Whether you are a gourmet cook or just someone wanting to put a little more zing into everyday cooking, creating a herb garden is an easy and fun thing to do. You don’t need loads of space because most herbs grow happily in containers and a mixed lot of earthenware pots, old buckets and troughs can look great massed beside the kitchen door where they will be most handy when inspiration strikes.
When you go about creating a herb garden there are several factors to consider, not least of these being what herbs you generally use. Start with these and go on from there; if you are mainly a mint, thyme and sage person it is pointless starting your garden with annuals like marjoram, basil and coriander. These softer herbs are not difficult to grow but are not that attractive to look at and die off completely in the winter leaving you with a bit of a gap. The perennials such as mint die back but often leave green shoots at the base except in the harshest winter and are good value because you only need buy them once. In fact, mint and some of the other perennials like lemon balm are so vigorous they should be in a container even if you are creating a herb garden in bare soil as otherwise you will find you have a mint garden, rather than herb!
Another consideration is space available and also the position of the site. Many herbs are Mediterranean and love the sun, so you should really try to give them the sunniest spot in the garden. This may well turn out to be near the patio or other sitting out place and this is an added bonus. There is little that is nicer than sitting in the sun with the scent of herbs such as lavender and thyme mingling with the sound of the bees gathering the nectar. You have a little taste of holiday right there in your own back yard. Containers for herbs are fine, but if you have the space it would be rather nice to plant in the traditional way with the plants in squares or rectangles with small walkways between. This is the style which has come down to us from the early herbalists and it is important to remember that herbs were grown in the first place as valuable medicines and that most of our common culinary herbs have a healing property as well. Some of them should be avoided by pregnant women and people suffering from certain medical conditions – obviously no dish calls for huge amounts of any herb, but it is better to be safe than sorry, so it is a good idea to check.
Some herbs are quite tall and so are best against a fence or some other support. Fennel is rather unusual as a herb as you can use it also as a vegetable by harvesting the bulb at the bottom and as a herb by collecting the seeds. It is a beautiful plant with the most gorgeous feathery foliage but can grow six feet tall if left to its own devices. It also seeds freely so it does tend to pop up where you least expect it. But the lovely smell of aniseed which wafts from it if you brush against it makes it all worthwhile. One of the most important factors to take into account when creating a herb garden in fact is how to keep the little devils in check! Herbs do have a tendency to wander about, with mint being the worst offender and so you are not going to be able to plant the seeds or seedlings and then ignore it. Mint is best planted in a container to keep the roots in and some herbs such as rosemary and lavender have to be pruned savagely every once in a while as otherwise they can become very substantial shrubs which will overshadow everything else. Some herbs can be bought which are of a low growing habit but in the right place they will be off like a rocket and before you know it half your lawn will be made up of thyme. This is great in some ways, as the smell when you mow is glorious, but not so great if you like your lawn to be nice soft grass to lie on, as mown off thyme is a bit on the prickly side.
If you have cats that like to lie in the herbs – and why not, cats like a nice smell as much as the next person – put them off with a couple of plants of Coleus Canina. They hate the smell with a passion, but to people it is not really that bad at all. Just be careful you don’t pick some for the stuffing! The one thing to avoid is catnip, of course, which is a kind of mint which drives cats wild. After an afternoon of all the cats in the neighbourhood rolling in it, your beautifully created herb garden will look like a battlefield!
If all of this makes it sound as if a herb garden is more trouble than a wagonload of monkeys, don’t be put off; it’s not. If you create a herb garden with your personal tastes in mind nothing should get out of hand because you will be picking the tips out all the time and so they get a prune on a regular basis. Also, herbs freeze very well, so the annual trim needed by the woody plants can be harvested and frozen against the cold winter days – if you open freeze and then pack into small portions you will have fresh tasting herbs all year round. Mint freezes well chopped up, moistened with a little water and packed into ice cube trays for almost instant mint sauce. So go on – get your thinking cap on and spend a while in the garden (and the kitchen) and start creating a herb garden.