The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS -

EV­ERY cook needs a herb gar­den, so it’s time to give yours a spring makeover. The plot will look un­tidy with last year’s dead or strag­gly stems left to act like pro­tec­tive win­ter over­coats; they should now be re­moved or pruned to leave room for fresh growth.

Tidy­ing up is a sat­is­fy­ing job, with lots of spin-offs. On a sunny day, fresh oregano or mint leaves re­lease an in­tox­i­cat­ing fra­grance. And weed­ing has its in­ter­ests – turn those such as for­get-me-not or fever­few into plants in the right place by mov­ing them some­where else. And chives seed gen­er­ously around, so trans­plant or pot up some of these young­sters.

Herbs need dif­fer­ent treat­ments, de­pend­ing on whether they’re sub-shrubs, herba­ceous peren­ni­als or an­nu­als.

Like their larger cousins, sub-shrubs such as win­ter sa­vory or sage sprout fresh growth from woody stems. The for­mer, Sa­tureja mon­tana, adds a fra­grant touch to a bean dish, as well as re­put­edly dis­pelling flat­u­lence! Cut the old growth back to 10-15cm, leav­ing light and space for the newly form­ing leaves.

Other mon­tana sa­vories, such as lemon or pur­ple sa­vory, are also hardy and should be pruned this way, but sum­mer savoury is a ten­der an­nual, so must be sown each year.

Sage, an­other sub-shrub, needs a lit­tle cut­ting back. With this use­ful ev­er­green, re­move all dead leaves and wiz­ened sideshoots to en­cour­age growth. Oth­er­wise, as with many herbs, prune to use in the kitchen. When snip­ping off leaves, cut just above a newly emerg­ing shoot.

I have an el­derly sage com­pet­ing bravely for wa­ter and nu­tri­ents with some cor­don ap­ples. Un­for­tu­nately I have to tol­er­ate some un­sightly bare stems be­cause it grows side­ways to­wards the light. Younger plants have an up­right habit and, they too, have gappy stems, but the spa­ces be­tween leaf nodes are much shorter. New shoots emerge along woody stems, usu­ally along the pre­vi­ous year’s growth. Some new growth can also start close to the base of stems.

Thyme grows a bit more neatly and, like sage, I pre­fer to prune while it’s grow­ing, help­ing to keep the plant com­pact while pro­vid­ing a tasty har­vest.

De­spite ap­pear­ances, oregano is also a sub-shrub, sprout­ing from a woody stem. But this time, the stems lie on or vir­tu­ally be­neath the sur­face. When clean­ing up oregano, you’ll see a low mound of fresh leaves emerg­ing from these woody stems. Snip dead stalks to just above the mound.

Sev­eral pop­u­lar herbs are herba­ceous peren­ni­als, not woody sub-shrubs. Un­like oregano, they die back com­pletely be­fore win­ter. This group in­cludes mint, sweet ci­cely, French tar­ragon and fen­nel. While most of the fo­liage is ti­died up in au­tumn, al­most in­evitably, some green stems may have been spared and need to be re­moved to pre­vent rot dam­ag­ing this year’s growth.

And, al­though chives were cut back in au­tumn, the bases of the flower stems may have clung on as it’s hard to re­move them with­out dam­ag­ing the plant, but it’s easy now to pick out the dried re­mains.

The herba­ceous peren­nial sor­rel has kept go­ing through this mild win­ter, pro­vid­ing a leaf for a sand­wich when there’s lit­tle else. En­cour­age new leaves by cut­ting back dead leaves or rot­ting stems.

Many bi­en­nial herbs, such as pars­ley and leaf cel­ery, have sur­vived win­ter, so are ripe for a clean up. Re­move dam­aged leaves to stop them rot­ting over new growth. If a plant looks as if it hasn’t sur­vived, give it a gen­tle tug. If it comes away in your hand, it’s beg­ging for the com­post heap.


Pro­mote new leaves through prun­ing and tidy­ing up now to give your herbs the best start to the grow­ing sea­son

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