Basic tips on herbs

Garden Life
No matter whether used in salad, sauce, stews or dips, herbs give a sunny, tasty and intense flavour to any meal. Here are six tips on how to plant, care for and harvest herbs.

1. Cultivation

You can cultivate herbs nearly everywhere: in pots on the windowsill, in planter boxes on the balcony, terrace or deck, or outside in the kitchen garden. You can sow herbs like parsley, dill, chive or basil. Just spread a thin layer of the seeds on some soil and keep this area moist so that the seeds are able to germinate.

2. Repotting

If you prefer not to grow from seed, a convenient option to have herbs at home is to buy them as seedlings from a local garden centre. These can then be planted out either into a larger container or directly into your herb bed, where the plant will be able to spread out, grow and flourish.

3. Watering

Herbs require regular watering to help them grow and thrive. Mediterranean herbs like thyme, marjoram, oregano and rosemary require less water because they are accustomed to poor and dry soil. In contrast, chive, lemon balm, parsley and tarragon need more water, and may be particularly thirsty in summer especially. In all cases, avoid waterlogging your herbs.

4. Fertilising

Like all plants, herbs need nutrients to "fuel" their growth. However, especially when grown in containers or small gardens, herbs can require less concentration of fertiliser. Over-fertilising may cause some undesired changes in flavour, so fertilise with a light hand. Apply your fertiliser approximately every six weeks during the spring, summer and autumn. In winter, when plant growth slows in the shorter day lengths, container-grown herbs should not need fertilising at all. 

5. Harvest

When your herbs are ready to harvest, gathering them early in day after any light morning dew has evaporated, or at dusk is preferable. Use a sharp knife or herb scissors for gentler, clean cuts and to avoid bruising your harvest. For culinary herbs, harvest them just before the buds open - this is when the leaves will be tasty. Be sure to pinch any buds before they flower to keep enjoying the leaves. Throughout summer, you can harvest your herbs regularly to encourage branching and new growth. Generally, you can take up to one third of the stem's length and leaves, and harvest repeatedly whenever you need fresh herbs for your cooking, tea or even a herbal bath.

6. Storage

If not using all your herbs fresh, you can either dry or freeze them for longer term storage. If you decide to dry your herbs, rinse and pat them dry thoroughly but gently, then trim the stem ends. Gather them in bunches, and hang or place them in a cool, dry area where the air can circulate around them for at least a week. Different herbs will dry at different rates, and you will know they are properly dried when the herbs are crunchy, with no moisture left in the leaves. At this stage, you can store the herbs in airtight glass containers in the pantry, or away from direct sunlight to preserve colour and flavour.
If you want to freeze your herbs, first clean them well and trim the stems. Finely chop the leaves, and place them in freezing containers or zip-lock bags, with a tiny amount of water. They will both freeze and thaw quite quickly when stored in small quantities or batches.
Both storage options will ensure that your herbs retain their beautiful aroma and flavour when you come to use them.