Want to branch out from your regular home-grown mint, parsley and thyme?
Gardening expert and TV presenter Sarah Raven – author of a new book, A Year Full Of Veg – says there are lots of unusual herbs, which you can’t buy in the shops but are easy to grow at home.
These herbs will give you masses of flavor – plus they’re great to grow even if you don’t have much space.
“In a window box or a series of pots on a doorstep, you can produce delicious flavor-enhancers for countless meals and, unlike newly sown annual salads, neighborhood cats tend to leave these pungent leaves alone,” says Raven.
Here, she suggests six alternative herbs to grow this year and perk up your dishes…
“Myrtle is incredibly commonly used in the Mediterranean, where it’s a marker for slightly damp ground. It’s a wild shrub, really, and the leaves are incredibly aromatic and deliciously fragrant.
“There’s a hint of ginger, a little bit of bay, so it’s slightly spicy and aromatic. It has a very unusual smell, so might be used in potpourri, but I would use the leaves in a tomato sauce in the winter, because it’s evergreen, to give it a warm, aromatic flavor. Use it as you would bay, such as in a stock.
“It has flowers which are brilliant for pollinators, and then in the autumn it has these juniper-like berries. In Turkey, those used are crushed slightly in Turkish delight with rose petals.”
Growing tips: This evergreen herb needs a sheltered spot, ideally by a south facing wall. Raven grows hers as a punctuation plant in her herb garden: “You can start it from seed, but I would do it from cuttings.”
2. Rosemary prostrata
“This is again used widely in the Mediterranean as a terrace filler and you’ll see it growing wild there, cascading down the side of olive terraces. If you don’t have it on the edge of a wall, it spreads out in a very low, undulating dome about 40cm high.
“There’s also a ‘Green Ginger’ rosemary, which doesn’t look unusual, but smells and tastes of ginger beer, which is very popular with cocktail makers. You’d want to crush the leaves and use them in a cocktail, or to flavor puddings, either using it to flavor sugar syrup to then drizzle over a cake or when you are preparing your mix, you could step a few stems into the mix. and then remove them.
Growing tips: You could grow it in a hanging basket, lined with coir and moss, as it is very drought resistant. Rosemary is a sun-loving, drought tolerant herb. Be careful not to over-water it and if you have heavy soil, add plenty of grit for drainage.
3. Garlic chives
“These are among the great pollinator plants. All the alliums are fantastic for bees and butterflies, but particularly garlic chives, which have a white flower with a flat leaf cross section. It’s fantastic grown in succession with ordinary chives, which come up early but often by May they are looking manky.
“To manage that, cut them to the ground, water and spread some comfrey pellets over the ground, which are rich in potash. We then have a lull, so we grow garlic chives which we can pick in May and June, and in September and October.”
Pick the leaves, but you can also use the edible flowers in savory dishes such as soups or over a tomato salad, where you want some sharpness, and also on a rice salad. Keep picking the leaves, as they become tougher than ordinary chives.
Growing tips: Grow them in very well drained, poor soil in a sunny spot, perhaps on the edge of a path.
“A classic ingredient in Hungarian goulash, this is widely used in northern Europe because it’s an incredibly hardy herbaceous perennial, which forms quite an elegant border plant. It’s an umbellifer which can reach about 1.5m, with classic umbels like angelica.
“But when you are using it as a herb, just pick the baby leaves from the heart of the plant, or the taste can be too intense. If you continuously crop it, it will continuously produce new foliage. That’s where it’s most delicious, like a smoky celery. You can use it to flavor soups, stews and stocks.”
In spring, Raven chops it coarsely into a salad dressing – but two small leaves will be enough – or she’ll make a lettuce and lovage soup, which gives an intense smoky celery flavor.
Growing tips: It’s very easy to grow in full sun, but keep cutting it down to the ground to encourage more baby leaves to form.
5. Leaf and stem felly
“This is not the same as Florence felli. We grow a lot of bronze felli, partly because we love it for the frothy copper carpet you get from it very early in the year. Along with ordinary chives, it’s one of the first things to leaf up. It’s wonderful as a backdrop to early edible salads in the vegetable garden. We grow it in lines between the polyanthus and violas.”
Use it to bring an aniseed flavor to dishes. For instance, where you might use tarragon in summer chicken or fish dishes, tarragon is late to emerge, so you could use leaf and stem felly instead. It’s also a key ingredient for a spring salsa verde.
Growing tips: Treat it harshly, keep cutting it back to get fresh leaves, but allow some to grow on, which will produce felly seeds to harvest and also use the edible flowers. Be warned, it is invasive and if you allow it to flower, it will seed prolifically – so it’s perfect to grow in a pot.
“The beauty of chervil is that it’s a British native wildflower and incredibly hardy. It doesn’t germinate in heat. It germinates in September, and has a finely cut vivid green leaf, which grows throughout the winter, with totally hardy foliage.
“In late spring, it throws up these umbellifer flowers, but we grow it for winter salads. It’s like a cross between parsley and dill. But don’t cook it, because it has extremely volatile essential oils.”
Growing tips: “Sow it in August or September, either in the ground or in seed trays, and it will germinate when it starts to get colder and darker, and will grow through cold with low light levels,” advises Raven.
A Year Full Of Veg: A Harvest For All Seasons by Sarah Raven is published by Bloomsbury on March 2, priced £27.
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