The Simple Things
IN A NEW SERIES, LIA LEENDERTZ PICKS HERBS FROM HER GARDEN TO COOK IN HER KITCHEN. COULD IT BE SIMPLER? TO BEGIN, HER ADVICE ON WHAT TO GROW AND WHERE
What makes the difference between a bog standard tomato sauce and one that is redolent of an Italian kitchen garden in summer? Between a passable salad and one that is complex and moreish? Or a basic béchamel and a fragrant and savoury one? A tiny sprinkling of herbs. Herbs punch above their weight in the kitchen, a mere teaspoonful lending interest and depth, a good handful turning dishes into vibrant celebrations of the season. They are also brilliantly easy to grow, and so a good place to begin if you have any interest in growing your own. Herbs can produce for meal upon meal from an occasional trickle of water. Many even thrive on being picked, using the nipping out of a few leaves as the stimulus to stop growing tall and lanky and start bushing up from down below. Put simply: herbs are givers, and I implore you to grow a few if you are not already, or to grow more if you are.
If you have a sunny garden, patio or windowsill, the herb world is your oyster. A good number of well loved herbs hail from the Mediterranean, on parched, sun-blasted hillsides. Thyme, oregano,
marjoram, lavender, sage and rosemary are all Mediterranean ‘sub-shrubs’.
They are generally compact and easy to fit into all but the very tiniest of sunny gardens, their one other requirement being well drained soil. If you have boggy or clay soil, or if are not sure how suitable your soil is, grow them in pots instead, where you can tailor the compost to suit your herbs’ specifications. Mix handfuls of grit or gravel into the compost before planting to help water to drain away from the roots quickly.
These herbs all benefit from being picked little and often, which makes them bush out from the base: see this as nature’s way of making you cook with them regularly. If any of yours start to get leggy, give them a light trim to the same effect. None of them likes to be cut back hard. Fennel is another perennial sun
lover but with a very different growth habit: it is a plant that really does need a bit of space (and likes to self-seed too), but it will die back every year, unlike the sub-shrubs. Bay – bigger again – thrives in sun or partial shade.
Basil is an essential sun-loving herb and an annual that will need to be replanted every year. Sow seeds only when the weather is reliably warm. Water each morning and pinch out the top few leaves when you want to cook with it, just as you would with other herbs. Dill is likewise an annual and should be sown in late spring directly into the spot where it is to grow, as it hates root disturbance.
Do not despair of your future herb-filled lunches if your garden only boasts shade, as there are several herbs that will thrive there. Mint is the queen of shade-loving herbs: plant it in a pot in your dankest corner and it will still produce fresh and lively leaves all season long. It is always best grown in a pot alone as its roots are thuggish and will quickly swamp other plants. Tip it out of its pot every year or so, and cut the root ball into sections to replant in fresh compost, in order to keep this beast well fed and growing happily.
Chives will also grow contentedly in shade, though they’ll produce fewer of their edible flowers than they would in sun. As with mint, chives are perennials that will die down each winter and leap back into life each spring. Lovage is another perennial that will grow happily in partial shade, as will sweet cicely. Short-lived shade-loving herbs include
coriander, parsley and chervil, all of which are best sown in late summer for use through autumn, winter and spring.
Whatever your gardening situation and level of knowledge, it is always worth fitting in a few herbs in to your border, pot or window box, for the way in which they will transform every meal you cook. You may not ever be able to boast self sufficiency in potatoes or greens or tomatoes, but once you start growing your own you’ll always be self sufficient in good, herby flavours.