the stems too as they are more highly flavoured than the leaves. Sow parsley from seed but after two years they should self-seed in situ.

Rosemary  

Perennial. An evergreen shrub with strongly-flavoured leaves that complement roasted vegetables. The small flowers can be used in salads. The plants can get quite large after a few years, but you can create new ones from cuttings.

Sage  

Perennial. There are a number of different varieties available with different flavours and leaf colours. Purple-leaved varieties tend to have a stronger flavour, while those with variegated leaves are often milder. Use the leaves fresh or dried for flavouring stews and roasted vegetables. They can also be used to flavour vinegars, oils and breads. The leaves can be added to many dishes, and are also great fried until crispy in a little oil then crumbled over a pasta dish. After a few years the plants can get straggly, so grow new ones from seed or cuttings. Cut the plants back after flowering.

Savory

Winter savory is a perennial, summer savory is an annual. The winter variety has a peppery spiciness and does well in pots. Both can be used to flavour bean, potato and tomato recipes. A tea made from the flowering tops can ease digestion or be used as an antiseptic gargle.

Tarragon  

Perennial. The flavour is a combination of sweet aniseed and vanilla. The leaves can be used in sauces and dressings and go well with avocados, tomatoes and various salads. Cut the plants back in the winter and they will grow back next year. To propagate tarragon you can either divide the roots in spring or take stem cuttings in the summer. They will also do well indoors in pots.

Thyme  

Perennial. Low-growing evergreen plant with well flavoured leaves for cooking or tea-making. There are many different varieties available, all with small leaves and flowers, which are adored by bees. The leaves go well in sauces and soups and can also be used in jams and fruit salads. Use sparingly as the flavour of the fresh leaves is strong. Thyme is often a component of ‘mixed herbs’. It has many medicinal properties and a tea made by infusing the leaves is good for digestion and to relieve hangovers, as well as to treat colds and sore throats. They can be propagated from stem cuttings or by dividing roots in the spring.

All pages in this Garden Advice section are written by Piers Warren with extracts from his book The Vegan Cook & Gardener.