Spending a fortune buying herbs at the supermarket? Growing your own for the kitchen is way cheaper in the long run. It’s also incredibly easy, because herbs really don’t ask for much. A little bit of care when it comes to planting, a very light hand when it comes to caring and your herb garden will reward you year round.
Planting your herb garden
Herbs are fabulously accommodating plants. You could plant them directly in your garden, in special raised beds or in pots. Just follow these few simple guidelines and you pretty much can’t get it wrong.
Like most plants, herbs hate soggy roots and grow best in well-draining soil. If you are planting herbs directly in your garden, prepare planting beds by digging 15cm into the soil and working it over. Get rid of any large stones then enrich the soil by working in plenty of compost. If your soil is clay-like, you’ll need to add some sand to the mix to improve drainage. Finally rake it smooth and you’re ready to plant. If you’re planting your herbs in pots, start with a layer of pebbles in the bottom of the pot to improve drainage. Then add potting mix and enrich it with some compost.
Herbs do best in soil that is only slightly acidic or has a near neutral pH (6,5 to 7 on the 14-point pH scale). If other plants in your garden are just not thriving, you may have a soil problem and should consider testing the pH of your soil. You can easily do this yourself with a pH testing kit. Amending acid or alkaline levels in soil is simple – just speak to the experts at your nursery about what you should be adding.
With a few shade tolerant exceptions, most herbs need a lot of sun – we’re talking at least six hours of direct sunlight a day. So pick a sunny spot in your garden for your herbs.
Skip the seeds
It is possible to cultivate herbs from seeds. But if you’re a herb novice, this is a process that may need more TLC than what you’re up for. We recommend planting seedlings from the nursery for your soft herbs and annual herbs like parsley, basil and dill. For woody herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage, you could plant seedlings, or go with a slightly larger established plant in a pot.
Plant like with like
Not all herbs have the same watering requirements. Herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage need less water than parsley, mint and basil for instance. So plant herbs with the same watering requirements together to simplify caring for them. If you’re planting herbs together in a big bed, keep their height in mind as well. Herbs like rosemary that can grow into quite a tallish shrub should go at the back of the bed, whilst herbs that have a compact growth habit like thyme should be at the front.
Caring for your herb garden
Herbs are not especially needy when it comes to feeding. In fact, over-fertilizing will deliver lush growth, but you’ll end up with herbs that are less intense in taste because the essential oils that give them their flavour and aroma will be diluted. A slow-release pellet form organic fertilizer is a good idea for herbs in garden beds. Herbs in pots have slightly higher feeding requirements because nutrients get leeched out of the soil every time you water. Here a liquid fertilizer – fish emulsion or worm tea – is the way to go.
Like all plants, herbs should be watered in the morning as watering at night can encourage fungal growth. Take into account the watering needs of each individual plant. Mediterranean herbs like rosemary and thyme for instance need less water and the soil can dry out slightly between waterings. Softer herbs like dill and mint have higher water needs and prefer soil that is always slightly moist. Stick your finger in the soil to determine if it’s time to water. Whatever you do, don’t water lightly every day because it will encourage roots to the soil surface. Less frequent, deeper watering is the way to go. Just don’t wait so long between waterings that the herbs wilt or become stressed.
The more you pick, the more you’ll get! Yes, herbs want to be harvested. In fact, if you allow annual herbs like basil and coriander to flower and produce seeds, they’ll quit growing leaves. So get out those herb scissors and snip, snip, snip.
Cooking with herbs
Few things can be more rewarding that popping into your own herb garden and picking for the kitchen! There are so many culinary herbs to choose from, but for a starter herb garden these are our favourites and here’s what we do with them…
• Add basil leaves to green, leafy salads.
• Chop finely and mix with salted butter to make herbed butter.
• Layer basil leaves with sunripe tomatoes and fresh mozzarella and drizzle over olive oil to make a caprese salad!
• Finely chop it and mix with grated lemon zest and minced garlic to make gremolata – it’s brilliant sprinkled over grilled meats, stews and pasta.
• Make the ultimate garlic loaf`! Finely chop parsley and add it to salted butter with minced garlic. Slice a baguette, butter the slices, wrap it in foil and pop it into a hot oven for 10 minutes.
• Make the ultimate roast lamb! Use a chef’s knife to stab narrow pockets in a leg of lamb, pop in a few rosemary leaves and finely slivered garlic. Into the oven it goes.
• Thread cubes of lamb, beef or ostrich onto long sprigs of rosemary for wonderfully herby kebabs!
• Fry a sprig of rosemary in a tablespoon or two of olive oil until crisp, then crumble the rosemary over crisp roast potatoes.
• Make a tisane (herb tea) by brewing a sprig of mint in hot water.
• Make refreshing herb water. Add ice cubes and crushed mint leaves to a tall jug and top up with water.
• Make the ultimate mint sauce to serve with lamb! Just stir together finely chopped mint with a dash of white wine vinegar and a spoon or two of sugar.
• Finely chop and mix with room-temperature salted butter to make chive butter. Form a log shape and put it back in the fridge to harden up again. Serve steak topped with slices of the chive butter.
• Take potato salad to the next level by adding loads of chopped chives to the mayo!
• Stuff the cavity of a chicken with a sliced lemon, garlic cloves and a handful of thyme before you roast it.
• Add a sprig or two of thyme to the pan when you’re frying lamb chops
• Mix thyme leaves with chopped rosemary leaves, parsley, garlic and butter. Top giant black mushrooms with a knob of herb butter, then place them on the braai!