Today more and more people are giving up a little of their garden space and growing herbs, or encouraging herbs in pots and window boxes. All herbs are available dried, and these have a very useful place in our diet, but to have a patch from which you can pick the herbs fresh is a wonderful investment in health. Not only do you get the very fullest goodness from the herbs, but as a side benefit, gardening with the fresh air and exercise it provides, is a very health-giving occupation.
Many herbs such as parsley, chives and basil can flourish well in the pots and window boxes of those who are gardenless. Use a reliable potting compost and stand the pots on gravel or small stones so that air can pass beneath them or the roots may become waterlogged and the plants die. In town gardens it is usually easier to grow herbs in some container that is well drained by layers of broken crockery. If you can't get this, you will have to use stones. Clay flowerpots which were once so useful for this purpose have now been largely replaced by plastic ones.
A good idea is to make raised or tiered beds. A small sloping site that might otherwise be used for a rockery can be tiered to take herbs. Alternatively, if you have only a small space available it can be put to greater advantage by building a series of round beds one on top of the other. The beds need to be supported by stones, the advantage of raised small beds is that they do confine the activities of herbs that like to wander all over the place. You can make use of the space occupied by the stones as well, for into the crevices can be planted creeping herbs.
Herbs prefer a light to medium soil, though many will willingly grow wild almost anywhere. Some say, even that parsley will do better in poor soil. But whatever the soil, it must be broken down to a fine tilth before planting, and if you can dig in some compost, so much the better.
Most herbs are not particularly fussy about when they are planted. You can do this in autumn or spring. Parsley, which is one of the easiest herbs to grow, should be sown at intervals from Good Friday until about Midsummer's Day - then you should be sure of a good winter`s supply. Sow the seed in drills and about a half inch deep. It will take about a month to germinate and when the plants start to grow thin it out as you pick it so that at first you eat the small shoots, and leave the others more room to grow. Don't throw the stalks away, as they are just as good for you as the leaves, and contain just as much flavour and goodness. Parsley does not need much attention, just give it a drink in dry weather - it will be quite sufficient if you remember it when you are normally watering the garden.
Mint can be a little hesitant when starting to grow, but once it takes - watch out ! Plant mint in an old bucket or large container, and this should be sunk beneath the soil to confine the roots. A raised or tiered herb garden will also help to contain the wandering roots and help to provide the mint with the well drained soil it likes. Choose a section in which it will get some protection from other plants as it prefers the shade or semi-shade.
Both sage and thyme are easy herbs to grow. They will live for years and the only attention they demand is that you should keep their territory free from weeds. The purple flowering grey leaved sage is the most commonly used. It grows in a bush which you can start from a cutting. It likes the sun, light soil and a well-drained position sheltered from winds. If you cut off the flower stalks when they have finished blooming, it will grow into a compact bush. In time, when the sprigs become woody and the plant shows signs of aging, bend a low branch from the bush, peg it to the ground and it should root and provide you with a new bush quite easily.
The two most popular forms of thyme are garden thyme and lemon thyme. Both are better grown from cuttings than from seed. They like the sun and thrive best in a sunny position, in light, well-drained soil. Garden thyme is a shrubby,bush-type plant that grows about one foot high. In the spring it has pale, creamy flowers. On a summer evening, it is wonderful to walk up the garden path pick a leaf of lemon thyme, crush it in your fingers and smell the delicious lemony scent it leaves on the skin. It grows up about a foot high and as a bonus has lovely, fragrant pink flowers, which appear in spring and last all through the summer.
Chives are another herb you should never be without in your herb garden, though you do have to divide them every year. The chive is such a gregarious plant as you never see it alone, it multiplies its bulbs so fast ! As you know, you only use the `grass`- the hollow leaves, for flavouring. The plant does grow pretty flowers, but if you let these develop you will be penalizing your chives for somehow the flowers make the leaves more tough and chives are at their most delicious when young and tender. Greengrocers or supermarkets sell clumps in spring. For a start all you need to do is to get one of these clumps - they are inexpensive - plant it in a rich light soil and then divide the clumps again in the spring or autumn.
Marjoram, is another herb which you should grow in the garden. There are different kinds, but pot marjoram is the best to grow. It is a perennial that will flourish in almost any soil because it is hardy and persistent. It grows about a foot tall, has bright green leaves and attractive pink-mauve flowers.
Spare a space for basil, an annual which should be sown in May, and chervil. If you start off with a small chervil plant, you will find that it will happily seed itself.
Savoury is another herb. It has a certain resemblance to thyme, but has longer, narrower leaves. In general , savoury needs a warm climate and only two types have been successfully propagated in Britain. These are known as summer savoury and winter savoury. Both need light soil and as much sun to soak up as you can give them. Summer savoury, which grows from twelve to eighteen inches high, is an annual, so you need to replant its seeds each year. Probably because British soil is colder than they like, they take some time to accept it, so you will find you have to wait for the seedlings to appear. But they will in the end, and you will be rewarded with its pale lilac flowers in July. On the other hand, winter savoury is tougher and will flourish all year. It can be grown from seed, but the impatient would be better advised to get a root which will grow into an attractive bushy shrub about a foot high. From this you can take cuttings in spring and when the bush has served you well for a few years, pension the old plant off but enjoy its descendant by pegging down a low shoot into the soil to root and give you good service for years.
Do find room for a rosemary bush, it should grow to four feet in height and makes an attractive hedge. (if you have a rosemary bush and know a young bride give her a sprig to place in her wedding bouquet as it is known as the herb of fidelity). It is best grown from a cutting, which can be taken any time, but preferably in August or September. It needs a light, well-drained soil, away from harsh winds, in a position where it will catch all the sunshine possible. If you use it often for flavouring, this may be all the pruning it needs, but if the bush begins to get sparse and straggly, cut it back after it has flowered. Its flowers are an attractive pale blue and the narrow leaves are green on top but the underneath is smoky grey..
Another tree you should find use for in your garden is the bay. Culpeper was a great advocate of its properties. "Neither witch nor devil nor thunder nor lightning will hurt a man in a place where a bay tree is", he wrote, Because it can be cropped into an attractive, decorative shape, the bay is sometimes grown for its adornment value rather than its culinary uses. It is quite satisfied with good soil which has had plenty of compost dug into it and a well-drained bed.
Lovage would need to be placed at the back of your other herbs, as it grows tall,even to five feet. Give it a rich well-drained soil and a sunny position and it will propagate itself for years.
Fennel is another tall plant which will add colour to your border for its yellow umbles turn red gold and the plant retains its attraction until November. It will grow in any good soil on which the sun shines.
Borage is a hardy annual, it will seed itself once it makes itself at home in your garden and brightens your border with its beautiful star -shaped flowers.
For the right time to cut the herbs for drying is before they flower and the bloom sucks the goodness from the foliage. When leaves and flowers are over ripe and lose their colour or scent they have also lost some of their goodness. You'll know the herbs are sufficiently dried, when the leaves powder and crumble in your fingers. Strip them from their woody stalks, crumble them well and store in sealed jars.