Sunday, November 16, 2008

Giving it herbs

As our cuisine has changed over the years, our gardening habits have also had to be amended. There have been huge changes in the edible garden in the time I have been gardening. I remember the arrival of courgettes, and the increase in popularity of sprouting broccoli. At the same time that favourite of our parents, the marrow, disappeared from our plates and the old fashioned white-headed broccoli quietly disappeared from our gardens and our meals.
Perhaps no area illustrates this as well as the herb garden. There were devoted herb growers in the past, of course, whose interest in these plants stretched way past the culinary and into the medical, but most home gardens contented themselves with a parsley plant, a clump of chives, and perhaps a clump of sage, to be used for making the Christmas stuffing.How that has all changed!
I would think the two most commonly planted herbs now are coriander and basil as they are so useful for the different meals we now consume.Coriander can be a bit tricky to grow as it tends to go to seed as soon as the weather gets hot and dry. It is tricky to grow from transplants too – in fact, it is so prone to flopping over or going straight to seed, it really does make a lot more sense to grow your own from seed. Seeds sown in situ will need to be covered for about ten days before the shoots appear.
In the heat of summer it is a good idea to grow some in a container in a cool spot. Make sure you use plenty of nitrogenous fertiliser, or ensure a steady supply of liquid fertilizer during the growing season, as well as keeping the water up to the plants.
You can let the plants go to seed as coriander seed is very useful in the kitchen too, but make sure you harvest the seed as if it is left to mature on the plants, it will probably ensure a succession of new plants - it seeds with abandon.
Basil is absolutely essential for the summer garden. This is another herb that can easily be grown from seed once the ground warms up, but it is easily transplanted so it is easier to just grab a punnet of seedlings. I have noticed that most nurseries seem to scatter seed in the punnet, or in the pot, so I just buy a pot of plants and divide them up.
There are so many different basils that you should think of growing something other than the usual green variety. I like some of the smaller leaved types – in fact my favourite variety is the pungent Spicy Globe – but there are also plenty with different tastes and scents. Lemon Basil hardly needs explanation – Thai Basil and Cinnamon Basil are more pungent. There are also some purple leaved types.
Most gardens still have some parsley, although not the parsley we used to grow.
In the past the Englishman’s favourite triple curled variety was by far the most common form, to the exclusion of any other. Then television cooks started telling everyone that flat leaved Italian parsley was better and many New Zealanders switched. Scientists are now telling us that flat-leaved parsley does indeed have more taste so perhaps the continentals knew what they were talking about!
Parsley seed is a bit erratic in germination, and always a little slow too – it can take up to a month before deciding to come through, - so it is probably just as easy to let a nursery go through that trouble, and to buy plants. If you enjoy lashings of parsley you will need a few plants so buy a punnet or two.
Parsleys of all kinds prefer rich, moisture retentive soil in good sunlight. If soil fertility is a little low, mix in some general fertiliser at time of planting, and occasionally thereafter. To harvest, take the outermost leaves by cutting off at ground level.

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