Sage advice

ALISON WORTH
Last updated 08:08 02/11/2012
SPREAD OUT: Rosemary is one herb that likes to sprawl.

SPREAD OUT: Rosemary is one herb that likes to sprawl.

MY FAVOURITE: Lemon verbena is a temperamental plant, but very hardy.
MY FAVOURITE: Lemon verbena is a temperamental plant, but very hardy.
MIX AND MATCH: Sage (background) and thyme (foreground) go well together.
MIX AND MATCH: Sage (background) and thyme (foreground) go well together.

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A beginner's guide to the fragrant world of herbs.

I am as passionate about herbs as I am about fruit trees. Mostly the edible and medicinal kind, although we'd make a stack more money if we grew the smoking kind.

Growing your own range of herbs saves the cook a lot of money - have you ever bought those plastic packets of herbs from the supermarket? Extortionate is the only word I can use to describe the prices charged for them.

Herbs add flavour, depth, fragrance and goodness to cooking, and no dish would be complete without the addition of a suitable herb.

Some also make great companion plants and in-ground bug repellents for your prized fruit and veges, not to mention the ancient garden lore that "what goes well on the plate grows well together in the garden".

From the simple and permanent rosemary to the soft-leaved, fragrant annual basil, cultivating your own herbs is easy, low-maintenance and rewarding. Furthermore, many of them don't even need to take up room in your garden at all, as they will happily reside in pots on your kitchen windowsill.

If you've been following our edible garden series, you may have your kitchen garden off to a flying start by now.

Some of you may just be thinking about preparing one - and who would blame you for leaving it so late in the season to get started? The temperature has been on the chilly side.

A good rule of thumb for choosing herbs is to plant only what you know you are going to use or will be beneficial to your garden's wellbeing. Planting a row of bays is not only edible but makes lovely hedging - in contrast, a full-length border of chives looks fabulous (one of my many perfect garden dreams). But if you need the room for other plants, review your plan.

Kick your planting off with a row of chives, which produce very pretty pink pom-pom-style flowers that are also edible - just break up the petioles and sprinkle them through salads. My favourite is blending chives with butter and finely chopped garlic, or adding a sprinkle to scrambled eggs.

Thyme and rosemary are permanent inhabitants for your potager, so give them a sun-drenched place, preferably along the edge of a border or raised bed so they can sprawl without affecting their neighbours' growth.

Sage produces gorgeous purple flowers that are bee magnets. It doesn't enjoy the cold Waikato winters, but if it is given some protection during the coldest months, when it is young, it should come back in the spring. Use the fragrant leaves in stews and, of course, with pork and chicken. Plenty of lemon juice will cut the oily tang if you overdo it.

Coriander is the most misunderstood herb - contrary to popular belief, it is not a tropical plant. It dislikes full sun and the highest heat of the day, bolting to seed quickly.

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Sow coriander seeds directly, or plant seedlings in paper or peat pots, as it hates its taproot being disturbed. Give it a place with early morning sun, afternoon shade and plenty of moist soil.

Dill is a fantastic beneficial insect plant. Majestic and soft, it towers above many others, filling up the back of garden borders and providing shade for smaller plants.

No self-respecting casserole would be without a bay leaf or two, and many classic Indian dishes need bay to bring out the flavours of the spices.

An upright plant, it will send suckers out, so keep an eye out for prospective new plants popping up nearby. Suitable to standardise or for topiary, it will grow well in a pot. Bay prefers free-draining soil on the dry side - long after your parsley has turned up its toes in the summer heat, bay will be trucking along nicely.

Make sure you leave room for oregano in your garden. It creeps, carpet-like, along the edges and walls. A few leaves sprinkled on a fresh feta cheese salad with a good extra virgin olive oil is a pleasure to taste, and many an Italian dish would not be complete without fresh oregano.

Mint must be contained in a pot to stop it spreading like wildfire. My mum used to grow mint under her raspberries - after a while, the berry garden was knee-deep in mint, which made raspberry picking a very fragrant and uplifting affair.

Do not plant mint and parsley near one another - they do not like each other. And mint hates drying out, so ensure it is watered well during summer. Should it appear rusted or mildewed, cut it right back to nothing and it will come away again quickly with fresh growth.

There are two commonly grown types of parsley - curly leaf, which reminds us all of 1970s-style garnishes, and the trendy flat leaf or Italian parsley. I like them both, but use the right parsley for the right job.

Italian parsley is sweeter and suits cold dishes such as tabbouleh, coleslaw, dressings and salads. Curly leaf is stronger and is used in soups, stocks and stews etc.

My favourite all-time herb is lemon verbena. A deciduous bushy shrub growing up to 3m in the right place, it can behave temperamentally - just when you think you have killed it through lack of something or a bite from Jack Frost, it squeezes out tiny leaves to assure you it is still alive.

Lemon verbena plants are hard to find in garden centres, but cuttings strike easily, so nab a piece from someone, should you come across it. A most aromatic herb, it keeps its fragrance for up to five years. Enjoy a relaxing tea made from a couple of the dried or fresh leaves, or add it to braised dishes, sweet custards and cakes for a lemony zing without the acidity.

If I truly followed the "what goes well on the plate" rule, my dream herb plantation would include paddocks of rosemary, peas, potatoes and mint with juicy spring lambs bounding over them; big beefy Angus steers grazing joyfully on lush horseradish; little piggies snorting happily through sage bushes; and a huge border of tomatoes underplanted with masses of basil.

A quick herb shopping list.

Must haves:

Basil

Coriander

Chives

Parsley

Sage

Mint

Oregano

Thyme

Bay

Dill

Rosemary

Uncommon but good to have:

Lemon verbena

Tarragon

Lemon Balm

Hyssop

Angelica

Chamomile

Horseradish

Chervil

Lovage

Common Asian herbs:

Kaffir lime

Lemon grass

Thai basil

Vietnamese mint

Curry leaf

Fenugreek

RESOURCES

There are many books on growing herbs but my most favoured and inexpensive is New Zealand Gardener magazine's "Homegrown 3 – Harvesting Your Own Fresh Herbs", available from mags4gifts.co.nz/homegrown.

- Waikato Times

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