Now that there is some warmth in the spring sunshine, I have planted a herb garden. It’s a very small herb garden – a vintage Belfast sink and a couple of pots – but it’s attractive and will serve my purposes.
The Belfast sink has been empty over the winter – when we moved house last autumn we emptied out the old herbs which were well past their best, ready for fresh ones this season. It’s lovely to see it fully planted up, beside the back door so that it’s in easy reach of the kitchen, in a corner which is a suntrap. The challenge is to remember the watering!
The choice of herbs for sale was a bit limited so early in the year, but the plants were in very good condition, and there’s room to pop a couple more into the gaps later in the season if I find some. I chose two purple sages, one oregano, and two thymes (one gold, one silver). The sages will grow quite tall, so I put them at the back, with the oregano in the middle, and the thymes at the front. They will spread, and be able to trail over the edge of the sink. I also bought Moroccan mint, and a medium-sized rosemary – as mint is invasive and would take over the whole sink given half a chance, and as rosemary grows large and is long lived and will soon outgrow the sink, I have put each in a separate pot. Ideally I’d also have some chives and some tarragon, although I’ve never had much luck with growing the latter, and maybe some flatleaf parsley (which I use where recipes call for coriander, which I don’t like).
Growing herbs has a long and venerable tradition. Used for thousands of years for culinary, medicinal and ritual purposes, they have been an enduring part of human civilisation and their cultivation is an international phenomenon. Much of what we know in the West about herbs and their uses was written down by medieval monks who grew herbs in the physic gardens of their abbeys, and a significant proportion of modern medicines have their origins in herbal compounds, so growing them today feels like connecting with the past.
So what of the herbs in my garden? Let’s look at their history, uses and properties.
Its Latin name, Salvia, comes from salvare, to cure, so its medicinal reputation is long-established. It has been used to treat sore throats and digestive problems. Clinical trials in 2011 suggested that sage’s reputation of being helpful in the menopause may have scientific backing, as a trial reported its effectiveness in reducing hot flushes. Originating in the Mediterranean area, sage is grown around the world, thriving in warm sunny locations – so my suntrap by the back door should suit it well.
Perhaps best known in Britain for its role in sage and onion stuffing, sage is strongly-flavoured and I use it a lot in casseroles, as well as torn up and tossed with buttered pasta. Being a ‘lady of a certain age’, I also drink it as a tea (although as I’ve only had the plants a few weeks, it’s too early to report an improvement in symptoms!).
Another native of the Mediterranean (this time the Middle East), this is also a sun-lover. Its antiseptic qualities made it a medieval cure-all, and the first settlers to New England took this herb with them. I like it with chicken, fish, or pasta, and it is delicate enough not to swamp subtly-flavoured foods. To me, this is a real sunshine herb – just crushing the leaves and sniffing your fingers will give you a lift.
Prescribed by the 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper as a treatment for whooping cough in children, thyme has long been regarded as having antiseptic properties and being useful in respiratory conditions. It’s a staple culinary herb (although incredibly fiddly to prepare, as you need to strip the tiny leaves from the woody stems) and gives a fresh, warm flavour which is hard to beat. Pretty much all ‘mixed herbs’ include dried thyme, but it’s less potent when used fresh and partners well with rosemary, oregano and sage.
The Moroccan mint I’m growing is a kind of spearmint, so it’s warm in flavour rather than cool peppermint. Its culinary uses are almost endless – salads, mint sauce, cakes, desserts, cold drinks, and mint tea, for example. Humans have used mint for a long time – it has been found in Egyptian pyramids dating from 1000 BCE, and the Greeks and Romans used it – but curiously it only came into widespread use in Western Europe as late as the 18th century. Medicinally, it has been used to aid digestion, and specifically to deal with wind, which may be the reason for the popularity of after dinner mints!
“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” said Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Since antiquity rosemary has been believed to help strengthen the memory, and it is still used in Greece in the homes of those preparing for exams. Another herb which likes hot, dry conditions, rosemary has a pungent, invigorating flavour and aroma – and the white, lilac or blue flowers are adored by bees and other insects. I have always grown rosemary, and use it generously in cooking. The traditional partner is, of course, roast lamb, but I use it (either as whole sprigs, removed before serving, or finely chopped) in almost anything that’s going to be cooked for a while – casseroles especially.
Whilst the whole ‘grow your own’ phenomenon may require more space, time and energy than many of us have available in 21st century Britain, it’s possible to have a herb garden in the smallest of spaces – in a pot or in a window box, or even indoors on a windowsill at a pinch. And nothing beats the pleasure of cooking with herbs that you have grown and harvested yourself.