The Daily Telegraph - Saturday
A summer’s worth of herbs for under a tenner
Having triggered her interest in gardening in her early 20s, culinary herbs have always been important to Alice Vincent. Here, she explains how a summer of fresh flavours can start on the supermarket shelf
I’m something of a reluctant food grower. If I had an allotment, I’d probably use it for cut flowers. Edible plants have been quietly creeping into the garden – the first I’ve had to play with as a gardener – but there’s no dedicated bed for them, and most of the stuff that you can eat from the beds is a bonus: nasturtiums and cornflowers, which are flowers one happens to be able to eat.
This is all a little ironic, given that it was herbs that got me gardening in my early 20s, and it’s herbs that I still make sure I keep alive all year round. Few other plants in the garden – or previously on the balcony – have as much constancy, give as frequent daily pleasure and save as much single-use plastic. Windowsill-proof (inside or out), hardy and tolerant of neglect, herbs are the often overlooked workhorses of the edible garden. There’s little reason why we shouldn’t all be growing them.
Unfortunately, many new gardeners think themselves herb-killers after picking up a pot in the supermarket and watching it wither and die before they’ve had a chance to make the recipe in question. There are several reasons for this, and most of them offer a good introduction to plant care.
Given the above, you’d think I’d want to steer away from potted supermarket herbs. They’re almost definitely potted in soil laden with peat and pesticides, neither of which I bring into my garden if I can avoid it. But from a waste point of view, they’re too good to miss if you don’t have a greenhouse or bed already full of welltended herbs. When the alternative is to buy sad cut herbs in little plastic bags, I’d much rather you bought a potted one and took a few simple steps to keep it alive for a couple of seasons – often longer. Less plastic to landfill, more plants growing on our window sills, fresh herbs from home every time.
So how to grow when the odds are so stacked against them? Mostly, give them some space. The single best thing you can do for an overstuffed supermarket pot of basil is take it home, pot it up into a larger terracotta flower pot and put it somewhere warm and sunny; indoors until it really warms up outside. Terracotta is a great choice for those Mediterranean herbs that hate having wet feet – rosemary, sage and thyme among them – because it’s porous, letting excess water out more readily than plastic or metal.
However, you can make multiple plants from one tight root ball by taking it out of its plastic pot and gently teasing the plant apart. The pots normally imprint a cross on the bottom of the root ball, which can act as a guide: slowly tear it in half, pushing through the roots with your thumbs, and then divide again. It’s quite easy to get three or four divisions from one plant. These can then be potted into their own pots – again, with a little room to grow and make sure each one has a drainage hole. Peat-free potting compost is fine, but I do tend to mix in a little grit or sand, whichever I’ve got to hand, for rosemary and thyme. Water them in lightly and put them somewhere sunny.
If you want an abundance of smaller plants, this is one way to do it – and when I was limited to one small kitchen windowsill and a north-facing balcony that was how I kept herbs going (sunloving basil was given the best seat in the house – my east-facing bedroom windowsill – where it thrived). If you’ve got more room to play with, though, then a mini herb garden in a trough or part of a bed is possible.
Reluctant to give over too much bed space to edibles, I’ve got a herb bath on the patio. It’s an old metal job, artfully aged and found on Facebook Marketplace, and big enough to give those poor squished herbs some space.
Currently, it’s home to rosemary, thyme and oregano, all originally from Sainsbury’s and double the size they started as – I just plonked them into a mixture of home-made compost and peat-free potting mix. Mint, with its habit of taking over a space, has been exiled into a terracotta pot next to it. As summer approaches, I’ll sow basil and coriander, which germinate at higher temperatures, in the same bath.
Wherever you plant your herbs, their proximity to the kitchen is key. The herb bath is a bit of a mishmash – although having all of them in one place means I can direct my non-horticulturally inclined partner to “the bath” when we need a sprig of something – so I have a planter on the kitchen window ledge, too. This is filled with the herbs we eat most regularly: parsley and chives. Both, of course, originally from the supermarket several years ago.
‘Reluctant to give over too much bed space to edibles, I’ve got a herb bath on the patio’
Parsley, basil and coriander: the perfect kitchen herb garden