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Ideas for Small Herb Gardens

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By the term 'herbs' we generally mean the culinary herbs which have been valued by mankind since prehistoric times for their fragrances and the flavours of their leaves, shoots and seeds.

Herbs can be selected such that they can be grown in virtually any conceivable space: not just in gardens large or small, but in window boxes, or in pots on a window sill. Some herbs can even be grown as houseplants.

Indoor Herb Gardens

For those who don't have a garden or patio area, but would like a supply of herbs just for cooking, then perhaps the easiest thing to do is to purchase small pots of individual herbs from the supermarket and keep them on a window sill in a cool room; perhaps in an attractive 'planter'. Such plants generally come with some instructions for maintenance. However, in many people's experience these have a short lifetime1, often as short as a week. In order to improve their longevity it is necessary to water them very sparingly, taking care to apply the water to the base of the plant. If the leaves are allowed to get wet, they will become mouldy and rot. The plants should only be watered when they noticeably droop, or when the surface of the soil has dried out. After a few weeks you could try repotting them into a peat-based seed compost, as they tend to get 'root-bound' in their small plastic tubs.

Mint plants can be stood in their pots in a saucer of water during the summer months. During the winter, remove the water and keep the plants rather dry. The plants should be cut regularly.

Chives will also grow happily on sunny windowsills provided the compost is kept moist and the grassy leaves cut regularly, perhaps for use on cheese and biscuits, or in omelets. The plants should not be allowed to flower.

Once you have developed some expertise, you can become more adventurous and try planting lettuce seeds in, say, yoghurt pots on the window sill. Once they have germinated, the seedlings can be transferred to a wide, shallow plastic container.

Space permitting, you could also try growing a miniature tomato - such as 'Tiny Tim' - in a 6 inch pot.

Outdoor Herb Gardens

As herb collections tend to get neglected during inclement weather, it is a good idea to site your herb garden as close as is practical to the house. Whenever possible, herb species should be grown in separate pockets, traditionally done by dividing the herb bed into separate compartments called 'knots' with a dwarf hedge of lavender or box.

When planning a herb garden, whether large or small, you should allocate around one square foot for each plant so that, in high summer, barely an inch of bare ground can be seen between them. Some herbs, such as sweet basil, will not need all their allocated space but others such as chives and lemon balm will. The mints, also, are very rapacious and will eventually take over the whole garden if allowed. These, therefore, should be grown in individual large flower pots, sunk to their rims in the soil. Other containers may also be used, so long as small drainage holes are provided.

Large strawberry pots make very good containers if space is at a premium or if you require low maintenance gardening.

Many herbs are of Mediterranean origin and therefore need a well-drained soil and plenty of sun to bring out their full flavours and aromas. The mints, however, will grow in a fairly heavy soil.

An Easter Window Box

Kathleen Brown, a former city banker who retired to the country to raise her children and write gardening books, says that one secret is to cram as many plants as possible into any shape or size of pot.

For Easter2 she recommends filling a small window box with late spring flowers such as cowslips and edible herbs. One suggestion is to take one each of golden marjoram, Oreganum vulgare 'Aureum', and variegated pineapple mint, Mentha suaveolens 'Variegata'; three pots or half a strip of pink daisies, Bellis perennis 'Dresden China'; and two cowslips, Primula veris.

To plant, put some broken crocks (broken pieces of flowerpot and so forth) into the bottom of the container for drainage and cover with John Innes No. 2 soil3. Plant marjoram at one end and mint at the other, both at the front edge of the window box. Plant the daisies behind the herbs and one in the centre of the box. Plant the cowslips either side of the central daisy.

Simple wooden plant boxes containing bright colourful pansies (Viola wittrockiana) interspersed with aromatic rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis) make for an attractive bohemian look.

Obviously, when designing a herb garden you should plan on incorporating herbs that reflect your own interests, whether these are culinary, medicinal/homeopathic or just for their fragrances.

Some Popular Herbs

The following list gives the main characteristics of some popular and easy-to-maintain herbs.

  • Parsley - Carum petroselinum. This herb should be treated as an annual. It grows to 30-60cm in height and has tiny, yellow-green flowers, followed by small ribbed and oval seeds. The leaves are bright green with curled toothed edges. Parsley is rich in both vitamins A and C, and in iron, deficiency of which causes anaemia. It has a distinctive flavour and its bright green foliage complements a wide variety of fish, meat and vegetable dishes. Its curling leaf form4 makes it a decorative as an edging plant and as a foil for other plants, and hence it is one of the most used of all herbs. Sadly, much of the 'parsley' used nowadays to decorate the window displays of butchers and fishmongers is a plastic substitute.

  • Fennel - Foeniculum vulgare (also known as Common or Garden Fennel). A hardy perennial that grows 1.5-2.1 metres high with a 45cm spread, it has lots of small yellow flowers in mid-late summer, with soft green foliage. Some people consider fennel to taste of aniseed, whilst others liken it to a blend of liquorice and parsley. Either way, the fresh leaves go very well with fish, particularly mackerel.

  • Marjoram, Golden - Oreganum vulgare 'Aureum'. This will grow in any soil, and requires some sun. It is a bright golden-leaved herb which sports pale pink flowers in mid-summer, which are very attractive to bees and butterflies.

  • Oregano, Greek - Origanum vulgare subspecies hirtum. Often known as wild marjoram, this hardy perennial grows to a height of 45cm and has the same spread. It has tiny white tubular flowers in clusters in summer, and its grey/green leaves are highly aromatic and excellent for cooking.

  • Sage, Purple - Salvia officinalis. A hardy evergreen perennial that grows 70cm high with the same spread, sage has mauve/blue flowers in summer the leaves are oval shaped and aromatic.

  • Chives - Allium schoenoprasum. A hardy perennial that grows 30cm high and has globed purple flowers all summer with green cylindrical leaves. Apart from being a good cooking herb and garnish, it looks good as an edging plant.

  • Thyme, Lemon - Thymus x citriodorus. An evergreen hardy perennial that grows 30cm high with 20cm spread pink flowers in summer and reasonably large green leaves which have a strong lemon scent.

  • Thyme, Garden - Thymus vulgaris (Common). An evergreen hardy perennial that grows 30cm high with a 20cm spread, mauve flowers in the summer and thin green aromatic leaves.

  • Rosemary - Rosmarinus officinalis.Rosemary is another 'must have' for the herb garden, not so much for its culinary uses, but more for its fragrance. Rosemary is also one of the oldest herbs used by man, having been used by the ancient Greeks who believed that it improved memory. It was introduced into Britain by the Romans. Nowadays, rosemary is among the nosegay of herbs offered to The Queen when she distributes the Maundy Money at Westminster Abbey.

    Rosemary is an evergreen hardy perennial which grows to a height of one metre and the same spread. Dependent on the variety, it has profuse, small flowers appearing from early spring to early summer and sometimes in early autumn, which range from dark blue through pale blue right down to white. Its dark green leaves are needle shaped and highly aromatic. Its name is derived from the Latin ros-marinus , meaning 'dew of the sea', and refers to its habit of liking salty sea spray. Rosemary is a fabulous herb to add to the bath to ease aching muscles after a hard day in the garden.

  • Mint, Apple - Mentha suaveolens. A hardy perennial that grows 60cm-1m high with an indefinite spread, mauve flowers in summer and hairy roundish leaves with apple and mint aroma. It is a vigorous grower with a subtle flavour that makes it very good for cooking.

  • Mint, Pineapple - Mentha suaveolens variegata. This is a variety of apple mint with attractive green and white variegated leaves and long spikes of pale white or cream flowers. As its name suggests, it has a pleasant pineapple flavour and the leaves are often added to fruit cups and punches. The leaves also make a good addition to pot pourri.

  • Wild Strawberry - Fragaria vesca. A hardy perennial that grows 15-30cm high with an 18cm spread, not including the runners. It has white flowers with yellow centres from spring to early summer, and the leaves are serrated and bright green in clusters of three.

A Few 'Don'ts'

Don't plant fennel next to dill as they will cross-pollinate, and you will end up with 'fendill', losing both flavours in the process.

Likewise, do not plant dill or coriander close to wormwood as the flavours are ruined.

Mint species should be kept apart as they also have a habit of cross-pollinating and so, over time, lose their individual flavours.

Preserving Herbs

Herbs, once cut, can be preserved by either drying or freezing.

1This is because they are 'hothoused' before sale, and the upper growth is more than the root-ball can sustain for any length of time. Really, they are grown for the leaves to be used in the kitchen and the plant to be then disposed of. It is best to buy rooted herbs from a reputable garden centre, where the natural balance of leaves/roots is maintained.2Seasonal Container Gardening. Kathleen Brown.(Michael Joseph Ltd, 1995).3John Innes composts were developed at the John Innes Foundation between 1934 and 1939. A set of simple formulae, based on loam, peat, coarse sand and fertiliser, were developed for sowing seeds, rooting cuttings and 'potting on'. John Innes No.2 is a 'potting on' compost.4Eric Partidge in 'A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1966) cites 'parsley' as a slang term for pubic hair, and thus to 'take a turn around the parsley patch' is used as a euphemism for sexual intercourse.

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