Herbs are the icing on the gardener’s cake. They’re that ‘little extra something’ that you don’t really need, but yet… they’re one of the types of plant that almost everyone tries to grow. After all, what would roast lamb be without mint sauce made from leaves that were growing in the garden not two hours ago? What would roast pork be without sage and onion lending their subtle depths of flavour? Or a tomato salad without a few basil leaves to lift it from the ordinary to the sublime…
Just like in the 1960s cartoon, herbs are a motley crew – they include annuals, biennials, perennials and shrubs. What they have in common is that they’re a delight for the eyes, mouth and nose, and an easy delight at that. Not even the most belt-and-braces gardener recommends double digging for herbs; there’s no staking, no complicated pruning and no real fuss. To grow them successfully you just have to understand that broadly, herbs fall into two categories; the hard and the soft.
Hard – these tough nuts stay green right through the winter and have twiggy, bushy growth, for example lavender. The hard analogy extends to the leaves too – herbs in this group tend to have tough, leathery leaves like sage and bay or needle-like foliage, for example rosemary. Others in this group include thyme and hyssop. Give them the hottest, sunniest spot you’ve got, and don’t water or feed them too much. The idea here is to treat them mean so they grow slowly and have concentrated flavours. If you’re too kind to them or try growing them in the shade, they’ll be lank and tasteless.
Soft – if it’s an annual, like coriander – growing and dying in one year, or if it disappears back to nothing in the winter like mint, then give it rich moist soil and sun or partial shade. Biennial herbs such as parsley, which flower and die in their second year tend to fit into this category too. Other herbs in this category include lemon balm, sweet cicely and chives. The premise with the ‘soft’ herbs is to keep them growing happily and cosset them for lots of lush tasty leaves. If you treat them like the ‘hard’ ones they’ll reward you with stingy growth (and a very short lifespan in the case of the annuals). So, it pays to plant them in rich soil and water them regularly.
These two very simple categories cover an incredible variety of edible and scented plants, and inevitably there are a few exceptions to the rule. However, as a general guide, it works pretty well. I’m off to get some sweet cicely from the (semi-shaded, well-watered) rhubarb patch to add to my crumble. Its warming aniseed flavour will complement the rhubarb’s tartness perfectly – not only that but it even reduces the amount of sugar you need to add – what’s not to like?