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Herbs

Gone are the days when home cooking confined itself to a roast and two veg. The trend towards eating out more, especially in foreign-food restaurants, has made everyone more aware of different tastes and flavourings — and there is no doubt that the subtle use of herbs, preferably fresh, can enhance even the most mundane meal. Most aromatic plants are no more difficult to grow than any other ornamentals, so it is surprising they are not more widely cultivated. There is no comparison between dried herbs and fresh ones out of your own patch.

How to use herbs in the garden

Most are very decorative in their own right, and the only thing to distinguish them from other plants is the fact that some part of them has a strong smell or flavour. There is no reason at all why the ones with a herbaceous habit (e.g., angelica, mint, fennel, tarragon, parsley, chives, basil, marjoram, balm, borage, lovage, coriander, dill and sweet cicely) should not be incorporated in a herbaceous or mixed border, while the shrubby ones (thymes, sages, bay, rosemary, lavender) make a useful addition to any shrubbery.

Many people like to keep their herbs to one part of the garden, and this need not look boring. In many big and old-fashioned gardens the herbs are each given a formal square demarcated by rustic bricks, or something similar. This serves the dual purpose of keeping them in tidy clumps, while the solid partitions prevent the rampant ones from running amok. In the majority of smaller plots, however, it is better to lay your herb garden out as an informal mixed border or bed, arranging it so the different habits, foliage and colours complement each other like any other ornamental combination.

Grow herbs as near the house as possible, preferably just outside the kitchen door, for while it is lovely to be able to pick sprigs fresh as you need them, you are not likely to do this if you have to don mac and boots and trail down to the bottom of the garden in a torrential downpour to get your bouquet garni. But it is essential to keep them looking as neat and decorative as possible, as they are always in view. Many of the shrubby types need regular clipping or cutting to keep them in good shape – the bushes will last longer, too; left to their own devices they are inclined to go woody and untidy and so will need replanting frequently. Quite a few of the herbaceous herbs, mint and tarragon being the best examples, have to be restrained or they will run everywhere. The best method is to plant them in a bottomless bucket with the rim slightly proud of the ground so the runners do not hop over the top into the open soil.

The shorter-growing herbs can be planted as an edging to a bed or border — parsley, basil and chives are especially useful for this. In any case, it is always a good idea to put scented foliage plants near a path where you can get the benefit in warm sunshine or after rain or when you brush against them. Some herbs not suitable for culinary purposes can be grown for this function alone, like cotton lavender (Santolina), lad’s love (Artemisia abrotanum) and, best of all, lavender itself.

Several shrubby herbs can be used as hedging; Old English and the dwarf lavenders are the most widely planted – they are easily kept tidy by pruning back after flowering, but not into the old wood, or they will probably not shoot again. Other suitable plants are cotton lavender, bay (in milder areas), rosemary and many forms of sage, which can be trimmed back quite hard.

Most herbs can be grown quite successfully and decora-tively in some form of container — smaller tubs, hanging baskets, herb pots and window boxes for the shorter-growing ones and large tubs for the tall types. In very cold parts of Britain this is the only way to grow many of them as a lot tend not to be quite hardy at very low temperatures. As they will get too big and straggly for pot cultivation after a while, you should consider them a temporary planting and be prepared to replace them regularly with fresh young stock. Herbs are often recommended for indoor cultivation but — unless you have a suitable sunny window-ledge in a cool, light room or a cool greenhouse or conservatory — you must like their taste a lot; in a warm room with poor light, they soon become pale and drawn, and not very decorative. A few pots of those herbs which normally die down at the end of summer like chives, can be useful kept on the kitchen window sill over winter.

The advantages of growing herbs are that they taste so much better than the dried, bought variety, they are easy to grow, and they make a useful contribution to the overall planting effect of a garden.

The disadvantages are that the shrubby types are comparatively short-lived and require regular replacement and frequent attention to keep them in good order, while the herbaceous forms are often invasive. Many herbs are not entirely hardy, especially as young plants, in colder districts. A further snag is that most herbs do not like shady, draughty, heavy or waterlogged positions.

 

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