• Maureen Little

To Scarborough Fair - and beyond!

I feel a song coming on - you know, the one about parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme?

Well, this post is about those and a few others. . . .

A good number of gardeners, and I would wager even more cooks, would love a dedicated plot in the garden full of culinary herbs. Just imagine the joy of popping out and snipping a few blades of chives to add to your summer salad, or a couple of sprigs of tarragon to chop up and sprinkle over your mushrooms on toast.

For most of us that’s just pie in the sky, but even if you don’t have space in the garden you can grow herbs in containers. There are advantages to growing herbs in this way: you can position the pot within easy reach; you can choose exactly the best spot for them in terms of sun; and if you plant them in individual pots you can tailor the compost that you use to suit each herb.

I always use a soil-based compost like John Innes potting compost, which will retain moisture - essential if you grow anything, not just herbs, in pots. Moisture will evaporate far quicker from a container than from open soil and during the growing season your pots will undoubtedly have to be watered every day and sometimes twice a day. As a rough guide, 2½ cm (1 inch) of water will penetrate about 15-20cm (6-8 inches) of soil so you can see that even if it rains you will still have to top up your containers.

Not all herbs require the same soil conditions, however. For example, those that hail from Mediterranean climes, such as rosemary or sage, need very free-draining soil, whereas others, like parsley or chives, can cope with slightly moister conditions. A good rule of thumb is that if you plant herbs needing different moisture levels in the same pot, always go for free-draining: it’s easier to add more water if necessary – you can’t always take it away.

You can achieve a good free-draining mix by adding some perlite at a rate of one part perlite to two or three parts compost. (Perlite is a generic term for a naturally occurring siliceous rock which has been heat treated to produce light, sterile granules. It has a neutral pH which means that it will not affect the acid or alkaline balance of the soil.)

As for containers, you can use any type from hand-crafted terracotta pot to a window box to a hanging basket to an old olive oil can. Whatever you use, make sure there are sufficient drainage holes and that the container isn’t so small that it dries out too quickly. Be aware too, of how big your chosen herbs will grow – err on the side of a bigger pot rather than a smaller one to allow your herbs some elbow room. And if you choose a metal container, make sure that it doesn’t attract so much heat that the roots are scorched.

You can of course grow just one type of herb in one container, but you can also group herbs together. The combinations are endless, but ‘themed’ combinations have a purpose as well as looking good. There are a few suggestions below. A point to be aware of if you plant any kind of mint, however: it’s a bully and will take over the container in no time at all. Treat any kind of pot with mint in it as an ‘annual’ container and replant it each year so each herb has a fighting chance.

Although a number of the combinations that I have suggested contain perennial herbs (marked ‘p’) which will come back year on year, others have annuals (‘a’) or biennials (‘b’) among them, so these will have to be replaced as necessary, or you could rejuvenate the whole pot. This will have to be done anyway when the herbs get pot-bound.

You could plant a classic bouquet garni pot comprising bay (p) , thyme (p) and parsley (b) - or a fines herbes collection of chives (p), chervil (b), parsley (b) and tarragon (p).

(A quick note about tarragon – make sure you get hold of French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) and not Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus dracunculoides) which has an inferior flavour. French tarragon does not set viable seed, so buy a plant from a reputable herb farm, nursery or garden centre.)

A collection of traditional herbes de Provence made up of oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme (all p) would look good, too - or how about a ‘Scarborough Fair’ pot? In other words, parsley (b), sage (p), rosemary (p), and thyme (p).

Perhaps you might like a container of herbs that you can use during the dormant season? I’m thinking of herbs such as thyme, hyssop, winter savory, and oregano. (All ‘p’)

And a corresponding one for the height of the growing season – basil (a), summer savory (a), parsley (b) and chives (p).

I once planted a ‘Pimms and Pasta’ pot which made a brilliant talking point during a barbecue with friends. I used borage (a) and Moroccan mint (p) for the Pimms, with basil (a) and sweet marjoram (a) to go in a tomato sauce for pasta.

Or you could plant up a container with herbs suited to a particular ingredient:

for lamb – parsley (b), rosemary (p), mint (p) and thyme (p);

for pork – parsley (b), sage (p), hyssop (p) and thyme (p);

for poultry – parsley (b), tarragon (p), rosemary (p) and thyme (p);

for sweet dishes - lemon verbena (p), mint (p) and sweet cicely (p).

Top row, left to right: borage, sweet cicely, sage

Bottom row, left to right: winter savory, oregano, rosemary

Alternatively, and for something a little different, you could plant up a hanging basket with herbs: plant chives, and purple sage in the top of the basket, with broad-leaved thyme and oregano around the sides (all p).

For lots more information about growing and using culinary herbs have a look at my book 30 Herbs for Your Kitchen Garden available on Amazon (https://tinyurl.com/y8m7pjuh)