The top 10 must-have herbs
GROW:Chives for your sandwiches, basil for pesto – planting herbs yields tasty results
IF YOU COULD GROW and eat only one herb, which would it be? When a gardener friend recently asked me this question, I picked rosemary, both for its evergreen, aromatic, resinous foliage (delicious added to roast potatoes) and those lovely, lavender-blue flowers that can be used in soups, sauces, stews and even cakes and biscuits.
But then I was immediately struck by thoughts of all the other wonderful herbs I’d be forced to do without.
Imagine, I pondered dolefully to myself, a world where pesto is made without the sweetly clove-scented leaves of basil, where summer punches are minus the peacock-blue flowers of borage and the zing of lemon verbena, where Christmas stuffing lacks the distinctive flavours of sage, parsley and thyme.
Imagine no more new potato salads flavoured with freshly-chopped lovage leaves, no more home-made pizzas topped with a scattering of oregano, and no more fragrant Thai curries made with fat handfuls of coriander leaves.
As for the idea of having to forever forego the delicacy that is lavender ice-cream, of never again sprinkling mint sugar on juicy slices of pineapple, of doing without the pleasures of lemon-thyme shortbread . . . well, it really didn’t bear thinking about.
And so I told my friend that the idea of making do with just one herb was unthinkably depressing and we agreed, instead, that a top 10 list was a more reasonable proposal.
Even then, it was a challenge. So when I asked the Dublin-based herb expert, designer and organic nursery owner Denise Dunne ( theherbgarden.ie) to come up with her own list of the top 10 most useful herbs, I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that her final tally numbered almost twice that.
Let’s start with the frontrunners, the herbs that this very knowledgeable and highly experienced Irish garden designer considers as the must haves of any herb patch and that includes plants cultivated in pots in the tiniest of balcony gardens.
First up are rosemary, sage and thyme, three evergreen, perennial, sun-loving and relatively hardy herbs that all took quite a bashing in the unusually harsh winters of 2009 and 2010.
As Dunne points out, such prolonged and exceptionally icy weather is not normally the rule.
“These Mediterranean herbs will generally survive a typical Irish winter quite comfortably,” she says, “as long as you give them a very well-drained soil in a sunny spot in the garden. The trick to keeping them happy is to lightly trim away any flowering stems each summer, but never cut into old wood and never over-pick the leaves.”
Fourth on her list is the very hardy, reliably perennial Allium schoenoprasum, better known as chives – a vigorous member of the bulbous onion family with thin, grassy foliage (delicious chopped on top of scrambled eggs) that reaches an average height of 30 centimetres and produces edible pink-purple, pom-pom flowers in early summer.
Number five is mint, especially Moroccan mint (Mentha crispa ‘Moroccan’).
“If you grow only one mint, then grow this one,” Dunne says. “It’s like spearmint but with an edge. Delicious with potatoes, great for puddings, and makes a fantastic mint tea.”
Like all mints, it’s also best grown in a container, which prevents its invasive roots from colonising the entire garden.
Number six is tarragon, and in particular the liquorice-flavoured French tarragon, or Artemisia dranunculus, which can only be propagated vegetatively. “Far, far superior in flavour to Russian tarragon, but definitely a plant that needs a bit of cossetting and hates wet soil. I grow it in my polytunnel to protect it from the cold.”
At number seven is flat leaf parsley, which can be easily grown from seed, as can another favourite, the anise-flavoured, shade-loving chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium), whose chopped leaves are a key ingredient of a good Béarnaise sauce.
“While the perennial herbs that I’ve listed are best bought as young plants and then planted out into pots or in the garden, you can start growing these two biennials quite easily from seed round about now.”
Sow seed into pots (both parsley and chervil are deep-rooted and dislike shallow trays), or direct-sow outdoors.
Tender, sun-loving basil comes in as Dunne’s number nine. “You just can’t beat the classic that’s sweet Genovese basil (Ocimum basilicum), another annual herb that can be raised from seed over the next few months by sowing into compost-filled plug trays or modules indoors, before transplanting the young seedlings into pots.
“Probably the biggest mistake that people make is trying to grow this herb outdoors – it hates our Irish climate and does much better kept inside. But be extra careful not to overwater the plants as basil hates sitting in wet soil.”
Finally, squeaking in at number 10, is dill (Anethum graveolens) – a tall, frost-hardy, annual herb with umbelliferous yellow flowers in summer and feathery, deeply aromatic foliage that’s particularly delicious when used with seafood.
As for the many, many other useful herbs that Dunne would happily add to her list of favourites, these include bay, Greek oregano, coriander, borage, pot marigold, fennel, sweet marjoram, summer and winter savory, lovage, wild garlic, chamomile, hyssop, comfrey, sweet woodruff, horse radish, elderflower, nettles and Aloe aristata.
No wonder I had such difficulty trying to single out just one.
A range of organically-certified herb plants and herb seed are available from Denise Dunne (tel: 01-841 3907 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org). Dunne also gives courses on using and growing herbs. See sonairte.ie.
How To Create An Eco-Garden ( £14.99, Aquamarine Books), by award-winning gardener and environmentalist John Walker. It shows how to create a greener, more climate-friendly and ecologically sustainable garden
This week in the garden
* Sow seedsof many vegetables, annual flowers and herbs outdoors, including broad beans, carrots, parsnips, summer spinach, calendula, limnanthes, Swiss chard, borage, dill, fennel, coriander.
* Finishpruning fruit bushes.