According to my own poll from late last year, among the top five plants grown by readers of this blog were herbs. In order of preference, Basil, Parsley, Rosemary and Mint. Also in the top ten were Oregano and Thyme. And Chilli, but that’s a spice, not a herb. Though it may sometimes be regarded as herbaceous.
What’s the difference? My working definition is based on what part of the plant is used for culinary purposes. Some sources may even refer to “culinary herbs” to distinguish plants used in the kitchen from the botanical use of the term “herbaceous” to describe any non-woody plant. But I define a culinary herb as a plant from which foliage (leaves) are gathered and used in cooking, predominantly to add flavour. That includes some woody plants, and even trees like Bay (Laurus nobilis). Some are annual, and have to be replanted every year from seed, some perennial and last for a few years or more before needing replacement. A spice, on the other hand, is a plant product used in cooking that is not foliage. For example, Chilli and Paprika are made from the fruit of the Chilli plant (Capsicum spp.); Cinnamon is the bark of the Cinnamon tree (Cinnamomum spp.), Turmeric is a root (Curcuma longa), and so on. I could keep going, but that would take forever, or at least, the rest of the week.
Now we’re all on the same page (this one, if you’re still reading), let’s move on. Herbs are ideal for small gardens, for urban gardens, for non-gardens and for beginners. The plants themselves can take up relatively little space, and even be grown successfully on window sills, either inside or outside, and balconies in containers if no proper garden is available. They are also expensive to buy, and difficult to keep fresh once picked, giving added incentive to strike them from the shopping list. Nutritionally, fresh herbs are likely to contain more vitamins and minerals than cut bunches, due to the deterioration of compounds during transport as they are exposed to heat, light and air. Fresh herbs also have a much better flavour than dried herbs, and really that’s the reason we eat them. And there’s always the issue of “food miles”, in how far our dinner travels before it reaches the table.
Now, because of the diversity of plants collectively referred to as herbs, there are no strict rules that apply to all. However, many herbs, especially aromatic herbs like Basil (ocimum basilicum), Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and Sage (Salvia officinalis) produce a stronger flavour in full sun, due to higher levels of oils in the leaves. These oils are a kind of defence mechanism for the plants, to make them unpalatable to browsing animals. Trust us humans to be the odd ones out. But other herbs, such as Coriander (Coriandrum sativum), will get stressed with too much sun, and shoot up flowers and produce seeds in a hot location. Parsley, in my experience, will grow just about anywhere, including cracks in the concrete. I prefer the flat leaf variety, it has more flavour, and as a chef friend pointed out recently, the only place you see curly parsley anymore is on raffled meat trays as garnish.
I recommend treating groups of herbs in a similar fashion, based mostly on where they come from. The Mediterranean herbs, Rosemary, Basil, Oregano, Sage and Thyme can be grown together as a group, along with Parsley and Garlic. Not only will they all taste good together, they can all handle similar conditions in the garden: As much sun as they can get, and they usually can handle drying out a bit, and they all need a good dose of fertiliser, especially if they are harvested frequently. They would do well in a suitable section of garden, or a large pot together to save space, but mind that none of them dominate, they can be pretty competitive.
Another useful grouping is Coriander with Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum), or Chives (Allium schoenoprasum), Mint (Mentha spp.), Hot Mint (Persicaria odorata) and Lemongrass (Cymobopogon citratus) to make an Asian garden. Stick a Chilli in there too, and South East Asian inspired dishes are easily sorted. Most of these will tolerate a bit less sun, and a lot more water, Vietnamese (Hot) Mint and Lemongrass will even grow IN water most of the time.
There are clever ways to design herb gardens if you have the time and space, the Classic permaculture Herb Spiral design can be used, for example to get more plants in a small space that need different conditions. The other thing is to have them close to the kitchen door, you will use them more often if you see them all the time. If there’s no sun close to the kitchen door, think about having multiple planted portable gardens, old wheelbarrows, or planters on castors, so you can move them in and out of the sun periodically without a team effort.
I think herbs are the best option for beginners, too, because they give almost instant, easily repeated harvests from a small space, with only a little bit of effort. It’s pretty satisfying to be able to say to guests at dinner “I grew it myself”, even if it’s only the garnish. And at this time of year in Melbourne, you can pretty much plant anything. Don’t be afraid to interplant herbs amongst vegies and ornamental plants, too, there are no rules.
All the photos in this post were taken by me in the herb garden at Burnley Gardens which are open to the public every day.