Saturday, 13 June 2020

10 Universally Useful Herbs

Mint and Lavender two perennial favourites.

I often get asked what herbs I would recommend for someone new to herb gardening or for someone with a small garden? Before I recommend any herbs I always ask, ‘what do you want to do with them?’ I get blank looks sometimes because people haven’t fully decided what they want to do with the herbs other than grow them; they may cook with them, use them in crafts or have a go at making their own beauty treatments, some may even wish to make some simple home remedies with the herbs they grow, but if they haven’t found their ‘herbal feet’, advising what they’d be best growing can be a little difficult.

To help in this situation I developed my list of 10 ‘Multi-Purpose Herbs’ for beginners, the 10 that I wouldn't be without, and in fact couldn't be without, and the ones I feel should be the skeleton of every herb garden, the ones used to build the bones that the rest of the herb garden can grow around.

These bones can be used for all the main areas that gardeners usually cultivate herbs, and all but two of them are perennial, they’d also fit nicely into cottage style gardens and can be added to allotment gardens to help bring in wildlife and add some seasoning to your fruit and veg!

Growing them will enable you to add flavour to your cooking, make simple remedies, make your own face creams and herbal gifts and use them around the home for cleaning. The bonus is they’re all relatively easy to grow and don’t need you to do that much to them once established, beyond a haircut and some division every so often.

Below is my guide to 10 universally useful herbs for the garden each entry includes my favourite seed and plant varieties to grow, please take in to account that I'm recommending seeds and plants available in the UK, that I have direct knowledge of from a growing and using point of view, some varieties may be available in other countries, but not all will be.

Herbaholic's 10 Universally Useful Herbs

– Easy to grow and the varieties and ‘flavours’ are endless, I cook with it, make herb teas my favourite is fresh basil with added orange peel and juice, yum! I add basil to herbal bath sachets, it goes in to lots of recipes in the kitchen both sweet and savoury. Basil is really easy to grow from seed, sow in early spring on a sunny windowsill or in a greenhouse then transplant out when all signs of frost have gone. Taking care not to disturb the roots, this is the most common cause of basil casualties, they don’t like having their roots messed with. You can also sow seeds direct into the place you want the seeds to grow in late spring.

Herbaholic's Favourite Varieties: ‘Sweet Genovese’, ‘Aristotle’ & ‘Pluto’.

2) Bergamot – I use this herb for teas, the leaves go into salads, the flowers into fruit salads, dried for pot pourri and it gets added to various body pampering recipes. It’s colourful and the bees and hoverflies love it! Sow seeds on the surface of your compost and give a light covering of vermiculite, the seed grows better in a heated propagator. Bergamot loves to grow in light soil that can retain a little moisture.

The flowers of bergamot will last longer if you grow the plants where they only get sun in the morning.

Herbaholic's Favourite Varieties: ‘Bergamot’ aka Red Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) and ‘Wild Bee Balm’ aka Lemon Bergamot (Monarda citriodora).

– I add it to home made sleep pillows, bath bags, make sprays to protect seedlings from damping off, and planting it near other herbs and plants can help to strengthen them. There are two types of chamomile grown commonly in herb gardens, Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) which is perennial and German chamomile (Matricaria recutia) an annual, I grow both as they have slightly different uses but for a beginner I’d recommend going with the perennial variety. That said if you want to grow chamomile for adding to teas and tisanes then grow German Chamomile as it has a slightly sweeter flavour and isn't as bitter. Grow Chamomile seeds as per Bergamot minus the heat.

Herbaholic's Favourite Varieties: ‘Flore Pleno’ (Chamaemelum nobile) a pretty double flowered variety.

4) Lavender – I’d be lost without this herb! I grow purple, pink and white varieties with a mix of scents, the bees and butterflies love lavender so much as well, nothing beats an afternoon in the garden on a Summer's day smelling the scent of this herb gently wafting upwards listening to the soft buzz of the bees gathering its nectar, bliss. I cook sweet and savoury dishes with it; I dry the flowers and use them along with the chamomile in sleep pillows and bath bags. I infused them with beeswax and other ingredients to make my own furniture polish and the flowers get added to a bath soaks for when I’ve been doing too much in the garden. Grow from seed in a heated propagator, or from cuttings taken in the autumn.

Herbaholic's Favourite Varieties: ‘Hidcote’, ‘Lavender Lady’, ‘Rosea’ (pink) & ‘Ellagance Ice’ (white).

10 Universal Herbs
Image © Debs Cook

 5) Lemon Balm – This is the herb that tells me that spring is finally here, it’s one of the first to emerge in my garden and gets used in a myriad of ways, lemon balm pesto is my favourite recipe, the leaves are full of a citronella like substance which can help deter pests, try rubbing some on your arms and head if you get bitten by midges, the infused oil can be used to make a rather beneficial salve for cold sores. Lemon balm tea is very refreshing hot or cold, I have found that warm lemon balm tea, made from fresh lemon balm to be wonderfully soothing for toothache, fresh lemon balm leaves can also be used to polish wood leaving behind their delightful fragrance. Sow seed under glass in early spring with a light covering of vermiculite; pot the seedlings on and once established plant out into the garden.

Herbaholic's Favourite Varieties: ‘All Gold’ & ‘Citronella’.

6) Marigold/Calendula – Such a useful herb, the petals can be used as a saffron substitute, the flowers can make home remedies, be sprinkled on salads, they can be dried and used in crafts and they’re yet another herb that will bring the bees, hover flies and lacewings into your garden. I make tincture from the flower heads that I use when making my gardeners hand cream. It’s an annual herb but it will readily and easily self-seed, you can sow in modules at the beginning of spring or in late spring sow directly where you want them to grow. Slugs do love feasting on newly emerged calendula so make sure you give them some slug proofing! There are many varieties of calendula, if you want to use them in home remedies ensure that your chosen seeds are C. officinalis.

Herbaholic's Favourite Varieties:
‘Orange King’ & ‘Calendula Long Flowering Mix’.

7) Mint – You can’t beat fresh mint tea, it’s something I’m very fond of, my favourite mint is Chocolate Mint but that's not exactly an all-rounder, if you have the space though it's one I'd highly recommend for teas and for adding to cakes! You can use this wonderfully aromatic herb in herbal beauty products, in sachets to deter pests, in culinary recipes from dips to ice cream and planted near doors and windows it will help to keep ants at bay, it really does work! It’s easy enough to grow from seed, sow the seeds under glass, a gentle heat will help them germinate quicker. Transplant seedlings into large pots though, unless you want a garden full of mint, never plant directly into the ground or you will have a mint garden and not a herb garden!

Herbaholic's Favourite Varieties: ‘Moroccan Mint’, ‘Tashkent’ & ‘Spearmint’ (M. spicata).

8) Rosemary – Is a perfect herb to add as a focal point to your herb garden or bed, its perennial and hardy down to 9.4°C (15°F). Here roasted veggies get sprinkled with freshly chopped rosemary, I make shortbread with it, I make infusions that get turned into creams and shampoos, the dried leaves go in pot pourri and scented sachets to deter moths, and I make herb vinegar that get used to clean work surfaces in the kitchen and bathroom. Don’t use the vinegar on marble surfaces, they will disintegrate due to the acid in the vinegar! Sow rosemary in spring using a part vermiculite part seed compost mix, and give the pots some bottom heat, rosemary can very easily fall prey to damping off disease so give them a spray of chamomile infusion to help prevent this.

Herbaholic's Favourite Varieties:
‘Miss Jessops Upright’ & ‘Beneden Blue’ AGM.

9) Sage – A terrific companion plant, when planted next to cabbages and brassicas, it can help deter cabbage white butterflies. The variegated varieties make terrific plants for tubs and baskets but for medicinal use plant purple sage, other sages will work, but for infusions and mouthwashes purple or English sage is best. Sage makes a lovely herbal rinse of dark hair, leaves scattered in hot water can be used as a facial steam. Fresh leaves can be used in the kitchen, and they make a nice addition to a foot bath to help ease tired aching feet that have been doing lots of gardening. Sow the seed in small pots with a covering of vermiculite on a sunny windowsill, once the seedlings are big enough to handle pot on or plant out where you want them to grow. Note that the variegated varieties are perennial, but will need protecting from frost or they will die!

Herbaholic's Favourite Varieties:
‘Purpurascens’, ‘Tricolor’ & ‘Icterina’.

10) Thyme – Every gardener should have more thyme, the flowers are edible, the bees love them and it has so many uses. I grow several varieties but I’d never be without common garden thyme and lemon scented, both get used an awful lot in my house. Herb butters, herbal shampoos, dried leaves go in sleep sachets and bath herb blends and they get turned into vinegar used in the same way as the rosemary vinegars. Sow seeds in mid to late spring, they are very delicate so sprinkle them lightly on the surface of your compost and do not cover, and they’ll need a little gentle heat to help them along. Once the seedlings are big enough to handle pot on or plant out.

Herbaholic's Favourite Varieties:
‘Orange Scented Thyme’, ‘Doone Valley’, ‘Silver Queen’, ‘Porlock’ & ‘Common Thyme’.

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