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