Herbs that look and taste good

COOKED meals and salads that emanate from home-grown garden produce need never be boring. They can be attractive to both eye and palate.

As the main sowing and planting of vegetable crops gets under way, give a little thought to tasty varieties that also have visual appeal, and consider adding a few herbs to the list.

There's a feeling of achievement when the early potatoes, shallots, onion sets, peas and beans have been introduced to the soil.

Gardening friends are constantly comparing notes on how many rows, when the deed was done and what comes next.

Some steeped-in-tradition gardeners grow the same varieties year on year because they are so reliable, and this fellow can empathise with that.

There are several good reasons why we would not be without 'Foremost' early potato, 'Boltardy' round beet and 'The Sutton' broad bean but it adds another dimension when a few slightly offbeat varieties are introduced to the plot.

Imagine the conversation at dinner when blue potatoes, yellow courgette, white beetroot and winged peas come together on a plate.

The catalogues offer lots of scope for innovative vegetable gardening.

Dobies of Devon for example, www.dobies.co.uk, have two varieties of white radish. 'Albena' is round and 'White Breakfast', which tastes exactly like the traditional 'French Breakfast'. 'Purple Graffiti', a cauliflower, is another recent introduction of theirs, and if you can't decide whether to grow purple or white Kohl Rabi this year, just buy a mixture which costs 1.55 for 280 seeds.

The trend towards offering packs of plants by post has caught up with vegetable gardening at last.

Kings range can be found at www.kingsplants.co.uk and includes a dwarf French bean collection comprising three varieties; yellow, purple and green. The cost for eighteen young plants is 17.29 and there is still time to order for May delivery!

The Greenhouse Vegetable Collection might appeal to those who have slipped up with sowings and have a wish list that includes; aubergine, chilli and sweet peppers, a cucumber (Diana) and two tomatoes (Shirley & Bambino). Six plants cost 7.49.

Browsing the peppers section of Thompson & Morgan`s ever fascinating catalogue is rather like reading a list of brews on offer at a Tyneside Real Ale Festival.

The names are so inventive and bring a smile to the face.

The beginners' chilli is undoubtedly 'Meek and Mild'. The large, shiny green fruits turn red when ripe and can be dried for powders or sauces. They are borne on bushy plants that crop heavily over the season. Ten seeds cost 1.89.

Surprisingly, 'Inferno', ten seeds for 2.89, is only listed as moderately hot, whilst 'Heatwave', 25 seeds for 2.09, is beautifully ornamental and offers a 'mind blowing hot flavour experience'. 'Thai Dragon' is not for the faint hearted, and 'Prairie Fire' fruits might look small but they certainly make up for it in flavour.

Anyone who buys two packets from the chilli peppers pages in T & M's catalogue is offered the hottest of all varieties ('Tepin') free. It originates from a native Mexican shrub, the wild origin being responsible for it taking longer to germinate and mature but the plants can be retained as tender perennials for another year.

Most peppers can be grown in a pot on the windowsill offering, apart from the visual attraction, an opportunity to harvest all season long for special meals.

Red chillies are reputed for their high vitamin A, C and beta-carotene content. The compound capsaicin that gives them their trademark 'kick' is also thought to have a positive effect on blood cholesterol. All of this and their sparkling presence on the plate makes them sound like an offer we can't refuse.

When the lady of this house puts one of her creations on the dining table it is customary for the recipient, and occasional cook, to comment on the ingredients.

Difficult though this was at first, thanks to the range of herbs available, it has become easier to detect their subtle flavours over time.

But appreciating home grown herbs at table is only part of the attraction in growing them. Many have such presence and scent in the mixed border that they deserve a place as of right.

Traditional and handy though it is to group them all together outside the kitchen window in a circular planting, tubs or containers, there is a case for dotting some near the edge of a border where the foliage can be ruffled and sniffed on the daily round. Go for a sunny, well-drained spot where possible and select a few perennial types to get started.

Gardening friends might have a large clump of oregano, lemon balm, French tarragon or chives that is easily divided up into sections, each of which makes an instant plant.

Look for your favourite herbs at the local plant centre where they are sold in small pots. Buy a group of three and plant triangular fashion, a hands' length apart to make an instant impact.

Propagate sage, rosemary and thyme from softwood stem cuttings and secure fresh parsley for a year by investing in one packet of seed.

Soak it overnight in an egg cup then set up a cell tray of moistened compost.

Flick a small cluster of seed into each section and pop the tray into a heated propagator where germination takes half the time of those sown outdoors.