JEKKA MCVICAR'S ADVICE ON STARTING A HERB GARDEN
As spring approaches, many young and new gardeners are finding the idea of starting their own herb garden appealing. The UK's leading expert on herbs Jekka McVicar offers practical advice on how to get the best from her carefully chosen range of herb seeds, produced in association with Johnsons.
Jekka says the best site for a culinary herb garden is a sunny area fairly close to the house; the sunnier the position, the better the flavour, as the sun brings the oils to the leaf surface of many herbs. The herb plot can be in the ground or in containers, but very good drainage is always important. Place a paving slab near each herb so that it can be easily reached for cutting, weeding and feeding.
Regular picking, from early in the season, encourages healthy, new, vigorous growth. Most herbs have the best flavour just before they flower. Harvest early in the day before the sun is fully up, or, better still, on a cloudy day. Cut whole stems rather than single leaves or flowers. Always use a sharp knife or scissors, and cut lengths of 5-8cm from the top of the plant, as this is new, soft growth. Remember to take stems from all over the plant, leaving it with a good shape. If freshly picked herbs are slightly soiled, sponge them lightly with cold water, not hot, to prevent the oils being drawn out prematurely, and quickly pat them dry.
Jekka highlights some of the lesser known herbs in her range, which she feels should be more widely grown and appreciated by gardeners and cooks. Lemon Grass is an ingredient in many Oriental dishes, but only the stems, and not the leaves, are allowed to be imported into the UK - and yet it is the leaves which have the fuller, better flavour. The answer is to grow lemon grass from seed; tea made from the leaves supports digestive health, and they can also be used in a cordial. The foliage is also excellent for stuffing trout or chicken.
UK native herbs are favourites of Jekka's. For instance, salad burnet has been here for 2000 years and tolerates all types of soil. Its leaves have a cucumber-like taste, and can be harvested in winter and early spring, when little else is ready. According to Jekka, sweet marjoram, introduced in the 16th century, is the 'Rolls Royce' of herbs when it comes to using with tomatoes; it is also very good on pizzas and in marinades.
Jekka describes hyssop as the 'quintessential mixed herb in one', as its flavour include those of mint and thyme among others. Use the leaves in marinades, salad dressings and lamb casseroles, she suggests. Hyssop's blue flowers are also edible, and are great for attracting bees and butterflies into a garden. Caraway is grown mainly for its abundantly produced seeds, the aniseed flavour of which is lovely in breads and cakes, or ground and added to curries and soups.
Introduced to Europe by Marco Polo, the perennial Welsh onion is like a giant form of chives, producing large, tasty rings when chopped and looking particularly attractive when grown near chives, with its white flowers complementing the pink ones of the others. Welsh onion bulbs are also edible.