Herbs are so useful and easy to grow that whenever I visit a garden without them there’s a sense of disappointment.
Their natural setting for me is alongside the vegetable patch, the closer to the kitchen the better, but how easily most will slot into ornamental borders.
They grow best in a sunny spot on land that drains well, but in the absence of garden space they’ll cheerfully exist in a diversity of containers. I’ve encountered them thriving in almost everything from disused kitchen sinks to discarded walking boots – with 14 varieties planted in one big hanging basket.
Before any buying, sowing or planting, do check out the growth habits of any herbs you’re interested in.
Some, lovage, angelica and fennel for example, will become rather tall and are often better planted in a mixed border, whilst the likes of thyme and marjoram fit neatly into confined spaces.
Many varieties of mint are noted for aggressive behaviour so play safe and plant them in a container that can be plunged into the soil. You can then exercise a degree of control.
Several herbs are perennials by nature. The clump-forming types e.g. mint, lemon balm, marjoram, oregano, chives, can be lifted and divided up into sections for propagation purposes.
This is a simple way to get started if you have a gardening friend willing to share.
Other perennial types e.g. sage and rosemary, develop a bushy form and can be raised from stem cuttings. Many are easily raised from seed.
Parsley is slightly different in that the seed takes a while longer than others to germinate. The story goes that after sowing it spends some time with the devil and only surfaces on the sixth week, having had enough of his company.
In practice, if you sow directly into the early summer soil it really does take an age to surface but there is a way of breaking seed dormancy and speeding up the process.
I empty the seed into an egg cup and fill it up with relatively warm water, letting them soak overnight. Next day they are sown and offered a propagator temperature of 20 Celsius.
A sowing was made on April 4 this year and the first seedlings appeared 12 days later.
Young, well-rooted plants of curled parsley will be used to edge two island beds, and last year’s specimens, still growing in the garden, fresh and in regular use, will be composted.
Chive shoots first emerged outdoors in late February this year and we’ve been picking them ever since. The plants began as seeds, a straightforward sowing at 15 Celsius in the propagator followed by planting in a permanent position on two island vegetable beds. After three years the bulbs had developed enough to divide them up and plant elsewhere.
Four years on from sowing we have seedlings appearing in the flagstone paths that dissect the vegetable beds. Flower buds are left on some plants to keep the bees happy.