Herbs: What and Where to Grow
Powders, juices, perfumes, oils and seeds extracted fromwere used from the earliest times in religious ceremonies, in cooking, and by magicians in making philtres and other mysterious potions. Today herbs are usually grown for their great value in cooking, and it is well worth finding a small place for herbs in any garden. Some herbs are still grown for their medicinal properties, which are described in Chinese herbals compiled 2,700 years ago, and were also known to the ancient Egyptians.
The Anglo-Saxons were not familiar with the exotic, aromatic plants grown in the East, but they used the herbs growing wild in Britain for both flavouring and medicinal purposes. The use to which various plants were put is reflected in their English names, such as lungwort, liverwort, coughwort, throatwort and woundwort — the word “wort” meaning “plant”. These names are still in use today. The monks continued this tradition of herbal medicine, and almost every monastery had a herb or “infirmary” garden; but after the dissolution of the monasteries the cultivation and use of herbs gradually spread to the rest of the country, and it fell upon the woman of the household to grow the herbs needed for physic and in the kitchen.
WHAT TO GROW
Most herb plants have a spreading habit, andcan soon look untidy and neglected if the useful parts of the plants are not harvested as they become available, and if more herbs are planted than are needed.
Which herbs can be grown depends on the size and location of the garden, but a few plants of, chives, , mint, , rosemary, sorrel, summer savory, tarragon, thyme and a sage bush will provide a representative and varied collection which can be used either in salads or in cooked dishes.
, thyme and chives will grow well in window-boxes, a
nd parsley will also thrive, even in towns, as long as the air is not too sooty.
WHERE TO GROW
Herbs should be planted in a sunny position that faces south and is sheltered to the north and east from wind and frost (the part of the garden immediately outside the kitchen door, which is often thought to be the best place, is therefore sometimes impracticable).
Ideally, the ground should slope slightly towards the south so that the herbs that need more sun can be planted at the top, and those that need a damper soil and less sunshine can be placed at the bottom. If herbs are grown in a vegetable garden, make sure that they are not liable to be overshadowed by tall plants.
Most herbs thrive on a well-drained, light soil; many, including marjoram and thyme, will flourish on chalky ground; while angelica, bergamot, chamomile,and mint prefer the heavier soils. Herbs on the whole, however, are not fussy about soil and will generally succeed in any garden.
Clean the ground well, being particularly careful to get rid ofsuch as couch grass and ground elder. Soil that is heavy or really sticky can be lightened by forking in up to 2 bucketfuls of mortar rubble or wood ash to the sq. yd., but generally no special preparation is needed. If herbs are to be grown on a large scale, it is wise to send soil samples to be analysed by the county agricultural adviser, whose address can be obtained from the local council.
A CHESS-BOARD HERB GARDEN
The herbs are planted in 1-yd. squares. Alternate squares can be paved or filled with granite chippings or gravel
Herbs can be grown in a border, or in rows as in a vegetable garden, but if many different herbs are to be grown in the same part of the garden, care should be taken to plant the taller herbs, such as angelica, fennel, rosemary and sage at the back, and the smaller ones, such as chives, balm, marjoram, mint and thyme near the front.
Irregularly-shaped patches dovetailing with one another can be filled with individual plants, though for effect, patches of herbs that flower at the same time should be planted well apart.
A pleasing arrangement can be obtained by growing the plants in square blocks arranged like a chess-board, squares filled with various herbs alternating with squares filled with gravel, granite chippings or even paving stones.
Plants that vary in height can then be grown in squares near to each other without encroaching upon or overshadowing their neighbours. Each plot should be about 1 yd. square.
Alternatively, plants of the same natural order can be grouped in one bed and those of other orders in further beds. For example, beds could be devoted to the natural order Labiatae (basil, lavender, marjoram, mint and sage), and other beds to Umbelliferae (angelica, caraway, coriander,and fennel).
If more complicated designs are required, it is advisable to draw a detailed plan before beginning work in the garden. Various patterns can be used, with beds arranged round a central feature such as a sundial or bird bath. Four borders built round a central grass plot, or a chamomile lawn, can be most attractive. If there is enough space, a rowan,or magnolia tree can be placed in the middle of the lawn, although the amount of shade that will eventually be cast by the tree should be considered before planting.
If the plot is large, a pavedis probably the most attractive, not only because so many fascinating plants can be introduced between the stones, but also because the colour of the stones themselves will provide a perfect background for the herbs. The beds within the paved area can be either circular or square.
Various intricate designs based on the Elizabethan knot gardens can also be used, the beds being edged with santolina, box, violets or thyme, and the plants within the beds being arranged so that the maximum decorative effect is derived from the juxtaposition of one plant with its neighbours. Contrasting effects of leaf form and colour make the garden very attractive; mint can be contrasted with parsley, tansy with, or catmint with verbena.
Some herbs, such as anise, borage, chervil, coriander, dill and summer savory are treated as, and the seed is freshly sown each spring.
When the soil is warm enough, usually in April or early May, draw drills 8 in. apart and sow a pinch of seed along each drill. When the seedlings are large enough to handle, thin them out so that they are 3 in. apart, and later from 6 in. to 2 or 3 ft. apart according to the ultimate size of the plants. If the plants are to be used decoratively, sow the seeds broadcast and rake them in. Thin the seedlings in two stages to about 9 in. apart.
Most herbs, other than annuals, are propagated byin summer—sage, lavender, rosemary, thyme and winter savory are examples.
Take 3- to 4-in. cuttings from the parent plant, using only the previous year’s growth. Prepare them in the way described in Propagation, and put them in the soil very firmly. Most cuttings can be planted in rows in the open ground during the summer. The soil should be gritty. Alternatively, put in the cuttings round the edge of a clay pot filled with sand and leave them to root. Plant them out later. Whichever method is used, label the herbs, and also protect them from wind and sun for about two weeks. Spray them with water in the evenings until the roots have formed and are able to support the plants.
Cuttings can also be made in November and overwintered in a frame or cold, or even in a sheltered spot out-of-doors with some close protection during the worst weather. They will be ready for planting in their permanent positions the following spring.
The mints can be propagated in a simpler way—by division. They form long runner-like growths, which creep along just under the surface of the soil and produce little groups of roots at each node. In early spring, uproot the runners, break them off from the parent plant and put them in the soil on their own.
The crowns of such herbs as tansy and tarragon can also be divided and replanted in spring or autumn. Instructions in the method of propagation by division are given in Propagation.
Occasional weeding with a hoe in summer is the principal task in the herb garden. Twiggy plants with aromatic leaves such as lavender, sage and thyme do not usually need watering, but some herbs with soft growth and leaves, such as Angelica and the mints, will require a certain amount of moisture.
If herbs are harvested incorrectly or at the wrong time their value is lost. It is important to know exactly which part of the plant is to be used subsequently, and this information is given in the list of recommended herbs.
When the particular part of the plant is ready choose a dry day, and do not work until the dew has left the plants.
Collect the herbs into a flat box or basket to avoid crushing and bruising them, and do not gather more than can be dealt with at the time, because they do not retain their fragrance for long once they are cut.
Herbs are generally used fresh in the summer and dried and packaged for winter use. Most herbs can be used either fresh or dried, although chervil, chives, mint, rosemary and sage should be taken fresh from the garden if possible.
Lift the roots carefully in autumn when they are mature, wash free from soil and immediately drain off all water. Trim off any underground stems or fibrous roots.
When both roots and above-ground parts are to be used, lift the plant when in bloom and wash the roots free from soil.
The above-ground parts of the plant are known as the herb. When this is mature —after the plant has flowered—cut it off at ground level with a really sharp knife. Only clean and healthy plants are useful.
Harvest leaves just before the flowers are fully open, for at this time the plant is bursting with life. Choose leaves that are perfect and not those spoilt by insects.
Nip off the flower-heads the day before maturity (if this can be judged), in order to make sure that the essential oils have not been lost. The blooms should be perfect so that they do not deteriorate while drying and spoil the perfume of the pot-pourri or other product for which they are used. They should be as free from insects as possible, and if they are destined for floating in drinks or for candying, drop them into a bowl of water and leave them for a minute or two to wash any earwigs away.
It is difficult to estimate when some seed is mature. Colour is usually the best indication, and a year or two of experience will enable the gardener to decide.
To extract the seed, cut off the whole flowerhead and tie it in a paper bag; then hang it upside down in a light, airy place so that the seed will fall into the bag as the head dries. This method ensures that the seeds will remain free from dust and that those of different plants will not get mixed together. Sometimes seed has to be shaken or rubbed out of seed capsules. Do this over a clean shoe-box or other container with deep sides, after the plants have been dried.
Herbs should be dried indoors. The necessary conditions are:
(a) good, (b) shade, except for roots, which should be dried in full sun, and (c) a steady initial temperature of about 90° F. (32° C), checked with an air thermometer.
The best places to use for drying are a well-shaded greenhouse, the airing cup-board, an airy loft or spare room, or a shed or garage.
Do not use a kitchen, wash house, or bathroom, or a shed or garage made of corrugated iron, because all will produce too much condensation.
Dry the herbs as soon as they are harvested, to prevent decomposition. Spread the plants or parts collected in a shallow box without a lid, or on trays, butter muslin or wire netting. Space out the plants or parts so that they lie flat and do not overlap. Keep one kind of plant separate from another.
Some plants, such as artemisia or sage, can be hung upside down in small bunches from the rafters of an airy shed, garage or greenhouse, or indoors on a rod or cord stretched across a suitable place out of cold draughts. So that the air can circulate freely among the plants, the bunches should not be large or tied tightly.
The object of good drying is to reduce the moisture in the plant before it starts to die. It is therefore important to maintain a temperature at 90° F. (32° C), or slightly over for the first 24 hours, and then to reduce it without letting it fall below 72° F. (22° C); otherwise the drying process will not be completed satisfactorily and the plants will reabsorb moisture from the atmosphere. Turn the plants once or twice during the first 24 hours and once a day thereafter. Inadequate drying results in dead material, and hurried or excessive drying results in brittle, parched and useless material.
Roots take the longest time to dry, and stems take longer than leaves or flowers. The herbs are sufficiently dry when they snap readily without too much pressure. Seeds are dry when they can be shaken easily from their seed pods.
After crumbling the dried herbs between the hands to remove twiggy pieces, and discarding the stems if not required (as in the case of sage, for example), store the herbs at once before dust collects on them. Use airtight containers such as wooden bins, boxes, bottles, jars or paper bags. Bags should be hung up so that air can circulate round them. If moisture forms on the inside of the containers, the herbs have not been properly dried. Tip them out on to clean white paper and give them further time to dry.
Herbs are now used mainly for flavouring, although a few are still grown for their medicinal properties. Culinary herbs bring out the best in food, provided they are used in the right quantities. It is wise to remember that they are added to a soup, sauce, salad or protein dish to provide subtlety of flavour and not to swamp it. Herbs used with warm dishes are usually added just before cooking is complete, but they are added early in the preparation of uncooked and cold dishes to allow the flavour to develop. If fresh herbs are used for flavouring, do not chop or crush them on a board, but snip them repeatedly with scissors so that the essence is retained. The foods with which various herbs can be used are mentioned in the list of recommended herbs.
SPECIAL MIXTURES OF HERBS
Fines herbes are usually chervil, chives, parsley and tarragon finely chopped.
Bouquet garni is a bunch of herbs, usually parsley, thyme, bay, tarragon and sometimes marjoram, tied with thread and added during cooking to stock or water. Dried herbs can be used if tied in a small piece of muslin. Remove the herbs before serving.
Herb teas or tisanes have been drunk for many centuries, and their various uses are listed in herbalists’ catalogues. They are not only taken as a medicine but also for their refreshing flavour, pleasant aroma and colour. To make a tisane, pour boiling water over the fresh or dried plants and let the infusion stand for seven to ten minutes before drinking. Tisanes are sometimes bottled, but this is not a common practice.
A pot-pourri is a mixture of flower-heads and leaves preserved with some of their essential oils. It is usually kept in a place where its scent can pervade a room or cupboard.
Many different mixtures can be made of flowers and leaves that hold their scent when dried, such as roses, lavender, rosemary, bergamot, verbena and geranium leaves. A pot-pourri can be expensive to make, but an economical recipe will produce a satisfactory result.
Mix together 1 oz. allspice, 1 oz. cloves, 1 oz. ground nutmeg and 4 oz. orris-root; add the juice and grated rind of 3 lemons. Any or all of the following can also be added: 15 oz. oil of geranium, 1 oz. essence of lemon, ½ oz. oil of bergamot, ½ oz. spirit of lavender.
Make a separate mixture of handfuls of rose petals that have been dried for an hour or two in the sun, salt and salt-petre—a few pinches of each of these are enough for each handful of petals. Let the two mixtures stand for a few hours, and then stir them together. Put this mixture into a tightly fastened container and, as moreand leaves become available, add them without drying them first. The mixture should remain moist, so add more salt if it tends to dry out. At the end of the season, when no more plants are to be added, stir the pot-pourri again and put it into a bowl. Its perfume will last for a long time.