In your herb garden during December 2013 and January 2014
Herbs have had a much nicer summer this year. Sun-lovers have been able to bask, while those preferring slightly cooler temperatures have not been dried out. Nevertheless, a leafmould topdressing will improve their growing conditions over winter.Herbs should be on everyone’s Christmas wish list. They are perfect plants for even the smallest garden, great for cooking and a brilliant way to get children growing their very own edible plants. The Organic Gardening Catalogue has all the herb seeds and plug plants you could want.
Fennel in winter
Things to do this month
- Protect parsley, buckler leaved sorrel and chervil with cloches. They will produce more if sheltered from winter weather.
- Flick off fallen leaves from low-growing herbs, such as thyme. Damp, rotting foliage is likely to damage plants, and can harbour unwelcome over-wintering pests.
- Bring tender herbs, such as Cretan oregano (dittany), inside overwinter. Keep on a sunny windowsill.
- Herbs growing in containers need protection against frost and freezing winds. Plants’ roots lying against container sides will suffer in cold conditions, and moist soil can freeze solid. Make mini ‘duvets’ from fleece folded over and stuffed with straw, or bubble wrap, and secure these around the pots.
- If containers can be moved, then they will benefit from being clustered together up against the house walls.
- In long dry spells, remember to water plants in containers outdoors.
- Check herbs overwintering in the greenhouse for pests and diseases. Remove dead and dying leaves to avoid moulds and mildews taking hold. Rub off aphids when seen, or use insecticidal soap. It’s too cold now for biological control.
- Keep a can of water in the greenhouse so that you have water at the same temperature as the plants. Excessively cold water from the butt in the depths of winter has the potential to damage plants.
- Try growing mint for winter use. Dig up some roots and use pencil-length sections of the plumpest ones. Lie them across the top of a 12cm pot filled with organic potting compost. Cover with more potting compost and keep in a warm greenhouse or on a cool, sunny windowsill indoors. Warning – this may not work as mint seems to require a period of dormancy in winter. But it might, and it’s fun to try!
Parsley benefits from winter protection.
Bring tender herbs like this
scented pelargonium indoors
for the winter
Variegated ginger mint
This is the ideal time of year for planning a new herb garden. All the best and easiest to maintain gardens start with excellent preparation and herb gardens are no exception. Inspirational books should be available from your local library or bookshop. The internet is another useful resource - The National Herb Centre and The Herb Society have excellent websites.
- Choose a sunny and reasonably sheltered area of your garden.
- Start by measuring the space accurately, then draw a scale diagram of the space. Where possible allow a pathway so you can easily get around the herb garden to pick your herbs. If a path is not feasible, then have stepping stones so you can reach the plants.
- Make a list of all the plants you’d like to include. And make a note of their final height and spread.
- Now plan the beds and position the plants in them. Work to scale and allow enough room for plants to grow. Group plants with similar soil requirements together.
- If your garden has enough space, why not have a seat next to the herbs? Where better to sit and bask in the summer sunshine. You could combine an insect shelter with a seat. A wooden bench with a range of insect hidey holes underneath is easy to construct and great for your garden beneficials.
- If your soil is heavy and waterlogged, many herbs will be short-lived. Rosemary, lavender and thyme hate saturated soil, especially in winter. Raised beds are the answer here, with plenty of grit dug in to improve drainage. They will provide much better growing conditions. Wood such as larch is an ideal construction material for the bed edges. It has natural resistance to rot, so needs no treatment and can often be sourced from local sawmills.
- Start now by clearing away weeds and any unwanted plants. Cover the bare ground with a light-excluding mulch, such as cardboard or thick layers of newspapers. Weigh down with grass cuttings, or chipped bark. The bark can be re-used for paths. If you have any spare leafmould, you could put a layer of that down before the light-excluding mulch. This preparation will give you a good working area so that in spring you can dig over the plot, add some fertility material and sow the seeds or plant the plants.
- If your garden is too small for a dedicated herb growing area, then try herbs in pots. Clay pots should be guaranteed frost-proof by your supplier, otherwise they’ll need moving into shelter. Plastic pots are lighter to move but not as attractive. Plants need to have their roots protected over winter – see Things to do this month for more details.
Herbs grow well in pots
Flavour from the garden in December & January
Many herbs will have died down now, but the tough ones, such as bay, rosemary, thyme and winter savoury will still keep going.
Bay leaves are available
Bay (Laurus nobilis) Perennial
Bay leaves are a delicious addition to soups and stews. Dried leaves can be added to vinegars for a welcome flavouring. It is also an essential ingredient in bouquet garni. Bay leaves help to promote good digestion, particularly of meat. A bay leaf in a jar of flour, or in a pantry is staid to help to deter weevils.Bay trees make very attractive container plants. If temperatures are likely to drop below -5º C (25º F) bring plants into the greenhouse or conservatory.
Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) Annual
This pretty fern-like herb provides a tasty aniseed flavour for cheese and egg dishes. Chervil can also be used as a substitute for parsley. As the leaves lose their flavour quickly, add to dishes just before serving. Protect with cloches in colder regions to maintain growth over winter.
Marjoram (Origanum sp.) Perennial
There are several different species of marjoram. Wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare) and French marjoram (O. onites) for example, will provide hardy, evergreen ground cover in the herb garden and delicious leaves for use throughout the year. Others, such as sweet marjoram (O. marjorana), are half-hardy and will not survive winter outdoors in colder, wetter areas. For this reason they are usually treated as an annual plant.All species of marjoram will grow well and look lovely in a container. Small pots can be placed on the window ledge for easy picking!
Rosemary in full flower
Sage of different colours
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) Biennial
This well-known and widely-used herb is a great favourite for salads and soups, as well as sauces. It is an essential ingredient in bouquet garni and is a natural breath freshener. Protect the plant throughout the winter with a cloche for a constant supply.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) Perennial
Rosemary is a beautiful evergreen herb that is frost hardy to around -5ºC. If grown in heavy soil, it can suffer in wet seasons and sometimes be short-lived. Looks great clipped as an edging or hedge plant. It will provide leaves for fresh use throughout the year. Add sprigs of rosemary to soups and casseroles or add to roasting potatoes. This herb is the traditional accompaniment for lamb. When roasting, cut slits into the surface of the meat and tuck in sprigs of rosemary.Rosemary tea can be used as a mouthwash for bad breath.
Sage (Salvia sp.) Perennial
There are many aromatic sage plants suitable for the herb garden. They provide evergreen leaves for use fresh all year round, some with purple, white, gold and pink splashes. Hardy sages are ideal for container growing, although they will need some protection in winter. A delicious addition to stuffing and nut roasts as well as salads. Sage tea can be used to remedy sore throats - gargle with a warm infusion of this herb.
Thyme (Thymus spp.) Perennial
Straggly thyme, needs replacing
Thyme flowers attract bees
Thymes provide a useful evergreen or gold ground cover, and fresh leaves, all year round. Some thymes have a citrus flavour, suitable for vinegars and oils. As with sage, plants should be replaced every 3-4 years as they become woody and lose flavour. Thyme is an essential ingredient in bouquet garni.The summer flowers of this herb are very popular with bees and other beneficial insects. Thyme grows well in a container, requiring very low nutrient levels in the growing medium.
Bouquet garni is the traditional way to introduce the flavour of herbs to winter stews and casseroles.
You will need:
1 bunch of parsley
3 sprigs of thyme
2-3 bay leaves
Tie the herbs together using a length of string. Alternatively, place together in a small muslin bag and tie up the top. The string will allow you to remove the herbs from the stew or casserole at the end of the cooking time. Add the bouquet garni at the beginning of cooking and remove after around 2 hours. This is a basic recipe – other herbs can be used according to personal taste. Lemon balm and lemon thyme are delicious with poultry dishes, fennel and sweet marjoram for fish dishes.
Sage and onion stuffing
No packet of stuffing can match the home-made variety and it’s surprisingly simple to make.
You will need:
- 1 medium white onion
- about 50g of breadcrumbs
- a handful of fresh sage, finely chopped
- 1 egg, beaten
- a knob of butter
- salt and pepper to taste
Boil the finely chopped onion in a little water for 10 minutes, then drain. Mix all the ingredients together and use to stuff a bird or bake separately in a greased dish, 180 degrees Centigrade for 20-30 minutes until golden brown.
Add more or less sage according to taste. You can also experiment with nutmeg, dried chillis, thyme, lemon balm and any other herbs you may have available, fresh or dried.
Decorating the house for Yuletide
It is traditional at Winter Solstice or Christmas, to bring evergreens into the house for decorations. Include evergreen herbs such as rosemary, myrtle, bay and winter savory in your winter decorations, alongside the holly, ivy and mistletoe, to add a delicious scent to the air.
Pest and Disease control
Bay sucker damaged leaves will be very visible now. This pest causes the edges of the leaves to thicken and curl over. The sucker nymphs live there under a white woolly wax. Pick off all infested leaves to remove overwintering adult suckers. Clear away any dead leaves under the plant, where they will also hide.
Herbs in the greenhouse or conservatory might suffer aphid or whitefly attack. Use insecticidal soap to keep these pests under control as temperatures are too low now for biological treatments.
Clear away any dead or dying leaves in the greenhouse to keep moulds and mildews at bay.