Fresh vegetables and fruits from the garden are great, but it’s herbs that give the final flourish to our cooking – and they taste much better fresh from the garden. Three indispensable herbs in particular crop up time and again: basil, cilantro, and parsley. These leafy herbs are incredibly versatile in the kitchen – and easy to grow too.
The quintessential Italian herb, basil is universally loved for its strongly aromatic leaves, fantastic in salads, sauces and pesto. Sow the tiny seeds from mid-spring to summer, thinly across the surface of sieved potting mix then just barely cover them over with more of the same. Water carefully then germinate somewhere warm.
The tiny seedlings can be transferred into pots as soon as they’re big enough to handle, either individually or in small groups as here. Grow them on in the warmth under cover or on a bright windowsill, then plant them outside once all risk of frost has passed into nutrient-rich, well-drained soil that gets plenty of sun. Or simply pot them on into larger containers. Basil is a great companion to tomatoes, and not just in the kitchen, because it may help repel flying insects like whitefly. And if you want to try something a bit different, why not try growing one of the special varieties that you can’t find in the grocery store: lemon basil, Thai basil, cinnamon basil or glorious purple-leafed types.
Pick plants regularly to stop them getting straggly, but leave a few to eventually flower as a treat for pollinators such as bees.
Cilantro is a prized herb for salsa as well as many Asian-inspired dishes. Sow the seeds into shallow drills, taking care to space the seeds about an inch (2cm) apart. If its dry, water into the drill before sowing, which will create a cool, moist environment around the seeds. Cover them over then lightly pat them down to ensure good contact. Keep the seedbed and seedlings well-watered.
Like basil, cilantro benefits from regular picking. Sow from midsummer to reduce the likelihood of plants bolting or flowering prematurely. That said, the flowers are a real boon for all sorts of beneficial bugs and you can, of course, collect the seeds to dry and grind up into coriander spice.
And then there’s ever-versatile parsley with its fresh, palate-cleansing appeal. Flat-leaved is best in the kitchen, though curly types are good for drying and make for an attractive edging.
Seeds are very slow to germinate. You can speed things along by soaking them overnight in warm water before drying them off and then sowing into either half-inch (1cm) deep rows, or pots of damp potting mix. Thin the seedlings once they have germinated to leave them about six inches (15cm) apart in both directions, or slightly closer if growing in pots. Parsley grows best in sunshine, if kept well-watered, but copes surprisingly well with shade too. Plants often sit through the winter in mild or temperate climates to give a modest harvest over the cooler months.
Make Store-bought Herbs Go Further
An alternative to growing from seed is to split up, or divide pots of herbs bought from the grocery store. Look closely and you’ll see these herbs are not one plant but in fact lots of smaller plants. Carefully tease them apart into two or three separate clumps then pot them on into their own containers.
Basil can also be propagated by cuttings. Cut four inch (10cm) long sections of stem, cutting just below a set of leaves. Remove the lowest sets of leaves then simply pop your cuttings into a jar of water. Change the water daily and once roots have sprouted within a week or two, plant the cuttings into all-purpose potting mix. How easy is that!
The secret to keeping these leafy herbs coming is to both sow and pick often – which I think you’ll agree is no great hardship! As one batch starts cropping, make sure you already have the next seeds sown. Are you growing any of these herbs this summer? Let us know down below.