Did we have any summer savoury, enquired a friend. Now summer savoury is not a herb I have ever felt the need of so the answer was negative but I asked why. For green beans, was the reply. Summer savoury is the recommended herb to add to green beans and at this time of the year, many of us have an abundance of that vegetable. I knew the friend would be correct (he always is) but I looked up my Larousse tome on gastronomy, which happened to be a gift from said friend, and a very useful gift too. Sure enough. How can I lived for so long, married as I am to a grower of green beans, and failed to ever hear before that I needed summer savoury to add flavour?
We have always grown some fresh herbs here and have been enjoying a much more abundant quantity and range this year. This can possibly be attributed to some channel surfing and occasional desultory dipping into the Food Channel. Suddenly I found the charms of using large sprays of fresh herbs (discarded after cooking) as well as the more traditional finely chopped additions. I shun anything which has dried mixed herbs in it (which rules out everything pre-stuffed at the supermarket). The dusty packet stuff is not even a poor imitation of the genuine fresh article. I use dried and powdered spices but not herbs. They need to be fresh.
There are entire books devoted to the herb garden and traditional, formal layouts. These often take the form of a wagon wheel or something equally cutsie. Of course the medieval herb gardens were on a somewhat more expansive scale, not just limited to culinary herbs but taking in a vast array of medicinal plants as well. The designated herb garden, in modern times, seems a bit of no-brainer to me. The problem is that different herbs require different growing conditions and it is rare to be able to offer this in one small space. Herbs come from a range of different plant families around the world and the common link is their use in cooking, not a similarity in preferred growing conditions.
The critical factor in planting herbs, Mark observes, is avoiding corners and preferably elevating the plants. Unless you live completely isolated from any dogs and cats, you can be pretty sure that your own pet or the neighbours’ wandering ones will pass by your gardens cocking their legs (dogs) or spraying (cats) – marking territory. It is not a great thought when you are harvesting the foliage from low growing plants. Animals particularly favour the outer parameters of garden beds which is why corner plants are often favoured.
For me, as the cook, the most important factor is having as many herb varieties as possible close to the kitchen door, or at least along a sealed path so that I can wander out in slippers in winter. Most of us only use herbs if they are convenient to pick at the time so proximity is important.
A few herbs are annuals (in other words, they grow from seed and die within a year or less) and, as with most annuals, they prefer well cultivated soil and good levels of moisture to sustain all that quick growth. Basil doesn’t even last one year – the first cold will kill it off. Coriander and dill are less fussy about conditions but are also annuals. Basil tends to grow best in vegetable garden conditions which offer the most cultivated and hospitable surroundings. Obviously you can grow it in containers over summer but if you let it dry out and the plant gets stressed, it will go to seed and die quickly.
Parsley, that infinitely useful and hardy herb, is biennial. In its second year it flowers, sets seed and dies. It is not fussy or particular but if you are starting from scratch, it helps to plant it two years in a row to keep the cycle going and to make sure you let at least one plant a year seed down to ensure its survival. A designated parsley patch in the veg garden is the way to go if you have the space, or you can let it do its thing in flower borders near the house.
Other herbs are clumping perennials. Mint comes from a vast family (there are around 2000 named cultivars of mint alone!) and likes rich, moist soils which is quite different to the dry loving herbs from North Africa and the Mediterranean. It also spreads enthusiastically below ground so can become invasive. Grow it in a position where you can control its wayward habits. An old laundry tub is the option chosen by the neighbour.
Marjoram, its stronger flavoured cousin oregano and chives are better behaved, low growing clumping perennials which will often sit quite happily on the margins of the flower borders near the house if you want them in a convenient position. So too with Vietnamese mint, which is not a mint but is very aromatic, vigorous and reasonably decorative but destined for the compost heap here because I am allergic to it.
Sage is a member of the salvia family, another perennial but one which grows larger and can be inclined to get woody and ugly if you don’t keep it well pinched out. It is only half hardy (may die in colder conditions) and likes full sun and good drainage (which means it may die in wet winters and heavy soil). But basically, it likes similar conditions to the sunny flower border.
Rosemary and thyme are from the Mediterranean and North African areas and will happily grow in poor, dry conditions. No compost is needed for them. Rosemary is a woody shrub which will get some size to it if allowed. At a pinch you can hedge it but it does stay a bit woody and open. It needs excellent drainage and is best in open conditions. Thymes tend to be low growing spreaders – think sunny rockery conditions. If your soils are heavy, you can plant these two in pots and half bury the pot in the garden to give them drier conditions in their root zone while drawing up what moisture they need from below.
Bay trees (the source of bay leaves) are just that if you let them go – trees. They also sucker (spreading through side shoots) and attract leaf sucking thrips. Fortunately they are tough and hardy and will take hard clipping so you can shape them into topiaries as feature plants and keep them under control. Planting in open or windy conditions will reduce the thrip infestation though plants will grow almost anywhere.
Tarragon can be a problem. You want French tarragon, not its inferior Russian relative. But French tarragon is an artemisia (wormwood, by common parlance, a species of which is also the source of absinthe) and only grows from cutting. If you try it from seed, you are growing the Russian form because the French one is sterile and never sets seed.
Mark has just arrived with pots of seed raised lemon grass for planting out. It is a tropical, clumping, perennial grass which can tolerate temperate conditions so will be content beside the chives and marjoram. Obviously next year we will be adding the annual summer savoury to the herb range here. Now that I have learned about it, I can not live the rest of my life eating green beans minus summer savoury.