Monday, October 6, 2008

A happy herb garden

Unthinkable! A kitchen garden without herbs? I could easily imagine a kitchen garden without vegetables, as vegies are a lot of hard work for the short-term rewards they offer, but herbs are much better value for effort - they're must-grow kitchen garden plants. Maybe Sydney is herb heaven, but I find most herbs are so easy to grow they're best thought of as really useful weeds. The only difference is that we invite herbs into our gardens, whereas we don't invite the weeds. But once many herbs settle in, they need roughly the same amount of care as weeds do. As all my herbs are looking lovely this morning, I thought I'd spend a bit of my Labour Day long weekend singing the praises of the herbs I have growing here at the moment.

By far and away, this is my favourite herb – common thyme. It's truly versatile in the kitchen: I use it in stocks, soups, vegie dishes, stuffings, casseroles and countless other dishes. And out in the garden it looks after itself. It softens the edge of the paving very well, and thrives on Sydney's generous natural rainfall. It gets no fertiliser at all, and is cut back regularly because I often use some in the kitchen. Thyme flowers are tiny and remarkably pretty little pink numbers. I'm not sure how old this plant is, but it's been here for years and is now a part of the family.

My French tarragon had a troubled early career here, sulking in two or three different spots before I found one that suited it. Now it gets all the autumn and winter sun I can offer it, but shelter from the worst of the harsh afternoon sun in summer. It also likes a steady water supply in its pot, but not much fertiliser (just slow-release granules). Each spring I cut it back, and it soon bounces back, as it is doing here after its early September shave. Tarragon is a natural ally of chicken in particular, but it's great with veal, fish, tomatoes, in salad dressings and to flavour vinegar, if you're really keen.

Definitely the leader of the pack when it comes to herby weediness, mint must be grown in pots if you want it to stop taking over in the garden. I grow both spearmint and common mint, and use them a lot in salads, Asian cooking and to make tea. These plants love semi-shade, water and fertiliser, and need radical cutting back (a crew-cut down to pot-rim level) several times a year, to stay dense and lovely, as it is right now.

Though it's a classic Mediterranean herb, which should love a wet, cool winter and a hot, dry summer, this sage plant has had a trouble-free run for years here in Sydney's mild winters and humid summers. That's weedy versatility for you! Like thyme (and rosemary, too) sage needs no fertiliser at all and no additional watering. However, I do have it growing in our sunniest spot in well-drained soil. In the kitchen sage is part of my favourite Roman veal fry-up, saltimbocca (veal escalopes topped with a thin piece of prosciutto and a sage leaf or two), and sage really is magic with onions in stuffings for chicken and turkeys. But this hardy herb has a powerful flavour, so don't use too much if you're experimenting with it for the first time.

As thyme is an excellent choice for softening the edges of our central pathway, so are the two parsleys – continental and curly-leaf. Pictured here is a new planting of the flat-leaf continental parsley getting underway from seed. Parsley seed is super-slow to germinate (three to four weeks) and the baby plants aren't exactly rockets, either, but once they get growing in spring, the seed-sown plants have a happier life than transplanted seedlings, I have found. Parsley likes regular liquid feeds, more so than most of the other herbs growing here.

This is actually a shot from last summer, on the other side of the path, where the curly parsley bordered a patch containing basil, shallots and various other herbs, flowers and vegies. For prettiness, the curly parsley border takes the prize. It's an easier plant to grow than the flat-leaf parsley, too.

As well as being a big fan of the looks of curly parsley, I think it's greatly underrated in the kitchen. Sure, its flavour is milder than that of flat-leaf parsley, but I find that mildness works well with fish, various vegetables and other subtle-flavoured foods. The flat-leaf parsley has a bold flavour that holds its own with red meats, tomatoes and other robust dishes, and it does make a better tabouleh too! But the little curly-leaf parsley is as indispensible to my cooking as its more revered continental cousin.

As it turns out, this golden marjoram is hardly ever used in my cooking. I just love its colour, which gets more and more golden over the summer. Like sage, oregano, rosemary and thyme, it's so easy-care I never feed or water it. All I do is chop it back when it spreads too far. Its sole job in the garden is to look lovely, and be a nice backdrop to a nearby low-slung birdbath, and it has performed this task effortlessly for more than 10 years.

Another pot of basil on the way, with a spot of thinning no doubt necessary in the next few days where I sowed the seed too thickly. In recent years I've taken to treating basil as a three-month herb – ie, I sow about three crops per spring-summer period. Though basil is an annual, if you leave it to grow too long the leaves lose flavour and sweetness. So, I sow crops of it, use it as often as I can (and that's easy to do when you like tomatoes and salads like I do) and then turn the final 'harvest' into pesto (which also freezes brilliantly). A month or so before the first crop ends, I sow the next one from seed, either in a pot or to fill a gap that crops up in the garden.
This is a photo from last summer, of course. Basil loves monthly liquid feeds and a steady supply of water. If you leave basil to soldier on for the whole summer, it would be killed off by the cold of early winter, but by then it would be a sad imitation of these luscious summer leaves. One packet of basil seeds will last me two years, so it's still as cheap as chips to grow.

Another long-lived mainstay of the herb garden, chives also love good growing conditions: lots of sushine, water and liquid feeds. We use them a lot in the kitchen, too. They're the magic ingredient in Sunday morning's scrambled eggs on toast, and have become a family favourite mixed into a mash made up of 50% potato and 50% pumpkin. Though regular cutting is the secret of keeping most herbs happy, it's especially true with chives. They thrive on cutbacks. Each spring I take the whole plant from the pot, cut off two-thirds of its rootball and replant it into fresh potting mix. Then I give it a crew-cut up top, too, followed by a feed, and it bounces back within weeks every time.

This oregano patch was part of the original property when we bought it 17 years ago. It's as tough as any plant and gets no extra food or water and thrives there. I must confess that I don't use fresh oregano very much in cooking, as I have discovered the dried wild oregano sold in the local Greek delicatessens, and I much prefer that!

My original, super-fragrant, beautifully oily rosemary bush was in a spot that blocked Pam's view of part of the garden from her office window. So (after awhile!) I moved it by the simple method of cutting off a dozen stalks-cuttings two springs ago and just sticking them in the ground in their proposed new spot. Most of the cuttings started growing readily enough over the next summer. Now the plants are so big I'm regularly cutting them back. In the kitchen, rosemary is a bit like sage in that its flavour is strong, so it's easy to over-do it. It's a wonderful herb to accompany lamb or chicken or potatoes, but to me it's mostly my favourite fragrant garden plant (just ahead of young basil). I'd rather be close to a rosemary bush than a rose bush, any day!

If there's one main trick with growing most herbs, apart from giving them what they want in the way of food, soil, water and sunshine, it's this: cut them back often. If you don't need the herbs for cooking, it doesn't matter. Cut some leaves or branches off and just pop them in the compost, or give them to someone. But cut your herbs back regularly, no matter what. They will grow more densely, and I suspect the regular cutting probably stimulates more root growth and that, in the long run, produces healthier, happier herb plants.


Melinda said...

I've just discovered your blog and am really enjoying it! I am an Inner Westie as well, although we share a garden (which is mostly concrete anyway). Nonetheless, I'v been growing herbs in old tubs and drawers, and using lots of pots. Love your photos of the poppies and herbs!

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