Herbs for every location
Relating back to my previous article I mentioned that herbs cn be featured in almost any plant group. I want to further add that herbs are extremely diverse and no matter what the soil type or site location it is possible to find some suitable varieites. There is a restricting belief that most herbs require full sun however there are quite a few which will thrive in shade and some that adore it. I am concentrating this article on a few of the more popular culinary herbs. There are also many cosmetic, medicinal and ornamental varieities which can add colourful interest to a garden with difficult or varying site conditions. These will be included in a later edition.
Herbs for Sun
Sage, Oregano and thyme like a sandy soil in a sunny position. This can be achieved by adding silver sand to the soil where you plant to improve drainage. Ordinary builder’s sand may also be used but wash it through a sieve to remove any undesirable elements. There are many varieties of thyme such as orange, lemon and caraway to name but a few. French Tarragon can only be grown from division unlike the Russian variety which may be grown from seed but lacks flavour. It is a sensible idea to grow French Tarragon in a pot the first year. The following Spring divide it and plant some in open ground while retaining one for pot culture as it easily rots in winter. At least one can move the pot into a porch, conservatory or shelterd positon during spells of heavy rain. Rosemary is a great coastal plant and is often used as a shrub in landscaping. Many have had to be replaced this year due to our severe winter. There are 3 varieties I am familar with, the blue flowering upright form which is the most common. The prostrate variety which is also blue flowering and cascades from raised beds or is used as ground cover in windswept sites. It often blooms as early as february and continues doing so for many months. More rare is the pink flowering upright form, this variety I have yet to see in full flowering maturity.
Herbs for Shade
This group doe not require the addition of sand as they like a rich, damp soil. There are a multitude of exciting mint varieities and as a herb I think it is under rated and under used. Spearmint is the one which lends the best flavour to mint sauce. Applemint may also be used and has the welcome characteristic of producing an array of pale mauve flowers which attract bees and butterflies. It is extremely invasive so grow in a large pot or line the planting hole with polythene. Sweet Cicely is a herb with delicate, fern like foliage which is added to stewed fruit to reduce the acidity hence less sugar is required. It has the annoying habit of reseeding everywhere so cut off the dead flowerheads before it sets seed. Lastly I want to mention Lovage, it is a very large impressive herb often reaching 5 feet in height. It likes a fertile, damp soil so liberal watering during dry weather is vital. It tends to be a herb one either loves or hates, the flavour is strong resembling celery so use sparingly in cooked dishes. It is a herbaceous perennial which means it disappears completely in winter but emerges vigorously in Springtime.
March is one of the busiest months of all. Full scale activity begins in the garden. The recent dry spell hopefully has allowed us to complete the laborious task of clean up and soil preparation. The addition of lime to soils in this acidic area is important to consider especially for vegetable growing. A light application every 2 to 3 years will raise the ph which in turn aids the release of vital minerals while also improving the soil structure. However, beware of excessive dosage for potatoes as this causes scab disease, most other vegetables will benefit. Now we can look forward to the delightful chore of seed sowing. For vegetables a sowing interval of every 2 weeks is ideal to ensure a constant supply while avoiding a glut. There is nothing in the garden which torments me more than an entire generation of bolted lettuces or purple sprouting broccoli reduced to flowers.
If it continues too cold for direct sowing outdoors, sow under cover. Most varieties are suitable for this culture except root vegetable such as carrots or beetroot, these cannot be transplanted successfully as they will become shapeless and inedible. So wait until April and sow outside in drills. There are various methods of seed sowing, but since my first lettuce sown during childhood, I have stuck ritualistically with the traditional if not primitive technique my father taught me. It has always given me extremely satisfying results and can easily be adopted by any amateur gardener. This simple yet exciting procedure for me is the most important and useful gardening skill of all. It bestows on us the freedom to grow those varieties we choose to test and taste, that to me is the true miracle of growing your own.
The Glass & Newspaper Technique
Many seed packets state that heat is required for germination and by that I mean artificial heat as used in large commercial production. However from my experience I have found that most seed will germinate in a cold greenhouse or tunnel and even on a sunny windowsill if the below method is applied. Though germination may be slower and sometimes erratic this should not cause despondency as for domestic production a mere handful of seedlings is usually adequate. Sow small seed such as lettuce and tomato in a seed tray in compost that specifies seed sowing as well as potting. This is important as it may be minus the element of phosphate which is essential for healthy seed germination and formation.
Larger seed like cucumber and courgette may be sown in small pots. Allow 2 seeds per pot and pluck out the weaker of the two. However if both appear strong pot up separately. Water generously but do not saturate or seed will rot. Cover with glass and place newspaper on top, this creates a snug micro-environment. Daily inspection is vital, turn the glass to dispense of condensation, thus preventing the fungal disease – damping off which causes seedlings to shrivel up and die. Always replace the newspaper to retain moisture in the compost.
This is a very important exercise which requires consistency and diligence. The crucial point is the removal of both glass and newspaper the minute one observes the slightest emergence of green shoots. If this is done too late the resulting seedlings will grow weak and spindly in a frantic effort to reach day light. Water gently at all stages with a fine spray and cover initially by night with newspaper of garden fleece. If growing on windowsills rotate containers each day to aid a balanced access to light which is the life force of any plant. Usually within a week or two seedlings need to be transplanted into pots or cell trays. They should at this stage have developed their second pair of leaves called true leaves. Handle delicately, lifting by the seed leaves (first set of leaves) not the stems. As planting out time approaches and plantlets have matured harden off gradually. This involves placing them outside during the day time and bringing inside at night.
If you are lucky enough to own a greenhouse or tunnel than varieties such as tomatoes or cucumber can spend their entire lives inside.
The same principal applies as outlined above. Most herb seeds ie fennel, oregano, can be sown now and throughout April. Parsley tends to take forever often up to 4 weeks so be patient. Salad herbs like Mizuna and rocket jump up overnight. These are best transplanted in clumps of 3 to 5 seedlings per pot. Again these need to be sown every 2 weeks for non stop harvesting. I usually halt sowing by the end of May.
If space is limited in your garden try incorporating some vegetables among the flowers. Bamboo pyramids of runner beans with scarlet or white flowers en masse look stately. Globe artichoke or Cardoon are large, highly grey leaved vegetables with teasel type flowers. They add architectural status to the herbaceous border and a touch of gourmet to the kitchen.
Chop suey greens (salad herb) when picked young (4”) lend an aromatic eastern flavour to stir-fry and salads. It is really a Chrysanthemum which when left mature produces a dazzle of quite large, yellow, daisy flowers in summer, these are excellent for cutting. Rhubarb chard is a recent addition to my seed collection. It is a decorative form of Swiss chard cooked like spinach or used young in salads. The variety Rainbow mix is described in my catalogue as ‘individual plants producing succulent stems in shades of red, orange, yellow, cream and white’ this is one I am definitely going to test and taste this year.
Article Published 2011 in West kerry Live magasine.