Sunday, 11 April 2010

Chronicles of a New Garden: herbs

by Francesca


~ Borage is an annual plant, with small cobalt blue flowers which bees love. Borage is a good companion plant for tomatoes and strawberries. Flowers and leaves are used in cooking. ~

When planning a garden, remember to set aside plenty of space for herbs. In fact, herbs are a great addition to vegetable gardens of any size: they're easy to grow and have many uses, but also attract bees when they flower, repel many pests, and look nice too!

~ Mint grows as a wild weed in my countryside. Leaves are great for cool summer drinks. ~

Herbs have culinary, medicinal, ornamental and aromatic uses. Personally, though, apart from lavender, which I grow for its fragrance, I use them mainly in cooking, as a flavor-enhancer (like oregano on pizza), a key ingredient (like basil in pesto), and even as a stand-alone dish (like fried, large-leaved sage leaves - see below). Herbs are an important ingredient in my cooking every day, and a bottle of herb-infused extra virgin olive oil is always on our dinner table.

~ Fresh rosemary, sage, chopped garlic and olive oil is a great condiment for grilled vegetables and meat - apply using a sprig of rosemary as a brush. ~

When planting herbs, remember that many culinary herbs are perennials, which, depending on your climate, may eventually grow into large bushes, so plant them where they can grow undisturbed and without disturbing. This is particularly so in the case of lavender. I planted my very first lavender bush in a spot I'd carefully selected so that I could see it from my window. This happened to be right by the entrance to my garden; in a couple years' time the lavender bush had grown to 10 times its original size, making it hard to get in, and also become a bit of a hazard when in full bloom and buzzing with bees.

thyme and lavender
~ Lavender and lemon thyme which I planted at the edge of our drywall terrace, in rocky soil: I'm not sure they'll grow well together, but they should look very attractive when flowering. ~

Perennials (such as rosemary, sage, oregano, thyme, lavender, marjoram, chives, and mint) usually do well even in poor soil and with limited water: in fact, in the Mediterranean countryside where I live, they grow wild in the most improbable places - cascading down from stone walls, flourishing inside abandoned farmhouses. So perennial herbs grow well in pots if you have a small garden, or if your winter climate is harsh (you can bring your herb pots indoors in the fall).

sage leaves

sage leaves 2
~ Large sage leaves, fresh-pruned, coated in a light beer butter and fried: they make a tasty and unusual hors d'oeuvre. ~

To keep your perennial herbs healthy, prune them in springtime just before they flower. Keep these cuttings, which are ideal for drying: most herbs are at their most perfumed and flavorful just before flowering (Sadge wrote a post for the co-op on drying herbs, here).

~ I planted chives at the edge of my lettuce, carrot and radish bed, where they can easily be reached by my little helpers. ~

Where should you plant your herbs? Intercrop them with companion plants whenever possible. Annual herbs, such as basil, coriander and parsley, should be rotated, whereas perennials should be planted in a sunny spot where you - and your family - can easily get to them. In fact, in our family it's my kids' task to trot out to the garden to pick a few fresh sage leaves, a twig of rosemary, a cutting of chives, or whatever other herb I need to bring what I'm cooking to life.

What are your favorite herbs to grow, and how do you use them?