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All you need to know about growing your own herbs and how to keep them in tip top shape

Garden Day ambassador and avid gardener, Jessica Shepherd, takes us on a tour of garden herbs that can add magic to your cooking.

12 Oct 2017

(image: iStock) 

In the spirit of Garden Day that took place this past weekend, we asked local chef and restaurateur, Jessica Shepherd, from The Table at De Meye in Stellenbosch to share some helpful tips for growing your own herbs, because there's nothing better or more satisfying than infusing your food with fresh, homegrown herbs, right?

One of the main excuses when it comes to growing herbs is 'I have no space'. Even if you plant a limited number of pots of herbs, placed on a sunny kitchen windowsill or a tiny patio, you will be saving money and transforming the dishes that are served from your kitchen with the addition of fresh cut herbs. There is also so much value in watching something grow, and when you a relationship with your food and where 
it comes from you hold it with that much higher regard. You would be less likely to throw away a bowl of parsley or basil leaves that you grew yourself then a punnet of herbs that was forgotten about in your fridge from a previous weeks grocery shop.

What type of soil?

A mistake often made when growing herbs in containers is to use the wrong type of growing medium. It needs to offer sufficient drainage so that the roots don't sit in wet soil but it also needs to retain moisture so that the plants have access to nutrients. The best growing medium would be a high quality organic potting soil.

What container?

There are a variety of containers that can be used for growing herbs. You can use conventional terra-cotta pots purchased from your local garden center, purpose made zinc containers or wooden planter box, recycled enamel bowls or zinc baths, a repurposed wine barrel or even an old wheelbarrow. The advantage of growing herbs in movable containers is that they can be moved around as the seasons change to take full advantage of the sun. All plants benefit from good air circulation, so avoid overcrowding containers (both with plants and in one space). 

Keeping plants healthy

All plants need food, water and some sunlight and trimming. Plants grown in containers need regular feeding as the nutrients in the soil get washed out with regular watering. You can use an organic dry pellet fertilizer added to the soil every season, or alternatively, an organic liquid plant food used once a month on soft herbs or once every three months on hard herbs.

What are soft and hard herbs?

Soft herbs are those with tender stems like basil, parsley, coriander and tarragon. They are also annuals which means they will complete its life cycle within one year. Soft herbs require more watering and should be grouped together if planting in a single container. Hard herbs are those with woody stems such as rosemary, thyme and oregano. These are perennial plants and they will happily grow in your garden for more than two years. They require good drainage (don't like wet feet) and also less watering, so again should be group together.

How to cut herbs

It is best to pick herbs when they are dry, so if planted outside after the morning dew has evaporated. 

What herbs to grow

These are some of my favourites and most often found in the garden:

Basil - one of the most popular herbs and easily grown in containers. Synonymous with Italian and Summer cooking, with a delicious robust fragrance and flavour. 

Bay - a potted bay tree is wonderful to have in the garden. They are also drought tolerant! You can preserve your bay leaves by drying for future use. Infuse fresh bay into milk when making a white sauce.

Coriander - you either hate it or your love it. It is easy to grow but can go to seed quickly. Which isn't a bad thing as the flowers attract beneficial insects to your garden. It does like a bit of afternoon shade, especially during hot Summers. They need a nice deep container with good drainage. Well known in Asian and Indian cuisine.

Pansies/Violas - Not strictly a herb, but edible flowers which look beautiful in containers and as a garnish. 

Mint- one of the easiest herbs to grow, and well suited for containers (if planted out in garden beds it can take over). It likes full sun and plenty of water. There are so many varieties of mint ranging from apple to pineapple to chocolate. It is such a refreshing addition to dishes, best added freshly chopped.

Parsley - parsley is considered a soft herb but it does have hard herbs tendencies in that it is a low maintenance plant and can survive for more than a year if maintained correctly. It likes full sun and regular moisture. I prefer flat-leaf (Italian) parsley as it has a stronger flavour than the curly variety. Always best added towards the end of cooking, freshly chopped.

Pelargonium - indigenous to South Africa with the most beautiful fragrances ranging from rose to citronella to nutmeg. Super easy to grow in containers, and they don't need a lot of water. You can use rose pelargonium in baking, or infusing into teas and cordials. I've even infused the rose scent into milk to make a rose pelargonium flavoured ice cream. Their pretty flowers (which show up in Spring) can be used as a garnish on cakes.

Rosemary - can grow in large containers with good drainage as it does not like to be over-watered. Also r suited for outdoors in the garden, as beneficial insects LOVE rosemary flowers. 

Thyme - loves growing in containers. A tiny seedling will fill up a large container in no time as it creeps its way on the surface. It is hardy and so easy to grow. I love lemon thyme particularly.

Wild garlic/Tulbaghia - indigenous to South Africa and such a beneficial plant to have in the garden. Grows happily in containers but just be careful not to overwater. It is drought tolerant! The leaves on wild garlic can be used like chives, the flowers can be added to salads or mixed with butter, and the bulbs can even be chopped up and added to your cooking. A little goes a long way as the garlic flavour is strong.

Do you grow your own herbs? SHARE your tips with our readers below!

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