Plant the herbs you’re likely to cook with
Dear Helen: A recent renovation of my patio area has created a site for growing herbs. What do you consider to be the basic herbs to grow? I’m considering parsley, sage, rosemary, basil, mint, chives and oregano. Would you suggest anything else?
A. Arbitrary lists of herbs to grow, in my view, have little meaning. Plant the herbs you love and use the most, provided your conditions suit them. Make a list. Then rewrite it, numbering them in order of preference. This will guide your choices as you begin in the spring to acquire and plant the herbs. Making a priority list is especially helpful where space is limited.
Assess the site. Is it in full sun? Does the soil drain quickly? Almost all herbs need sun and perfect drainage. Winter-wet soils are their main enemy.
Be aware that not all herbs thrive in one single set of conditions. Mediterranean herbs (thyme, lavender, oregano, sage, rosemary) need full sun, warmth and a lean, dryish soil. Parsely, chives, sorrel, cilantro and dill need a rich, moist soil. Basil lies somewhere in between, requiring sun and warmth but only a moderately rich soil.
Basil, dill and cilantro are annuals, best grown in a separate space or used as summer fill-ins for the first year or two, while the perennials and small shrubs expand as they become established.
I have found basil to be most easily grown in containers. I prefer the smallleaved basils such as Green Globe and Spicy Globe, the ones most used in Italy for pesto because of their lovely, intense scent and flavours. I grow them in terra-cotta look-alike windowbox style planters, against a south-facing house wall. In winter, I keep fresh pots of these basils growing at a bright kitchen windowsill.
Because I use rosemary almost daily, I have large pots of mostly trailing kinds against the house wall on the patio as well as larger, upright plants in the garden.
Lavender is lovely to have in an herb garden. If deer are a problem, lavender, rosemary and thyme planted at the plot edgers will help to protect other herbs. Deer tend to reject these highly aromatic herbs.
Sage is available in several colours as well as the standard silvery blue-grey. Golden sage has goldsplashed leaves. Tricolor sage has white and pink streaks. Purple sage is said to be the best for tea.
Calendula and nasturtium suit herb gardens. Calendula petals, and nasturtium flowers and young leaves, are edible and very pretty on salads. Both selfsow and are easily seeded outdoors in the spring.
Mint spreads. It is best grown in bottomless buckets or chimney flues sunk just a bit into the ground.
Choose from among your most loved and used herbs the ones that suit your site. Make a rough sketch of the area, and begin pencilling in potential plant locations. You can begin conditioning the soil now. Dig it over and remove large rocks and any debris. Scatter a light dusting of lime on the soil, and top the lime with a layer roughly five centimetres deep of compost and/or composted manure. Leave the plot over the winter and mix everything in before planting in the spring.