The kitchen herb garden

The three tiered herb beds were built around five years ago. They’re situated to the north of our communal longhouse, and is also partly shaded by trees to east and west. For the last two years the kitchen herb garden hasn’t thrived; most plants were small and over-picked, and some well-established ‘plants in the wrong place’ were out-competing many herbs. This tiny garden has been a massive learning experience for me:

The community needs an abundant supply of fresh, strong-flavoured herbs that are easy to spot and fast to gather. Mixed plantings are lovely but they aren’t practical here. Community members need to come outside, grab a handful of one type of flavouring and get back to the stove before the stew burns. Mixed plantings make the herbs you want harder to spot and the bed more difficult to weed, especially for volunteers.

Plant herbs that will enjoy the situation; thyme and rosemary don’t thrive and should be grown elsewhere.

Don’t sacrifice the herbs you’ve planted to wild plants unless they’re as productive as anything else you could grow (sometimes they will be). If you hate killing beautiful wild plants, as I do, make another bed for ‘weeds’ elsewhere so you can replant them. This is a good way of learning what mystery seedlings are, and you will be rewarded with a surprise crop of interesting plants that provide continuity of habitat and food for wildlife.

At the same time, don’t leave gaps of bare ground; weeding out sort-of edibles and leaving the space to be taken over by buttercups is not efficient. Much better to pot-grow lots of plants – start off with more than you think you’ll need – and weed out the spaces when your plants are ready to go in. This way, you may be able to leave some of the wild plants in as ground cover.

The herb garden needs to be as low maintenance as possible, so most of the plants will be hardy perennials, and are or should be happy in the site.
Oregano: Delicious savoury flavour, used cooked and in salad in quantity here. Perennial clumps which expand every year when it’s happy, mulch or feed twice a year if you pick it as much as we do. Needs some sun but has been ok in the part shade of the garden.
Parsley: Easy to grow biennial (once you’ve sussed germination; leave it outside in early spring in a cold frame as it seems to like temperature changes). Its flavour is ‘the summation of all things green’, highly nutritious in salad or added last-minute to cooking.
Lovage: Deep-rooted tall perennial, likes shade. A yeasty savoury flavour – use in cooking or lightly in salad. A must-have to liven up self-sufficient vegan cooking, I love it.
Alliums: Chives and welsh onions need some sun and deepish soil, and aren’t too keen on acidic ground. Plant them in clumps or in pots, and leave them alone for their first couple of years to establish before you start cutting them, then they’ll last for ages if they like the soil. Mulch clumps every year to encourage good growth. Tree onions are beautiful plants, they grow bulblets (mini onions) at the top of the stem each year, which take root in autumn and spring when the stem falls over. They are perennial but prefer to move around. Onion tops can be used in salad, bulblets are impractically small for large-scale cooking but novelty.
Salad burnet: Start off in pots, once established this perennial will return for years – hassle free salad! Pretty frilly leaves, not strong tasting. Dislikes acid soil, tolerates some shade.
Sweet cicely: Start in a pot in autumn, leave outside and it will come up in the spring. Frilly anise-flavoured leaves and green fennel-flavoured seeds children love (my son calls them ‘munchies’). Trouble free perennial in acidic soil and shade.
Calendula: Easy to grow annual. Cheerful orange flowers for salads, beneficial for other plants and incredibly useful medicinally.
Fennel: Self-seeding perennial that needs sun and cultivated neutral soil. Has never grown to full size here. The frondy leaves are great in salads and loved by children.
Marshmallow: Deep-rooted perennial, needs moist roots and sun. Flowers and leaves for mild-flavoured, slightly mucilaginous salads, roots for medicine.
Spearmint: Unfussy spreading perennial clumps. Mulch every couple of years to keep it vigorous or let it move around. Essential tea and medicine herb, experiment to see if you like it in salads. Our children like to pick and eat it too.
Lemon balm: Unfussy perennial clumps. Brilliant calming tea and salad herb. Mulch every few years or divide and replant to keep it vigorous.
Bergamot: Predominantly a tea herb (this is the ‘Earl Grey’ flavour), is medicinal and can be used in salads. Another unfussy spreading perennial.

Useful self-seeders or self spreaders: Purslane, goosegrass, chickweed, sheeps’ sorrel, yellow archangel: salad plants. If they aren’t in a moist shady spot they won’t become big and juicy enough to be worth eating (they are often better eating in winter/spring or during wet weather).
Wild strawberry: native perennial groundcover, spreading by runners. Can become invasive but makes up for it with tiny red fruits which are sweeter when ripened in the sun. Add leaves to tea or finely chopped in salads (bit chewy). 
Bugle, self-heal, stitchwort: medicinal (and edible if you’re desperate) groundcover. All are native woodland plants and have beautiful flowers.

Author: Chris 2009

Last updated: 2009-04-26

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