Imagine stepping out on to your patio to pick fresh herbs for your cooking — from fragrant basil to accompany ripe tomatoes and mozzarella, coriander to sprinkle on spicy curries and salads, mint to add to your Pimm’s or rosemary to sprinkle over lamb chops on the barbecue. Sounds idyllic doesn’t it?
Fresh herbs are such a staple in today’s kitchens, yet the shop-bought ones so often end up wilting on the windowsill before you’ve had time to use them.
If you are planning a herb garden or a group of herbs in pots, place them near the kitchen where they are easily accessible. A small collection can be planted in a cartwheel pattern, or even in a planter with separate pockets, each segment planted with a different herb.
On a larger scale, a bed can be divided into segments, each for a different herb, fringed with a dwarf hedge such as lavender to define the edges.
Formal herb gardens are traditionally round or square, often with a clipped low-growing hedge around the outside and something bigger, such as a bay in a large pot or a sundial or birdbath, in the middle, with a mixture of herbs filling the space.
Informal herb gardens are easier to tend to as you can mix the herbs to include both perennials and annuals, adding plants such as lavender and foxgloves to give the area a bit more colour.
When planting a border of herbs, place the tallest at the back so they don’t shade out the smaller ones. Angelica grows up to 2m (6ft) and will self-seed freely. Mint and lemon balm are invasive so should be planted in pots or buckets in the ground so their roots are confined and don’t swamp other less vigorous plants.
Groups of symmetrically arranged raised beds provide an easy and attractive way to cultivate a wide range of herbs without having to tread on soil, plus you can cater for the soil and watering needs of different herbs.
You can just as easily grow pots of herbs on your patio or in a windowbox in the right situation and with the right soil.
Most herbs used for cooking and for their fragrance are natives of the Mediterranean and do best in warm sunny conditions in well-drained soil, with added grit. Those in containers may need daily watering in hot weather but some, such as basil, will resent going to bed at night with wet leaves or sodden compost, so water in the morning before they are in direct sunlight.
Many herbs don’t like rich, moisture-retentive growing conditions, so you’ll need to give them what they need. Coriander doesn’t like being crowded and won’t thrive in cool conditions, parsley is greedy and requires a rich, moisture-retentive soil, while thyme prefers poor, very well-drained soil.
Basil likes warmth and shelter but won’t do well in searing sun, so grow it in pots of soilless potting compost in semi shade.
Remove the flowers from shortlived leafy herbs such as chervil and basil to keep them growing longer and from coriander and dill if you don’t want seeds but would rather have the leaves.
Before too long, you should be able to pick aromatic, flavoursome herbs from your garden rather than veering towards the wilting leaves of the shop-bought ones on your windowsill.
BEST OF THE BUNCH — Foxglove (Digitalis)
The wild types of these tall beauties, D. purpurea, with tall spires of bell-shaped flowers, pop up all over the place, from the edge of farmers’ fields to overgrown railway sidings, but they can also look great in shady spots in informal mixed borders and cottage gardens. Most are biennials, that is, they need two years to bloom and then die in the autumn. But if they like their surroundings they’ll reseed so prolifically it will seem like they’re perennials. Look out for choice perennials as they have larger flowers in lovely colours including soft yellow, dusky pink and chocolate brown. D. grandiflora is among the best, producing subtle yellow flowers from June to July and growing 60x80cm (24x32in). For a taller type, try ‘Excelsior Hybrids’ biennials which bear pastel-coloured flowers growing to 1.5m (5ft). Foxgloves will grow in most soils but won’t tolerate drying out in late summer. Grow them in sun or shade and they will self-seed freely. Cut down the main spike as it fades to encourage the growth of flowering side-shoots.
GOOD ENOUGH TO EAT — Aubergines
They offer a taste of the Mediterranean, their burgundy fruits providing texture and flavour to Greek dishes such as moussaka, in rich ratatouille and in Middle Eastern fare like babaganoush and tagines. They’re not easy to grow in a British climate unless you have a greenhouse or polythene tunnel, but if you were too late to sow seeds you should still be able to buy small plants from a garden centre to grow in pots on a sunny patio in high summer. When the plants reach about 20cm high, pinch out the growing tip to encourage them to branch. Vigorous varieties may need further pinching to keep them bushy. In July and August use split canes to support the main stem and each main branch before the fruit starts to swell. Water the plants twice a day on hot days and feed regularly with tomato fertiliser after the first flowers form. By the end of summer, they should be ready to harvest but if the fruits are still developing in September move them under cover at night as aubergines are frost-sensitive. Good varieties include ‘Long Tom’ and ‘Moneymaker’.