Growing exceptional herbs

May 19, 2024 | Gardening tips, Herbs

In the late 1970s, herbs became fashionable in Australia and people (not only gardeners) planted extensive culinary herb gardens. They often planted herbs for medicinal use, insect repellance and dyeing, as well as fragrance. Herb nurseries sprang up around the country. These days, however, there is barely a herb nursery in the country, and most general nurseries carry a limited range of herbs. This is a great shame, as our choice is now more limited and many herbs that were available in the 1970s and 1980s are difficult or impossible to source.

Culinary herbs available today commonly include parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, lemon thyme, lemon balm, mints, chives, marjoram and oregano, and a few annuals such as basil, coriander and dill. Some culinary herbs are much harder to find, including lovage, winter and summer savoury, French tarragon, angelica, bergamot, borage, caraway, chervil, corn salad, elder, Florence fennel, horseradish, salad burnet, French sorrel and sweet cicely to name some culinary ones. Then there are insect-repellant plants including tansy, rue, wormwood, southernwood and costmary; medicinal plants such as comfrey, marshmallow, mullein, valerian, and hyssop; dye herbs such as woad, madder, indigo, turmeric, ladies bed-straw, agrimony, marsh marigold, meadowsweet… and of course many more.

Herbs are easy to grow, requiring little attention and thriving in poor soil with a minimum of water. A good herb should be ‘lean’ and not forced like the ones often packaged in supermarkets. Commercially, many herbs are grown in hot houses which makes them grow faster with larger, softer leaves and a reduction in their essential oils. The reason we use them is for their essential oils – that is the taste and fragrance – so this is not what we want.

A ‘lean’ herb is one grown in the garden or a pot in the conditions described above. Harvest before watering as bruising by the water droplets releases much of the fragrance, diluting the essential oils. If you are using herbs medicinally this is as important as if you are using them for culinary purposes.

A good dried herb should be the same colour as the fresh herb and if you peruse the supermarket shelves, you will find this is rarely the case because the herbs are dried too quickly at too high a temperature, again releasing most of the essential oils. The best way to dry herbs is to harvest them when they are dry and have not been watered for a few days, spread them on a plate or tray and place the plate on the top of the fridge. The warm air from the fridge will dry them out in a couple of days and this slow-drying method will result in little change to the colour and maximum essential oil retention. Some herbs dry well in bunches in an airy but shady place while others don’t. Chives are an example of one that this applies to. I don’t recommend using a dehydrator as even on the lowest setting, herbs dry too quickly and tend to turn pale, brown or grey.

Whenever you are using a herb, correct identification is vital. Probably more so in Britain (from where most herbs were introduced) than here, as there are many wild-growing toxic herbs and some can be fatal if ingested, while others cause allergic reactions or irritation to skin or eyes. In Australia, the same applies to bush foods and bush medicines.

Western herbs that can be eaten or used medicinally will have ‘officinalis’ in their nomenclature. This indicates that the plant, used for medicinal or culinary purposes, and kept by monks in an ‘officina’ or storeroom, is safe. For example, salvia officinalis is the common sage plant and is suitable for medicinal or culinary use. However, thousands of salvias are ornamental only and do not include ‘officinalis’ in their nomenclature.

Even within the culinary classification, there are plants to be avoided. The tarragons for example include French and Russian. French tarragon which is prized for its anise taste and shiny green narrow leaves (think tarragon chicken) is the tarragon of choice. It can only be grown from cuttings or root division, not seed. On the other hand, Russian tarragon is tasteless, unsuitable as a substitute for French tarragon, and grows from seed. If you have seed-grown tarragon, then it’s not worth space in the garden, yet it is widely sold!

Annual flowers are generally planted in spring, flower in summer and autumn and are tough enough to withstand hot conditions if well watered. Some annual herbs such as basil flourish likewise. However, some do not. These include coriander, dill and chervil which bolt in hot weather. In summer it is best to plant these in the shadiest area of your garden, keep them well watered and shade further during heat waves, From autumn onwards and throughout winter and spring they grow superbly, appreciating the cooler weather.

So let’s reverse the fashion, and begin growing a greater range of herbs in our gardens and in particular, learn to use some of the lesser-known ones in our cooking!

Written by Robin Gale-Baker

Robin was a co-founder of the first herb and cottage plant nursery in Tasmania in 1977. It was called ‘The Herb Garden’ and re-badged as Middle Earth Herbs when it moved to the site of the old Woodville Zoo in Granton (near Hobart) in 1980. Middle Earth Herbs sold wholesale to all Tasmanian nurseries and sold retail from the Granton nursery and at Salamanca Market for 10 years before the business was sold and relocated to Launceston by new owners.