Grow your own herbs

I love to add herbs to my cooking and experiment with dozens of them. Herbs give so much flavour and transform even the blandest dish into a delicious feast! However, buying herbs in pre-packed cellophane bags from a supermarket is not a thrifty idea. Firstly, they are expensive to buy and secondly, a pack of herbs will only keep in the refrigerator for a few days. Often there’s too much in the packet for one meal meaning that probably only half the packet is used. Waste, waste, waste!

One way around this is to wash and chop the herbs, place in an ice cube tray, cover with a little water and freeze. At least the herbs are not wasted and can be used for another meal. The frozen ice cubes full of herbs can be popped into a colander or sieve and left to defrost and drain prior to using. One problem is that many people don’t have a full sized freezer and use an ice box inside a refrigerator instead. If this is the case, it’s likely that the ice box is packed full of frozen meals and vegetables – so not much room for the herbs.

I sow herb seeds and also buy small pots of herbs from garden centres or by mail order. Supermarkets sell pots of herbs but there’s not many to choose from and when I do shop for herbs I like to buy several different varieties. When buying pots of herbs from a specialist grower, they often have offers, for example, buy a tray of six mixed herbs and get one free.

Herbs are easy to grow and you don’t have to have green fingers at all! There are just a few rules to growing beautiful abundant herbs for use in the kitchen.

Some herbs love to be in the sun while others prefer dappled shade. The most common sun loving ones are Thyme, Sage, Rosemary, Tarragon, Marjoram, Oregano and Bay. The herbs that prefer more shade (and more moisture in the compost) are Parsley, Mint, Chives, Rocket, Chervil, Sorrel, Mizuna and Mustard.

Herbs need a soil based compost to grow in rather than one containing peat, which is too acidic for most herbs.

Feed your herbs regularly especially if growing them in pots. I use an organic seaweed based liquid feed once a fortnight during the growing season which helps the plants to produce plenty of healthy leaves.

If possible, water your herbs well in the morning before the sun shines on them and causes scorching to their leaves. Doing this will help the plant during the warmest part of the day as the compost will still be moist (unless it is a very hot day). It is more important than ever to water container plants as they dry out much quicker than when they are growing in the ground. During summer, it may be necessary to water two to three times a day. Check the compost and if it feels dry, give the plants a good watering taking care to water the compost and not the plants’ leaves.

Harvest the leaves from the outside of the plant, rather than the centre. This allows the centre of the plant to continue growing.

Any of the herbs mentioned above can be grown in pots or containers either individually or in groups. If there is no space outside for pots, they will grow happily on a sunny windowsill. The containers don’t have to be fancy, old plastic yoghurt pots, for example, washed out and a hole pierced in the base will do fine. Just sit the pot on a saucer for water to drain into.

When the plants get bigger, a plastic trough on a windowsill looks good planted up with a selection of herbs. Mint, which I love to use in cooking, is a very invasive plant and if grown in the ground will completely take over. I always grow mint in a large pot. It can be sunk into the border amongst other herbs, but do make sure the pot has plenty of drainage holes or the plant will die.

If you don’t want to spend a lot of money on large containers, try using an old bucket. Make drainage holes in the base and you have the perfect container for your herbs. Or, what about an old dustbin? Carefully cut in half horizontally, again, make some drainage holes in the base. If the plastic edge is too sharp after cutting the dustbin in half, cover the cut edge in duck tape to prevent it from cutting you. If looks are important and you don’t like the sound of buckets or dustbins – why not paint or decorate them? If you have children they’ll probably enjoy doing a work of art transforming a black dustbin into a masterpiece!

Enjoy growing your own herbs! Gather them, rinse them, pat dry with a towel and chop – the aroma will be wonderful! There is nothing like the smell of fresh herbs being used in the kitchen! So forget tired looking greens in a plastic bag and have the freshest available. The fresher the herbs are when added to dishes, the stronger the flavour. One other point about cooking with herbs is that the more delicately flavoured ones like basil, chervil and parsley are best added to the recipe as late as possible so that the flavour is not destroyed.

If your herbs grow massive and there are too many, just harvest a lot of the stems and leave in the sun to dry or place on a baking sheet in a very cool oven until dry, or tie in bundles with string and hang up in the kitchen. When the leaves are dry they can be shaken off the stems (onto a chopping board or piece of greaseproof paper) then stored in sterilized screw top jars for using over the winter.

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