If you are going to tarry a while in Veggiestan, you will need fresh herbs. If you live in a big city, then you will have no trouble buying them; but if you live halfway up Mount Snowdon, then clearly your best bet is to grow them yourself.
A confession. I’m really rubbish at gardening. Brown fingers, that’s me. I’m also pretty ignorant (although if I don’t know what something is called, I tend to inform everyone in my most authoritative voice that it is a lobelia). And I’m a chronic arachnophobe, which tends to keep me out of much of the garden at the best of times. But even I have had some success at growing herbs. And there is nothing quite as satisfying as popping outside to harvest herbs that you are just about to use in the kitchen…
Below is my brief guide to the most useful herbs you can grow. But so you don’t have to replicate my method, which consists largely of keeping my fingers crossed, I got one of Britain’s nicest gardeners (who happens to be a former Peckham resident) to jot down a few handy herby hints…
Dan Pearson is the gardening columnist for the Observer and the author of a number of beautiful books on garden projects. My favourite is the one pictured right, which will inspire even horticultural eejits such as myself: it is packed full of nice words and pretty pictures and left me Googling for some chi-chi wellies and dusting off my trowel.
The Veggiestan Six are coriander, basil, dill, mint, parsley and tarragon. They are the most common ingredients in the Persian sabzi basket (Iranians are clearly part rabbit, as they eat great handsful of herbs with every meal), and they are ubiquitous ingredients across the Middle East. They are all also really good for you. Mint, basil, dill and tarragon are all good for the digestion, coriander opens the appetite and is a chelation agent (posh way of saying it detoxes), parsley sweetens the breath and cleans the kidneys… You can read a bit more about Veggiestani herbal remedies here, and there will be more to follow in coming months. Anyway, now we must cultivate our garden….
Dan says: Most herbs like plenty of light and air with well-drained soil. That said, if you are growing them in pots or window-boxes try and use a loam rather than a peat-based compost as it is easier to re-wet if it dries It also has more long-term stamina.
Basil: likes pots (remember Isabella and her pot of basil?). This is good as it means that you can plant it in pots indoors to germinate and take it outside once it’s sprouting. And you can also bring it back inside for the Winter (which it doesn’t like). You should plant seedlings about 15-20cm apart, and then water them sparingly-but-regularly (preferably at midday).
Dan Says: Basil is an annual and is easily grown from seed. Basil likes good living, and all the warmth it can get to do well. It will rapidly run to seed if it gets dry. Pinch out the growing tips when you harvest to encouraging branching and new foliage.
Coriander: needs a fair bit of soil, as it has a long taproot (hark at me using the lingo). If you are growing it in a pot, choose a deep one. It likes sunshine, and doesn’t like too much water.
Dan says: Coriander is also an annual and shares many of the same requirements and foibles as basil. Where basil will happily transplant as seedlings, coriander must be sown direct and allowed to run its life cycle in the same position. Re-sow every six weeks during the growing season for a crop of new plants.
Dill: doesn’t like it too hot. It grows well in the Spring. Harvesting the green bits is easy, but if you want to harvest the seeds (which are also pretty good for cooking) you should wait until the heads have gone brown, wrap them in a paper bag and hang them up upside down so that the seeds drop out.
Dan says: Dill is also an annual and like coriander must be sown direct and left where it is. Dill does not share the same requirement as basil for good living and can cope with the cool of a British summer. Easy, but re-sow monthly to keep you in a succession of young foliage as it is runs to seed rapidly.
Parsley: Soaking parsley seeds in warm water gets them off to a good start in life. They too can be started indoors and then kicked outside when the weather gets warmer. They like to be around 20cm apart. If you are leaving parsley plants outside in the colder months, snuggle them up under a cloche.
Dan says: Parsley is a biennial, forming a good crop of foliage in the first year and bolting to seed the next. Flat leaved parsley is superior to crinkly. Best sown in rows and avoid drying out to prevent bolting.
Mint: is rather hard to grow from seed, so best use cuttings. Look out for ‘rust’: if your mint gets rusty, destroy the crop as this is what gardeners call a bad thing. It is quite hardy, and you can plant a batch in Autumn.
Tarragon: is also best grown from cuttings. It’s a sensitive soul, and quite likes living indoors.
Dan says: Tarragon and mint are best grown in pots as they are both prone to running. Both are perennial and will come back year after year but divide and replant biennially in spring to ensure the healthiest plants as they are hungry and will rapidly outstrip their resources. Pinch out tips to harvest and cut to the base if the plant gets tired to encourage a fresh new crop of leaves.
So there we go. No excuses. Dig and delve in 2012.