Planting a herb garden – history, food and wellbeing

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!

Colour photograph of a Belfast sink planted with herbs, and a green watering can.

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.

Sage

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!).

Oregano/marjoram

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.

Thyme

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.

Mint

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!

Rosemary

“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.

Photograph of a chopping board with chopped herbs and a large kitchen knife.

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.

 

Where did the year go?! Sudden Autumn

After a brief Indian Summer, I am suddenly very aware that Autumn is here – the depth of colour in the trees is becoming distracting as I drive along country roads.  It will not be long before I am sweeping fallen leaves out of my newly-constructed pond.  This is, and always has been, by favourite time of year.  Somewhere around early September, usually, I am aware that the year has turned, and that the torpor of summer (even a nasty cold wet one like we’ve had) is about to give way to the excitement of Autumn.  At the other end of the year, the same thing happens in February as it suddenly becomes Spring.  But Spring has lots of fans, and does not need enthusiasts for its beauty and vivaciousness.  Autumn seems to have fewer acolytes, but I am definitely one.

Curiously, I find Autumn invigorating.  Not only is it the new year for academic courses, which have, one way or another, been a major feature of much of my life, but there is a sense of nature getting ready.  The swallows and the martins head off for summer quarters.  There is the prospect of the murmurations of starlings on the Somerset Levels to look forward to.  The boughs are laden with fruit and berries like a giant open-plan larder.  It feels as if they year is gathering in its supplies for the winter to come.

I’ve bought logs for the wood-burning stove.  I joined my neighbours in a collective apple juice pressing day which resulted in unfeasible numbers of bottles of wonderful juice.  I have pureed apples and frozen the results, to liven up porridge on winter mornings.  I have picked raspberries from the garden.

The garden – ah, yes.  The garden was supposed to be like a scene from The Good Life by now, but sadly I got flu in the Spring and lost 6 weeks of gardening time at a crucial time, and then engaged two consecutive gardeners to help me deal with the resulting jungle, only to have them not get back to me for, literally, months.  By high summer it was a seriously daunting project and way beyond me, but fortunately my lovely neighbour put me in touch with the delightful Jan from http://www.blueshedflowers.co.uk/ who has been doing her magic over the past couple of months, and I am now optimistic of being able to get the veg patch up and running for next year.  This garden has all manner of hidden treasures, so the year has not been completely a lost cause as I have had the chance to see what is here already – moving in during Jan/Feb meant I hadn’t a clue what I’d inherited.

One garden success has been the pond – a tiny pre-formed liner, intended as a wildlife pond.  I have to mention in dispatches here the heroic J who dug and installed it for me (with remarkably little bad language) on a muggy summer’s day.  The tiny frog which has already taken up residence in it is very appreciative too!  All manner of other creepy-crawlies have moved in as well, so I shall be interested to see what develops.  I built a bench and got a table for the garden during the summer, so next year I can sit and watch pond life in comfort!  I’ve been consciously planting for wildlife, with lavenders and buddleia, as well as for my own consumption in the herb bed.  I look forward to sharing pics of the first pickings from the vegetable patch next year – I’m looking at growing broad and dwarf beans, chard, salad leaves, garlic, spring onions, possibly some carrots and potatoes, and whatever else takes my fancy when I peruse the seed catalogues.  Meanwhile, in the next few weeks I need to plant up the big pots of tulips for the back doorstep, and alliums and fritillaria in the garden.  I got a bit overexcited about buying bulbs this year…

 

All change – new year, new home, new start – the opportunities for simplicity

Regular visitors to this blog may have noticed the absence of new posts recently.  This reflects a time of upheaval in my life, both professionally and personally.

The cat and I have found a delightful character cottage in a small town in Somerset, near to the M5 and mainline railway, and at the heart of a thriving community with shops and services.  I wanted to find somewhere that would be a real home (rather than just somewhere to live) as I embark on this new life, so I was delighted to find somewhere which was not a soul-less new-build on an anonymous estate.

The cottage comes with a nearby garden, complete with potting shed, and there are already two big vegetable beds and scope to grow-my-own on a significant scale.  There is a wood-burning stove to supplement the gas central heating.  And a lock-up garage/wood store across the road.  I appear to be all set up for The Good Life…

I moved from a large house, and so I haven’t needed to get much in the way of furniture.  However, living in big houses for the last several years has inevitably resulted in Too Much Stuff, and this has been a wonderful opportunity to galvanise me into action – the biggest decluttering exercise of my life is underway!  Ebay, Gumtree, charity shops and the dump have all been involved in my campaign to reduce my Stuff by at least 30%, and preferably 50%.  Fortunately, the timing coincided with the Christmas and New Year break, which has given me time and space to do at least a couple of hours’ decluttering every day, and make significant inroads into my Stuff.

I have before me, therefore, a challenge and an opportunity.  I may not have actively chosen this whole ‘life begins at 45’ experience, but I am determined to embrace what it offers me, and the first thing it offers is choices.  What do I want in my new home?  How do I want to live my daily life?  I am being offered the chance to live much more simply, which (as readers of this blog will know) is something which has been exercising me for some time.  This is my chance to make a fresh start in the way I live.  I have often said that I aspire to William Morris’ maxim to ‘have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’, and now I have the opportunity to put it into practice.

The white goods do need to be bought new because I really need them to be under warranty.  The other bits and pieces I am consciously buying mostly vintage or second-hand.  I acquired a handsome day-bed on Gumtree, and a leather armchair on eBay.  My bedroom curtains are being re-purposed from a pair of 1950s Welsh wool blankets.  I am now the proud owner of a very beautiful Deco chest of drawers, which I expect will outlive me.  And I am being very disciplined about how much furniture, and how much Stuff, will fit into a small cottage and still allow me enough space and order to actually live in it.  And work in it – the second bedroom (with stunning views!) will be my studio and office.

So – over the next few months, I hope this blog will chronicle my first steps in my new life, and I hope you will accompany me as I make choices, face challenges, and work out how to live simply in my new home.