Expert Gardening Tips for Growing your Own Herbs
Author: Annie Deakin
Growing your own herbs is easy once you know how, and can add colour and scent to your garden or windowsill all year round. Ceri Thomas, editor of Which? Gardening gives advice on stockists and suppliers, and all you need to grow three of the most popular herbs basil, coriander and rosemary.
Many common kitchen herbs are now available from supermarkets as potted plants, but they can be tricky to keep going. However, the majority of these, such as basil, coriander and parsley, are actually a collection of seedlings crammed into the pot rather than a single established plant. You can use this to your advantage and it can be an easy, convenient way to get a lot of herb plants. Just separate the individual seedlings, and re-pot separately.
Growing from seed is the cheapest method for annual herbs. Cut parsley, coriander and chives to within 5cm of the base before re-potting, and separate the individual plantlets and re-pot each one in its own container. Take care when dividing coriander, parsley and basil, as they all resent having their roots disturbed. If basil has become leggy, you can re-plant it more deeply to encourage stronger growth.
How to grow basil
You can start sowing basil towards the end of March in a greenhouse or on a sunny windowsill. It's very sensitive to cold and will blacken at the slightest hint of frost, so make sure your early sowings are protected. Once the young plants reach about 15cm tall, remove the shoot tip to encourage more leafy growth and a bushier plant. When the warmth of June arrives, you can sow another batch outside and move any indoor plants outside to the patio. Make a final sowing in August to give you fresh basil into autumn.
Alternatively, you can buy basil in posts from the supermarket or garden centre. Look for bushy plants with lots of side-shoots and no sign of flowering. You can then make more plants by taking cuttings.
Keep your basil in the sunniest spot that you can find - preferably a south-facing windowsill or patio, once there's no risk of frost. Water sparingly and remove flower spikes - if these are allowed to mature, your plants will stop growing new leaves.
Pick individual leaves from the top of the plant and feed with a liquid fertiliser afterwards. Then leave it to grow again. If you find that you have a bumper crop at the end of summer, pick the lot and make it into pesto. It freezes really well if you leave out the parmesan, which can be added before use.
Recommended varieties of basil
Sweet basil, often sold as 'Sweet Genovese' has the classic basil taste. Greek basil is compact and bushy with tiny leaves, so there's no need to chop them before cooking. 'Green Ruffles' has the classic basil flavour with a crinkly leaf texture, while 'Thai basil' is spicy and hot.
'Cinnamon basil' has a flavour rather like aniseed sweets, or for a fresh lemony tang try 'Mrs Burns' Lemon'. For ornamental use in window boxes or edging beds, try 'Purple Ruffles' for its crinkly purple leaves.
How to grow coriander
Coriander doesn't like being moved, so it's best sown where you want it to grow, either in the ground or in large pots. Sow in late spring or early summer, and in August sow some more in pots on the windowsill for a supply during autumn and winter. Well-drained soil in a sunny spot is essential for growing coriander, and if you're growing it indoors on a windowsill, give it plenty of light and don't over water.
Coriander is annoyingly quick to flower and set seed before it has produced much leaf, so it's best to sow little and often. Watch out for fine, feathery leaves - a sure sign the plants are about to flower.
Keep picking mature leaves as and when you need them. Regular cropping should delay flowering, but once the plants do flower, allow them to set seed. The seed is ripe when it stops smelling unpleasant. Collect it and use in cooking, keeping some to sow for another crop.
Recommended varieties of coriander
If you want the leaves choose 'Cilantro' and 'Leisure', which are slow to form seeds. If it's seed you're after, go for Moroccan coriander.
How to grow rosemary
Rosemary is widely available as established plants in garden centres for planting in spring. For more plants, take cuttings from young shoots in spring or summer. Rosemary is slightly tender and needs a sunny, sheltered position in well-drained soil; it does well in chalky soils. If you are growing it in a container, add some grit to the compost to aid drainage and don't over water. After flowering in March, trim into shape and feed.
You can pick leaves from this evergreen all year round. It's a good idea to dry some leaves at the end of summer if you want to use lots of rosemary over the winter, or add a sprig to olive oil for salad dressings.
Recommended varieties of rosemary
The Common rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is the hardiest form and most used in cooking. 'Miss Jessopp's Upright' is a more vigorous and upright variety and makes a good focal point in a herb bed.
The Prostratus Group are low-growing forms ideal for the top of a wall or rock garden. Corsican rosemary has a more pungent scent.
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