Feature

10 of the best herbs for your kitchen garden

Green Lifestyle magazine

Add a burst of fresh flavour to your cooking with home grown herbs.

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A relative of mine of the older Italian persuasion once told me how years ago he stood on the path in his backyard and broadcast a handful of parsley seeds. “I never had to plant it after that,” he said, proudly pointing out frilly green tufts on all sides of the garden that were the latest generations from self-sown seeds.

If you’re more of a rows or groups kind of planter, you’ll probably be happier with just a few specimens of parsley and other herb varieties, confined to a certain spot in your garden where you can easily keep track of them. Here are ten must-have herbs to include in that spot, each of which play leading or pivotal supporting roles in plenty of tasty recipes. There are tips to take you from planting to harvest to table.

1. Parsley

In the garden: Choose from traditional curly-leaf parsley or the stronger flavoured flat-leaf Continental type. It’s grown as an annual and will eventually go to seed and die down. It’s easiest to start from seed where you want it to grow, as its seedlings can be a little temperamental when transplanted from pots. Soak them in water overnight before planting to speed up germination (often four weeks). It’s not averse to a bit of shade but doesn’t like wet feet, so just keep it evenly moist. Picking regularly will keep plants compact and dense.

In the kitchen: Fresh parsley is much tastier than dried, and as it’s a set-and-forget type of plant, why wouldn’t you have some in the garden? It has almost too many uses to name – you can throw a chopped handful in everything from stews and soups to frittatas. Italians tie a bunch of flat-leaf parsley and use it as a brush to dress fish with seasoned oil.

2. Dill

In the garden: Plant dill at the back of the garden bed as it’s tall, often reaching one metre. Space seeds only about 15 cm apart, so plants can support each other. Dill is grown as an annual, performing well in all but tropical areas. The start of spring is a good time to plant seed in temperate areas; October in cooler areas. In sub-tropical and dry areas, it grows through autumn and winter. Harvest regularly or it will go to seed.

In the kitchen: The pungent, whispy leaves are great in herb butter, and the plant’s seeds are quite versatile in flavouring oils and salad dressings – giving an aniseed flavour. You can use them whole or grind them with a mortar and pestle. Leave some seed heads on plants as their pretty yellow colour will attract pollinating insects to your garden. You can dry the leaves easily by microwaving them for about three minutes, then crumbling them and discarding the stems.

3. Chives

In the garden: Chives can be planted now in all but tropical regions, where they do best started in late autumn. They like a sunny aspect. All you’ll need is two or three plants, which are actually clumps of tiny bulbs. They spread a little, so plant about 30 cm apart. Snip off stems as you need them. They’ll die down in winter but give the clumps a haircut after flowering and they’ll come back next growing season. They produce pretty purple flowers – leave one or two for seeds and cut the rest off to encourage more leaf growth. After about three years, dig up the clump and divide it into small clumps of about six bulbs for replanting, or giving away to friends, or potting to keep on a sunny windowsill indoors over winter.

In the kitchen: Instead of making garlic bread, try making chive bread. Add fresh chopped chives to butter or margarine and spread a dob in slits cut into a French stick or ciabatta loaf . You can freeze-dry chives by spreading them on a flat tray and putting them in the freezer uncovered. They with go dry and brittle. Store them in an airtight jar.

4. Sage

In the garden: Perhaps the prettiest of the herbs, it’s grey-green, textured leaves are produced on plants growing 60–90 cm high. An average household probably only needs one plant. Sage grows as a perennial and can be started now in temperate to cool areas. If you know someone who has a plant, take a cutting and try striking it in a pot for planting out later. Don’t be heavy handed with the watering as sage originated in dry Mediterranean parts. Cut back by a third each spring to ensure a dense habit. It will become straggly after four or five years, when it’s best to replace the plant. It can suffer from mildew so allow space for air circulation.

In the kitchen: A quintessential ingredient for stuffing – try adding it to breadcrumbs and melted butter for stuffing mushrooms. Trawl the Internet and you’ll find that bloggers espouse its virtues in simple butter dressings for gnocchi or pasta, and in bean and polenta dishes.

5. Rosemary

In the garden: You needn’t take up precious space in the vegie patch with this herb. This medium size shrub is also at home amongst ornamental plants in regular garden beds. If fact, if your friendly neighbour has one within arm’s reach for regular pinching, you may not need your own. It’s best started in subtropical and temperate zones now. It likes sun and sandy soil on the dry side. Try growing it from cuttings, or buy a seedling. Once the plant is off and running, you’ll be harvesting all year.

In the kitchen: Rosemary loses its flavour somewhat when dried, so dry it in small batches for quick use. Just hang it by some string in the kitchen or an airy place. However, you can throw whole fresh sprigs on top of whatever’s cooking in a baking tray: potatoes, fish, roasts (organic, free-range, of course).

6. Thyme

In the garden: Now’s a good time in all but hot and tropical areas of Australia to start thyme seedlings for planting out as spring progresses into summer. Sow the seeds in pots or trays and put them in a warm, frost-free place until they are about 10cm tall. Then plant out. They’ll die down in winter.

In the kitchen: Though fine, the stems are a little woody, so strip off the leaves and discard the stems. The leaves are small, so they don’t need chopping. Thyme is one of the ingredients in the traditional French bouquet garni – a mixed bunch of herbs tied with string and tossed into sauces, stews and stocks while cooking. Thyme goes well in tomato dishes.

7. Oregano

In the garden: Oregano will do well planted directly in the garden in all but tropical areas this time of year (leave until autumn for the tropics). This perennial grows about 45 cm tall and can be propagated from cuttings. Space plants about 15 cm apart. It likes well-drained soil and will keep a bushier habit if you cut it back to about 15 cm a couple of times during the growing season.

In the kitchen: Oregano and tomatoes are a great flavour match – great in homemade pizza and pasta sauce. Some people prefer it dried as the flavour mellows slightly.

8. Tarragon

In the garden: The variety most grown for cooking is French tarragon. Start it now in arid, subtropical and temperate regions of Australia. It’s quite hardy but may be killed by frost, so give it some protection if frost is forecast. Mulching the soil around the plants can help protect the roots. Don’t expect seeds as these rarely set – you’ll need to grow this plant from a seedling or a cutting.

In the kitchen: If you plan on getting into French cooking, you’ll need some tarragon in the kitchen garden. Besides that, it’s great in chicken dishes and creamy sauces, such as tartare sauce. It has a strong flavour with a hint of aniseed, so use it sparingly. The long, attractive leaves are easily frozen. Wrap them and put them in an airtight container and take them out as needed. You don’t even have to defrost them.

9. Mint

In the garden: This is a perennial plant that may die down over winter but will come back. It gets a bit leggy, so will need a chop to keep growth compact. And it runs! You may like to confine it to a pot to stop it straying – but remember to keep up the water as it doesn’t like dry conditions. It thrives in part shade. If you start seedlings now in all but the hot or tropical regions, they’ll be ready for planting out at the end of spring. In the middle of our cover this issue is Vietnamese mint.

In the kitchen: Wait until you’re just about to use it before chopping the leaves as the edges will turn black after a while. While its distinctive flavour adds a punch on its own, it combines well with coriander or parsley in stir-fries and fish dishes.

10. Basil

In the garden: Italian gardeners in the know recommend a sprig of basil behind the ear as you work in the vegie patch for a whiff of that distinctive aroma. This hungry plant likes fertile soil, so add lots of organic matter. Plants will stay compact and last longer if you harvest stems regularly, especially those developing seed heads. Seeds can take a fair while to germinate so you could start them in trays indoors ahead of planting time, which is mid spring in most parts of Australia, though almost any time in tropical regions. Frost may kill plants.

In the kitchen: It’s recommended to add basil to the cooking pot at the last minute as the flavour will diminish with cooking. Wrap in recipe-size portions for freezing in an airtight container so you’ll have some even when it’s out of season. It may go a little black but the flavour with remain. Making pesto is a great way to use up rampant basil – and it lasts for months when frozen. Make your favourite pesto recipe, then pour the mixture into a shallow, lidded container and partially freeze it. Leave in the container and use a sharp knife to cut lines right through the pesto both vertically and horizontally to create cubes. Replace the lid and freeze. When you need some pesto use a fork or knife to prize out a couple of cubes.

Herb growing tips
- Grow herbs in a part of the garden that gets at least six hours of direct sunlight daily.
- Add plenty of organic matter to the soil.
- Sow seeds at a depth that’s three times the seeds’ diameter.
- Water well while plants are establishing.
- A fortnightly watering with an organic plant conditioner, such as a seaweed solution, will keep them growing well.
- Some herbs, such as parsley and basil, are grown as annuals and are replaced after they flower; so if you see them flagging at summer’s end it’s not your fault.
- Others are perennials, which will last two or more growing seasons, e.g. sage and mint.
- Leave seeds on some plants to self-seed where they fall, or snip off the drying flower heads, stick the seed ends inside a paper bag and hang them upside down to dry so the seeds fall into the bag to dry, tie bunches of stems together and hang upside down in a dry, airy place.