Growing herbs


Robin Gale-Baker, from Sustainable Macleod, discusses growing various herbs. She has also written articles for this website about growing broad beans, cauliflower, eggplants and capsicums, garlic, other vegetables, apricot trees, blueberries, persimmon trees and other fruit trees. Also articles on growing techniques, mulch and shade cloth.

Plant annual herbs in autumn (April)

It may sound odd to plant annual herbs in early April but I have come to the conclusion that it is a good idea. Herbs such as dill, florence fennel, summer savoury, coriander, chervil and German chamomile (the variety used for chamomile tea), all of which are used for their fragrant leaf, bolt during the hot summer months. Climate change has caused a shift in seasons so that once cool March and April are now warm – certainly warm enough to germinate seed – but not too warm to cause bolting to seed. You may not get seed head development but you will get foliage in autumn, winter and spring. Another advantage of autumn sowing of annual herbs is that this is also the time you can collect seed from last year’s plants, giving you fresh seed to sow.

Parsley, while technically a biennial, is usually grown as an annual and can be added to the list. It takes longer than the other herbs to germinate (up to 2 months compared to 10-14 days) but you can speed up the process by soaking the seed for 24 hours. If you are adventurous, you might also plant basil seedlings but, unlike other annuals, basil will succumb to cold weather and be killed off completely by frost. Having said that, my basil lasted into July last year.

Sow seed of all annual herbs directly into your garden so as to avoid setback through transplanting. Cover the seed in some way to prevent birds scratching it out and eating it up. And remember to water well from the time the seed is sown until the plant is well established.

Some herbs don’t dry well and are better preserved in oil. These include basil (though recently someone told me that basil dried in a very slow oven retains its flavour), french tarragon, oregano, savoury and thyme. If preserving in oil, use a hot oil method as the microbes on herbs (or any other vegetable) can cause botulism (which can be fatal).

Herb drying (March)

A well-dried herb should be the same colour as it was in its fresh state. Those supermarket ones that are heat-dried, lose not only their colour but also most of their volatile oils. The best way to dry herbs is to cut the stems in the morning once any morning dew has dried but before watering, as this will be when the herb’s volatile oils will be strongest. Then tie them in bunches, remove any brown, dried leaves and hang them upside down in a warm but shady place to dry out. Once fully dry, strip the stems, fill the jars, screw the lid on, label and you’re done.

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) – the solution to ants! (January)

A number of people have recently asked me how to deal with ants. Tansy is the answer. Tansy is a fern-like herb, growing to about 1 metre, with clusters of flattish yellow button flowers that make good dried flowers. It is a perennial but does best by being cut to ground level late autumn and allowed to shoot from the base. It will be the first plant in the garden to wilt in hot weather, indicating that your garden needs water.

Tansy has quite a history as an insect repellent and a biological pest control. It was used for embalming bodies, placed in coffins and made into wreathes which were placed on dead bodies. The tansy kept insects from attacking the corpses. As a pest control, it is used as a companion plant to roses, to cucumbers (repelling cucumber beetle), and in the USA with potato crops (to deter Colorado potato beetle).

Ants loathe tansy. Crush a tansy leaf and place it across an ant trail and the ants will immediately turn and run away. They will not cross the tansy leaf. Fresh tansy can be placed anywhere where you want to deter ants, or dried and placed in cupboards or drawers. It does have quite a pungent smell so that needs to be taken into account. At the Macleod community garden, where there was a considerable ant problem, tansy is grown behind the compost heaps and keeps them free of ant nests.

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