I started my herb Advent notes on 1 December when I realised that 25 years had passed since my beloved friend and husband Peter Way died. I couldn’t really believe that those years had gone by – it seems as if in a blink of the eye. So I remembered that at the time he died we had been working together on a book, which was published later that year called The Herb Garden Month by Month (it is still available now as Your Herb Garden Month by Month).
Herbs have always played a part in my gardens, in the kitchen and in my working life as a writer and editor (Herbs magazine, the publication of The Herb Society). I rushed out into the garden with my phone and snapped away at all the herbs that are still offering me their flavour for the kitchen and ornament in the garden. I wrote notes – a herb a day – for Facebook, Twitter and my Instagram feed, in the hope that it would lift my spirits and also provide some flavour and aroma for the blog.
Although, at this time of the year the garden is a bit brown and unkempt, getting out into it certainly did brighten that day for me.
Herb 1 was salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor). Its leaves have a cucumber-like flavour, so they are perfect for a winter salad. In summer the flowers are carried in red clusters and wow – does it seed itself around!
Herb 2 The candidate was golden bay (Laurus nobilis ‘Aurea’. I used to have one in my former garden that grew to about 4 metres in height. This one is in a container so is just about 45cm, but it does glow on a dull day!
Herb 3 Lemon verbena (Aloysia citriodora) adds citrus zing to teas and pastries. This was caught by frost but some leaves are usable. This plant is decades old and was one of four I think (I still have two of them) that came to me from my friend, fellow garden writer and author Ethne Clarke, when she was leaving UK to return to US to live…! They are no longer growing in the standard shapes that she had pruned them to. I had to cut them back hard to get them to regrow one year. But they are still going strong.
Herb 4 Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) is a brilliant, uncomplicated garden star, even a few days ago in early December. I use the florets, minus the white bit at the centre, in salads, to colour rice and to add flavour. It is a prolific self-seeder but I don’t mind at all. This plant and its seedlings came via my friend Kim Hurst of The Cottage Herbery.
Herb 5 Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) is one of my favourites. Its aniseed flavour is great in salads, classic in an omelette and was so tasty in the celeriac soup I made that day. This is a close-up of a thicket of self-sown seedlings.
Herb 6 Mint is one of my star herbs. Family legend is that I crawled down a garden path early in life to the tap where the mint bush thrived and picked handfuls. Early on I was introduced to mint sauce by my Scots grandmother. Homemade mint sauce is the best. So this variegated mint (Mentha sauveolens ‘Variegata’) is one that I use in salads in summer for its lovely fruity (apple) flavour and leaf colour. Currently it is the only one of my many mints that is hanging on in the garden.
Herb 7 is garlic chives, Chinese chives (Allium tuberosum). It is not looking at its best currently, but is still offering its flat and flavoursome leaves for salads, omelettes and soups. It is the perfect alternative to the real garlic, but without all the peeling faff! It has great flowers in summer and they have a combined garlic/onion flavour. Quite a strong taste, so I use them sparingly, fresh, in salads, just as they come into flower, but make sure I cut most back before they set seed and self-sow. Oh and the bonus is that they are great flowers for attracting pollinators!
Herb 8 is variegated land cress (Barbarea vulgaris ‘Variegata’. It is not so fierce in flavour at the moment, but gives a good colour in a salad and makes a contrast with some of the purple baby leaf packs available from supermarkets. At this time of year a colour hit is important in my salad bowl.
Herb 9 Box (Buxus species) is one of the decoration plants of Christmas along with holly, ivy and bay… and it is also the plant that features in so many herb gardens as a formal edging plant. It also plays a role in parterres and knot gardens. I have four plants in the garden, so the chances of the dreaded box blight striking are low. Two of the four in my garden are shaped into pyramids and two as round spheres.
Herb 10 is any of the scented-leaf pelargoniums. Fragrant leaves are used in baking and added, when dried to pot pourri. For me simply smelling the fresh aroma of the leaves, such as this peppermint-scented pellie lifts my mood to the skies.
Herb 11 My variegated myrtle is giving me visual delight at the moment. Both the green form (Myrtus communis) and this variegated form are described as half-hardy, but mine, grown in a container, has been outdoors for several years. I am going to float some horticultural fleece over it if snow and frosts persist! The leaves are aromatic and good to use with oven-cooked meat, poultry or barbecues. The flower buds are tasty in salads, but it seems a pity to use them as the flowers are so pretty on the plant. The spicy berries can be used, dried, as a flavouring for marinades. There are medicinal uses and dried it gives colour and fragrance to pot pourri.
Herb 12 is rocket (Eruca sativa) which some may see as a salad leaf, but for me it is a necessary salad herb, especially in winter. Rocket adds so much zing to summer salads and in winter it still packs a punch, from its fiery peppery leaves. The self-seeded plants growing in my raised herb beds provide me well over the winter and into spring, when I will sow new plants.
Herb 13 is one of my favourite herbs – flat leaf parsley. I do also enjoy the very curled leaf mossy parsley, but flat-leaf parsley makes me think of Mediterranean cuisine and reminds me of French markets, where I first encountered it. Now you can get it in all the supermarkets and seed companies have it alongside curled parsley. I love using it in omelettes, in tabouleh and with tomato and lemon juice in a salad. Although you often see it just as a garnish on a plate, it is much more than that… a real flavour-kicker and at this time of year I am so glad I have a clump left in the raised beds.
Herb 14 is the top herb in my book… basil. This purple beauty is Basil ‘African Blue’, a perennial and I grow it all year round in my greenhouse. It roots easily in water and so I keep on propagating it. It is a hybrid of ‘Dark Opal’ and Ocimum kilmandscharicum. Its purple foliage, tinged with green is a delight in salads and it adds flavour to cooked dishes. The flower is a deep purple spike but it doesn’t set seed. Of course in summer I also grow as many of the different coloured leaf and flavoured annual basils. In the freezer I have bags full of pesto made from successive harvests of basil… brings back the summer and floats me to warmer holiday climates
Herb 15 is a visitor from a foreign land, South Africa, where it is commonly know as the Vicks plant (Plectranthus grandidentatus). This plant is in my greenhouse and grew from a cutting I was given when I visited Babylonstoren, a wonderful winery in the Cape a few years back (read my post about it). I can’t find any reference for its use medicinally but it certainly has a nostril-clearing aroma! Another plectranthus (P. amboinicus) known variously as Indian borage, Cuban oregano or Spanish thyme, is used in cooking for its big flavour, rather similar to marjoram and thyme.
Herb 16 is a small lemon or lime tree. It is one of my increasing collection of citrus plants, Citrus hystrix. It is also known as Kaffir or Makrut Lime. I use it for its wonderfully spicy foliage in curries and Asian soups. It has been outdoors all through the summer in a sunny site and is now indoors with the etrog lemon, the kumquat and the newly arrived yuzu lemon. Citrus hystrix is going to add some tangy lemon taste to a few casseroles this winter.
Herb 17 is rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) with its green spiky foliage that is full of aromatic oils and makes such a great accompaniment to roast lamb, is useful as a smoke-favouring in barbecues, as well as being a good pungent skewer for vegetable or meat kebabs. It seems to go on flowering even in the worst of weathers.
I have several in the garden including one that has ginger flavours in its leaves, a very upright-growing rosemary and the prostrate, trailing form. During the year I bought ‘Whitewater Silver from Hortus Loci. It was found by Hortus Loci director Robin Wallis at the Whitewater Nurseries in Hampshire, where Hortus Loci is now located. It has a low-spreading habit, with a marked white underside to the foliage, which twists and turns, contrasting with the green upper sides of the leaves. Royalties from its sale will be donated in perpetuity to the horticultural charity Perennial. Here it is in summer in my garden.
Herbs seem to offer never-ending variety, not just in flavour, but also texture. I can’t imagine a garden without them.