Using herbs is the gateway to good food. They freshen up heavy winter dishes and enhance delicate summer flavour; with very little effort they can transform something ordinary into something really special. Fortunately, most are easy to grow, and for the home gardener the best thing to get you started.
Culinary herbs are usually divided into two categories: soft herbs and woody herbs. Soft herbs are normally grown as annuals, sowing and harvesting in the same year. Woody herbs are perennial and need to be maintained accordingly. Grow both types - and be creative with variety; there is a huge array of colour, fragrance and flavour waiting to be unleashed on your senses.
Most herbs will tolerate most conditions, so don’t feel limited by what space/soil you have. The general rule is that fertile free draining soil will set you in good stead, but thyme, for instance, likes it dry, and mint likes it wet, but thankfully both will produce well without. Herbs with shallow fibrous roots can also be successfully grown in pots and will grow well without full sun.
Good garden centres or specialist nurseries will have most herbs for sale in pots but most, (especially soft herbs) are easily grown from seed, and this is the most economical way to have herbs all year round. Seed is cheap, so successionally sow basil, parsley, coriander, chervil and fennel throughout the year. Coriander is a herb that people struggle with - “it always bolts”! Avoid growing coriander in the hottest months of the summer, sowing in the early spring or autumn under cover will mean it crops during the cooler months and will help with the bolting. However, letting coriander run to seed can give delicious rewards - the flowers and seeds, green or dried, are delicious in the kitchen.
Perennial herbs are simple to grow but easy to mismanage - in the first few years of planting, pick sparingly as herbs like rosemary and tarragon need some time to get established and suffer if heavily picked. I have never successfully been able to grow a large rosemary plant at River Cottage HQ because it is simply too tempting to the chefs swinging knives! If your herb plant is looking tired or overworked you can cut it back hard, which can rejuvenate new growth. But don’t be afraid to cut your losses and start again with a new specimen. Perennial herbs appreciate a mulch in the winter months to replenish nutrients and supress weeds.
Some new herbs to try:
Anise hyssop - hardy perennial, sweet minty aniseed flavour, good substitute for tarragon and goes well with seafood.
Summer savory - hardy annual, peppery and aromatic, use like thyme.
Lemon verbena – half-hardy perennial, very fragrant lemon sherbet aroma, great in tea or infused in a stock syrup to be used in ice cream or sorbets.
Angelica - hardy biennial, juniper-like flavour, candy the stems to accompany cooked fruit.
Sweet cicely - hardy perennial, delicate aniseed flavour rather like chervil, with beautiful flowers.