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What is a herb? Read our informative article plus tips on cultivation

What is a herb?

To answer this question we need to consider the difference between herbs, botanicals and spices. Botanically, herbs can be defined as plants which die back to the ground every year; according to this definition, rosemary and sage would not be classed as herbs. Herbs can also be defined as any plant whose leaves, flowers, stems or roots can be used to flavour food or create medicine or perfume; according to this definition, rosemary and sage would be classed as herbs. Spices are created from leaves, roots, seeds or bark in order to flavour and preserve food. Botanicals are substances obtained from plants which can be used medicinally, in distillation, in the making of teas and in perfumery.

For the everyday gardener, herbs are plants which we use to flavour foods. Herbs also add colour, form and structure to our borders. As an added bonus, many popular garden herbs are highly attractive to bees and butterflies.


Popular Garden Herbs

Thyme (Thymus) is a fantastic herb for growing at the edges of paths. The thyme walk at Highgrove is impressive due to its large scale, but a scaled down version can easily be fitted into the smallest of gardens. Creeping Thyme (Thymus serpyllum) is good for using to create a thyme path and comes in a variety of forms, is free-flowering and attractive to bees. Hooks Green Herbs who are doing our May talk have a creeping thyme Thymus serpyllum ‘Pink Chintz’. Thyme is best propagated by softwood cuttings taken in spring. Trim thymes after flowering to maintain a compact shape and prevent the plant from becoming woody. Thyme needs a well-drained soil and a sunny spot. Drainage can be improved by adding a handful of grit to the soil when planting out.


Mint (Mentha) comes in many forms: apple mint, chocolate mint, lavender mint, pineapple mint, variegated mint... Jekka’s Herbs list over 40 varieties of mint. If you have room for just one type of mint in your garden, go for spearmint (Mentha spicata). Mint likes damp conditions and should be planted in a pot so that it doesn’t become invasive. Once the plants become pot-bound, remove them from the pots, cut them in half and replant half in the pot with fresh compost. The other half plant can be potted up and used elsewhere.



Rosemary (Salvia rosemarinus) is a perennial herb native to the Mediterranean. There are a number of forms including upright forms (good for creating a low hedge), or prostrate types which can give ground cover. The small flowers range across a spectrum from white to dark blue and are attractive to pollinators. The rosemary beetle arrived in the UK in the mid-1990s but is not usually a problem. The beetles are small with a metallic, striped coat; adults and larvae feed on leaves and can be hand-picked if they are causing damage.


Propagation

Woody perennial herbs such as lavender, rosemary, thyme and sage can be propagated by taking softwood cuttings from non-flowering stems in the spring. Softwood cuttings are taken from soft growth, not the woody section at the base of the plant. Cut directly below a pair of leaves, trim the lower leaves, dip into rooting powder and pot into a jiffy 7 or potting compost. The leaves will transpire (lose water), so put a clear cover or plastic bag over the cutting and place in a warm place (not direct sunlight). Roots will form after about 4 weeks. See our video on taking softwood cuttings.



Herbs From Seed

Sowing seed is a cost-effective way of ensuring a steady supply of high-quality herbs for the kitchen. Dill, coriander, basil and oregano are just a few of the plants that can be grown on a sunny windowsill. All major seed companies sell the most popular forms of these herbs. Chiltern Seeds have a fantastic range of slightly more unusual forms. For example, their Greek Basil forms a beautifully compact miniature bush if pricked out and grown singly in pots. Chiltern also have a Swiss bred chive ‘Grolau’ that has been specifically bred for windowsill forcing.


Date for your diary: 26th May Herbs Through the Seasons by Malcolm Dickson, Hooksgreen Herbs. All talks held at Tettenhall Institute 7.30pm. Free to members. Non-members £2 (membership available online or at any of our talks).

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