Handy herbs

16:00, Feb 07 2014
herb garden
HERB GARDEN: You can grow healthy herbs in even the smallest of gardens.

If you're new to gardening and have never grown herbs before, try it.

Not only are many herbs easy to grow; some are actually hard to kill. Many tolerate heat and cold and don't need pampering so they're the ideal addition to the garden of a busy household.

You don't have to have a garden to grow herbs - a few pots of your culinary favourites on the windowsill is a great way to get started. My first "herb garden" consisted of three small pots of basil, oregano and thyme that lived on a shelf in our camper van. They survived sometimes intense summer heat and often flavoured our meals.

SPACE-FRIENDLY GARDEN: Vegetables and herbs are easy to grow in pots.

The next garden was a bit bigger; a half mussel float. I grew sage, thyme, oregano, rosemary and curry plant, all pieces from a friend's herb garden.

I was quite new to herb gardening and when my friend said my herbs needed pruning I was a little alarmed.

"They'll get too big for your planter, and become leggy and woody, so you chop them back hard," she explained, taking huge swipes at my precious herbs with her secateurs.


It made sense though; the leafy tips are generally the parts you harvest for cooking and they grew back beautifully.

That was more than 10 years ago, and I still have those herbs, although they're now planted in the herb garden.

With the herbs that need pruning, I tend to do a main prune back in spring, just as the growing season starts but after frosts then trim back again when the herbs start flowering. Well, supposedly when the herbs start flowering but the flowers are pretty, so I often leave them for a wee while.

My pruning is influenced by location; the rosemary, for example, would happily take over the garden path if I didn't trim it to suit the site.

I started this column intending to write about my favourite herbs but I realised there are too many to narrow down to a handful, from the perennials mentioned above and many others, to a scattering of annuals like coriander and basil, which I grow in our main vegetable garden, as the soil is richer and the watering cycle more regular.

While coriander grew wild in our garden when we lived in Rarangi and obviously liked the free draining soils, the environment in my present herb garden, which herbs like rosemary, sage and thyme love, is a little too arid for coriander.

Coriander is an interesting herb - use fresh leaves, dried seeds and even the root for different recipes.

Be warned, though - while coriander leaf is used quite a lot in Asian influenced dishes and I like it, it seems to be one of those flavours people either love or hate so don't overdo it in a dish just because you've got tons of fresh coriander to use up. One dinner guest once referred to it as smelling like cats' wee. Fortunately, on that occasion, I'd put the finely chopped leaves into a dish so people could season their own food (or not) as desired.

I make and freeze both basil and coriander pesto so I have the flavours available during winter. I find pesto retains the flavour better than just freezing the leaves. I could also dry leaves, but the pesto method works well for me. The beauty of pesto is that you can make it to taste.

Because raw garlic upsets my stomach and I'm allergic to dairy products, I leave garlic and parmesan cheese out of the pesto. Pine nuts are pretty pricey so I usually substitute cashew nuts - also not cheap but one of my favourites and something I generally have on hand.

To freeze, I smooth the pesto into a flat layer in a ziplock bag then squeeze out all the air. The thin layer allows me to break off chunks as I need it for cooking without defrosting the whole bag.

And as for a favourite herb? If I had to choose one it would be thyme. No particular reason, other than that I love the flavour.


What to plant in February

A few of the plants garden guides recommend are: beetroot, carrots, leeks spinach, radish, lettuces, coriander, chives, beans, cucumbers and bok choi. It's also time to start thinking cool weather crops.

Leek, swede, turnip and parsnip seeds can be planted now. Grow brassica seeds in punnets to plant out in autumn.

Try something different: get yourself a few pots of herbs for the windowsill or garden.

The Marlborough Express