Growing Herbs at Home: A Beginner's Guide to Starting Your Own Garden
My name is Lynda. I live in a small village in Wiltshire, in the south-west of England, with my husband Malcolm and adult son Christopher.
I consider myself primarily a writer and researcher, having worked in music promotion, theatre, television and the educational events industry.
I also give talks on a variety of subjects to many different types of clubs and organisations – including how to grow and use herbs.
For over a decade I have been fascinated with the wonderful world of herbs, their history and growing and harvesting them, together with their uses in cookery, medicine, beauty and around the home. And I would like you to enjoy them too.
I have been attracted to their wonderful aroma, taste and freshness. This has led me to lots of reading and research and the practical results means my own garden, depending on the time of year, now has over 40 different herbs, more than 170 diverse varieties and several themed collections in pots in two raised beds.
But it hasn’t always been like that. When I look back at growing up in the 50s, I don’t remember my mum using anything other than a few dried mixed herbs that had sat the back of the shelf for a few months, if not years, and then we wondered why they made little difference to our food!
Fresh herbs were rarely available at the supermarket (which themselves were in their infancy). You might have had a little parsley and mint in the garden, but their only use would have been parsley as a garnish and mint with potatoes.
In fact, the closest I probably got to herbs in the 60s, was Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme’, based on an old English song about the ancient Scarborough Fair, a Medieval gathering that attracted traders and entertainers from all over England. The fair lasted 45 days and started every August 15th.
“Are you going to Scarborough Fair? Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.
Remember me to one who lived there, she once was a true love of mine.”
The turning point for me came when TV channels started filling their schedules with celebrity cooking shows and I began to be interested in chefs like:
- Graham Kerr, known as the Galloping Gourmet, who starred in one of the first classic TV cookery shows in the late 60s, with rich and decadent recipes.
- Keith Floyd, during the 80s and 90s. He took us to ‘foreign’ countries and showed us how to use herbs in our cooking. Greatly missed and the repeats of his programmes are a joy to watch.
- Rick Stein, best known for specialising in fish, with several different restaurants, and a cookery school, and still appears on television today.
- Delia Smith showed us how to cook anything from a boiled egg to more exotic dishes, supported by her many cookery books.
- Nigel Slater, whose gentle style of presenting and cooking, together with his lovely herb garden, really caught my attention.
- And then along came Jamie Oliver: The ‘new kid on the block’ in the late 90s, who worked with herb specialist Jekka McVicar whom he calls Queen of Herbs.
- More recently, I enjoy watching James Martin, when his cookery programmes often take us into his herb garden, using the produce he has grown, with the help of an assistant or two.
- With the discovery of the Food Network I began, and continue, to watch The Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten (who has a wonderful herb garden of her own)
- And Giada de Laurentils who brings a glamorous taste of Italy to our cooking. Both showing me different ways of using herbs in cooking.
What Are Herbs and Why Should I Grow Them?
In general use, a herb is any plant with leaves, seeds or flowers used for flavouring, food, drink, medicine or perfume.
Culinary use distinguishes between herbs (from the leavy green parts of a plant, fresh or dried) and spices (from the seeds, berries, bark root and fruit, usually dried). They are distinguished from vegetables as they are only used in small amounts to provide fragrance or flavour rather than as a direct food.
Today, herbs seeds and plants are readily available in garden centres and nurseries. They can also be bought from supermarkets, but you may not use all the cut aromatics you buy before they start to go brown and lose their flavour. After all, they may have been cut a couple of days before they even reach the shelves. Also, the choice of supermarket herbs can also be fairly limited and may not include everything you need for a particular recipe.
A packet of a hundred seeds can cost just a couple of pounds. Put them together with a bag of compost and a few pots and you can get started for very little money. Even if you don’t have a garden, you can grow a few herbs in a window box or the kitchen windowsill.
But is the actual growing of herbs good for us?
Another big, fat YES. Doctors and scientists say that gardening, even on a small scale, means spending time in the open air, even on a patio or balcony, coupled with all the stretching and bending, can improve your health, physically and mentally. Just be careful when carrying any heavy pots and don’t do too much in one go if this is your first venture into gardening.
Many herbs have insect pollinated flowers, this means they have lower rates of airborne pollen and may therefore better for those with allergies. Even just sitting and watching those bees and butterflies visiting your herbs can be both rewarding and restful. Let alone the medicinal value of the herbs that we will discover.
Using fresh and dried herbs
Even though fresh and dried herbs are a natural product, they contain chemical substances that can sometimes have marked side-effects. They can also cause allergic reactions and may interact with prescription and over the counter medicines. Please check before use in large quantities, if used unwisely herbs can be toxic.
Where Do I Start?
I believe anyone can grow herbs. No green fingers or specialist equipment necessary! I started with just a kitchen spoon, fork and a sharp pair of scissors, some garden soil and a little help from nature, by way of sun and rain.
When I’m in my garden working with herbs, I find it easiest to have a small shoulder bag with most of the things that I need. This pair of pocket-sized pruners from Sarah Raven. They are ideal for my bag, but once he saw them, my husband wanted a pair for his pocket!
The bypass secateurs have two blades which cut like a pair of scissors with a sharpened blade crossing over a thicker metal platform. They can get in amongst stems and branches and are good for greener growth. The trimming shears do just what they say and allow you to tidy up your herb plants. They were around £25 for the pair when I bought them and you shouldn’t really need anything bigger for herbs. I also carry some herb snips, these can cost anything from £1 to Japanese Nigiri snips at £20 plus. I tend to use Burgon and Ball mini snips at around £6 and a small pair of scissors. All four should be kept clean and sharp.
My bag also holds the following more general small items:
- A small note book and pen to jot down things that need doing that I might not have time to do right at that moment
- A few plant labels and permanent black and red pens
- A widget and dibber, again available at a variety of costs, including from the pound shop (a widget helps remove seedlings and weeds from soil, whilst a dibber makes holes to plant seedling in)
- A very small trowel to make larger holes
- And a little tin of rooting compound and a small ball of garden twine
Plus, a couple of tissues and my mobile phone, in case I need rescuing by way of an extra pair of hands or, if I am lucky, a cup of coffee! And hanging from the strap you will find my gardening gloves.
Talking of hands, you can begin growing just by using those tools on the end of your arms! I can promise you, as long as you are gentle, the plants won’t mind and by actually handling the soil you will begin to feel what is right for each plant.
My top tip?
Don’t wait, start growing your own herbs right now! If you want some ideas on which herbs to grow, you'll soon be able to read my article on the best herbs to grow.
Rosemary, Blueberry and Meringue Dessert
An unusual yet easy to make dessert for those with a sweet tooth. Serves four.
- 400g blueberries
- 500g Greek yoghurt
- 225ml red wine
- 2 tablespoon sugar
- 3 twigs rosemary wrapped in culinary muslin and tied with culinary string
- 3 individual meringues broken into pieces
- In a pan, bring half of the blueberries, plus the wine and sugar to boil until it is reduced by half to make a syrup.
- Remove rosemary and leave to cool. Then place in the refrigerator to chill.
- When thoroughly chilled, and just before serving, stir in the rest of the blueberries and layer blueberries, yoghurt, and meringue pieces into individual glasses.
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