How do I get started with growing herbs?
Herbs have been grown and used for a multitude of purposes since history began, including in culinary roles, as cosmetics, perfumes, preservatives, insect repellants, and of course for all kinds of medicinal applications. In these days of fast food saturated with sugar, fat and salt, growing your own herbs provides an easy and simple way to bring some balance back into your diet, not to mention subtle and sometimes more out there tastes and aromas.
Apart from their extensive use by naturopaths and alternative therapists to bring patients back into balance and good health, there has been a gradual revival since the early twentieth century in herbs for their culinary value. French cuisine was one of the first to attract attention to their use in cooking and their ability to enhance and enrich even the simplest of meals. Even the flowers of easy to grow herbs such as nasturtium and calendula can be grown and used to add colour and interest to a garden salad.
The multicultural nature of modern Australia has taken our taste buds on a voyage of discovery to countries such as Thailand, India and Mexico such that we now find ourselves using a much wider range of herbs. Many of these can be grown at home, saving you time and money as well as the added flavour that comes from harvesting them fresh into your kitchen.
Herbs fall into two categories when it comes to the garden. Annual types such as basil, coriander and parsley are renewed from seed each year and can be easily raised from seed or seedlings purchased from your local garden center. Perennial herbs such as thyme, oregano, rosemary and most others can be grown from cuttings or simply purchased as pots.
All herbs can be grown in the ground or in containers and if buying the more advanced plants from a nursery they should be transplanted as soon as possible from the 10-centimeter pots they are usually bought in. Most herbs prefer a sunny spot and all need a lot of fresh air, which doesn’t make them suitable for growing indoors. They are best grown in well-drained soil with a handful of dolomite lime added to the soil before. They need little in the way of fertilizer as the more leaf growth the less flavour but a handful of blood and bone or well-rotted manure dug into the planting hole will help to get them established quickly. Don’t be shy when it comes to harvesting, the more they are pruned by harvesting the stronger the plant will become. Generally it is best to grow herbs as close to the kitchen as possible for easy picking.
A bushy annual best planted in early spring, it has soft fleshy and highly aromatic leaves and loves a rich, moist soil in full sun, but will tolerate light shade. For more leaf growth and a longer lasting bush, pinch out the small white flower heads as they appear from late summer. It also is a good companion with tomatoes in the garden and thrives in pots or tubs. There are several different types of basil but look out especially for opal basil with its deep purple leaves that make a lovely contrast in herb pots or gardens.
This clumping perennial grass has strap-like leaves growing to almost a metre tall, making it a useful ornamental plant as well as its culinary qualities. It has a strong lemon aroma is rich in vitamin A and makes a refreshing lovely tea. It is used extensively in Asian dishes with both roots and stem being useful in different contexts. While it is easy to grow it does need regular watering, especially while establishing and full sun to partial shade. It will die back in colder areas in the winter but the clump quickly regrows as the weather warms up in spring.
Coriander (Chinese parsley or Cilantro)
This tangy herb has been used in cooking for hundreds of years. The leaves and washed roots are used to flavour many exotic Asian dishes, curries, sauces and salads. The dried seeds are also used in cakes, breads and cheeses. For best results when growing for the leaves, seedlings should be planted when the weather is still mild in spring, as long hot days will cause coriander flower stems to appear and bolt to seed. Grow in a sunny to part shade position; full morning sun is good with a well-drained moisture retentive soil.
Oregano and Marjoram
Oregano is a popular herb for pots or in kitchen side garden beds. Marjoram is closely related with a similar taste and form. They are easily grown aromatic perennials with small green leaves (they also come in golden leafed forms) and clusters of small white or pink flowers in summer. They need full sun and good drainage and the leaves can be used fresh or dried and is perfect in many Mexican as well as tomato-based Italian dishes.
Onion and garlic chives are two of the most useful and easy to grow clump-forming herbs to have in your garden or planter box. The more it is picked, like most herbs, the better it grows. You can use chives in or as a garnish for almost any savory dish. They grow well through all seasons of the year with garlic chives being the easier of the two to maintain. They are also easy to divide and will just continue to clump up with a minimum of fuss.
Very easy to grow and compares to English spinach in that it grows in similar fashion and can be cooked in the same way. It is also especially nice when eaten raw in a salad where its zingy taste will liven things up. Forms a small clump in full or half day sun and is well worth having in either the herb or veggie garden, as it needs very little attention. A moderately rich soil and regular water through the hotter months are all that is needed to keep it productive.