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Why has growing herbs become so popular

01:00 Thu 14th Mar 2002 |

A.� Loads of reasons. For a start they are extremely easy to start and maintain and you don't need much room to grow one. Then there are the plants themselves, which often have attractive foliage and give off wonderful aromas, especially in the summer months. The herb garden can become a real feature, even in the smallest of spaces.

The huge increase in the interest in gardening has only been matched by that in cooking, and many of us are tired of the lack of choice of fresh herbs offered in the shops and the seeming impossibility of keeping the pots alive for any decent length of time. More and more people are also growing herbs for their medicinal uses.

Q.� So how would you establish an herb garden in a small garden or courtyard

A.� Where space is at a premium and your beds and borders are already full then you can quite easily grow all your herbs in containers.

As so many of our favourite culinary herbs hail from the Mediterranean there is something particularly appropriate about terracotta pots, window boxes or even strawberry planters, which are particularly useful as you can stuff a different herb into each individual pocket and even mount it on the wall as a feature.

If you have a paved courtyard why not either lift a slap or sow things like creeping thyme or oregano between the cracks in the stones.

Q.� What about in the garden proper

A.� Lots of people just mix the herbs into the general garden. Plants like rosemary are decorative in their own right and have long been used as a staple border shrub, while things like the common chive (allium schoenoprasum) have pretty purple flowers if you let them go over.

However, there has been a move back towards the formal herb garden which first became popular may back in Elizabethan times. That's not to say it has to look like something at Hampton Court, but generally involves separating the herbs by means of low hedging, edging or even gravel.

One classical and very popular design is like the spokes of a wheel with a tall growing herb like rosemary at its centre and segments, like an orange, radiating out from its centre in a circular pattern.

Lavender makes a good low informal dividing hedge while clipped box or bay, itself culinary thanks to its fragrant leaves are slightly more formal. You then plant a different herb in each individual compartment.

Whatever you come up with try and position it near the house so you get wafts of aroma through open doors and windows.

Q.� What sort of conditions do different herbs need

A. It varies. The classic herbs of the Med like rosemary, lavender, marjoram, thyme and sage grow wild in Southern Europe so they obviously favour sunny free draining sites where their roots will not get waterlogged in winter.

Basil, so beloved for Italian dishes is a tender annual and will not survive our winters so grow it in pots in a sunny position during the summer and on a light windowsill in winter. The sunshine helps in the production of the oils that give them their flavour.

Others, like our native mint, parsley, chervil and chives prefer cooler damper conditions with dappled light so can easily be grown in more shady conditions.

Beware with mint. Most forms are extremely vigorous and are often best kept in check by either growing in a pot or sinking them into the ground in a container.

Q.� What about storing them

A.� Broad leave herbs like basil, mint and parsley can be cut and frozen whereas smaller leaved herbs like rosemary, thyme, oregano and sage are best cut by the branch, hung to dry and then the foliage taken off and stored in dark containers.

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By Tom Gard

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