Herbs are as diverse as the people who grow them. My kids are interested in growing catnip for our cat, I am interested in growing coriander for my chicken curry, while others are interested in plants that have medicinal purposes such as the NZ native kawakawa, which is a native shrubby climber. That sent me searching - what, exactly, is the definition of a herb?
There are two main definitions that I found;
1. Any plant with leaves, seeds or flowers used for flavouring, food, medicine or perfume. "Bundles of dried herbs."
2. Any seed-bearing plant which does not have a woody stem and dies down to the ground after flowering. "The banana plant is the world's largest herb."
So it seems the definitions of what plant is a herb are also diverse.
For the purposes of this article I will focus on smaller herbs that are commonly available to the home gardener and fit well into pots or small garden beds.
If you have been thinking about growing your own herbs, now is a great time of year to get started. Herbs generally thrive in warm temperatures where, if kept well watered, they grow quickly during spring and summer. It is this fast, soft growth that is so good for harvesting and using in many culinary delights. Many herbs are not only very useful, they can be grown simply for their ornamental value.
Thyme is a good example of a multi-purpose herb. It makes an attractive border plant which has small purple and white flowers. It also has a wide culinary application in dishes including meat, casseroles and pizza. Thyme has a number of medicinal properties, with antiseptic and antifungal effects. When made into tea, thyme leaves aid digestion and relieve stomach complaints. When flowering, thyme attracts bees and other beneficial insects into the garden.
Lavender is grown far more in the home garden for its aesthetic value than for its oil or fragrant properties when dried, for which it is grown commercially.
Companion planting is another aspect of growing herbs. The concept is to make plantings that complement one or both of the plants to some benefit. Some herbs will deter specific pests and diseases, while others enhance fruit flavour and still others benefit the soil. Particular plantings make good "trap crops", which are grown to lure predators away from vegetables. Some of the planting combination claims are not scientifically proven by trials but are traditional combinations that have been used for generations.
Some common companion plantings include:
Pyrethrum: Its yellow-centred flowers contain pyrethrins which are said to act directly on the nervous system of insects like aphids and mites.
Nasturtium: Can be used as a trap crop. It attracts caterpillars as well as providing shelter for ground beetles and spiders. Plant it near radishes, cabbages and cucumbers to lure predatory insects away from your vegetable plants.
Sage: Repels cabbage moths, black flea beetles, carrot flies and some bean parasites. It is a good herb to plant with beans, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and carrots.
Tansy: Attracts lady beetles and lacewings, which eat lots of aphids. It also deters flying insects, cucumber beetles, squash bugs and helps repel flies and ants. The blue flowers also attract bees, which aids flower pollination. Tansy is a great companion to cucumber, squash, roses, berries, grapevines and fruit trees.
There are a number of herbs that have been used in many cultures through the ages that carry medicinal value. Like conventional medicines they have the same potential for harmful side effects, so must be used with care.
How many of these have you tried?
Below is a impressive list of fairly readily available herbs, though not all varieties are available all the time you should be able to find these in stores at some time of the year.
Angelica holy ghost, angelica shiny leaf, basil dark opal, basil lettuce leaf, basil mrs burns lemon, basil holy or sacred, basil spicy globe, basil sweet, basil thai, bay, bergamot bee balm, bergamot lemon, borage, calendula, catgrass, catmint, catnip, chamomile german, chamomile lawn, Chervil, chives, chives garlic, comfrey, coriander, curry plant, dill, dogbane, fennel bronze, fennel florence, feverfew, globe artichoke, gotu kola, guava chilean, horseradish, hyssop, kaffir lime, lavender dentata, lavender stoecha, lemon balm, lemon grass (for cooking), lemon grass (for teas), lemon verbena, lovage, marjoram acorn park, marjoram country cream, marjoram pot, marjoram sweet, mint basil, mint chocolate, mint common, mint vietnamese, mint wild, myrtle, oregano officinalis (common), oregano true greek, parcel, parsley curled, parsley italian, passionfruit, peppermint, pyrethrum, rocket salad, rosemary gorizia, rosemary spreading, rosemary upright, sage officinalis (common), sage pineapple, sage purple, sage variegated, sorrel, spearmint, spinach perpetual, stevia, strawberry wild, tarragon french, thyme chicken, thyme common, thyme emerald carpet, thyme golden, thyme Golden variegated, thyme lemon, thyme lemon variegated, thyme pizza, thyme silver, thyme woolly, valerian, welsh bunching onions.
When embarking on growing herbs it is important to first take into consideration cultural requirements of sun and water, and secondly, consider convenience. Herb gardens are often best positioned somewhere convenient, culinary herbs in particular. If you have to walk far to get a handful of herbs to add into dinner it can become a hassle and consequently they are not used to their maximum. Regular harvesting of culinary herbs is beneficial in ensuring a consistent supply of soft, clean, fresh growth that is great for using in the kitchen. Along with this, regular feeding and watering will help ensure the growth continues and the plants remain healthy. Strong plants that are well fed tend to be less susceptible to pests and diseases. A good fertiliser for herbs is Ican Fast Food - this is suitable for many plants, and great for herbs in pots as well as in the garden.
Have a go at growing a few herbs, pick your favourite dish and find something that goes with it. Some favorite herbs include thyme, rosemary, coriander, mint, parsley, chives and basil. If you already are growing herbs, try something different from the list above. Look up the herbs you are already growing and see if they have any other uses.
Have a good week.
•Gareth Carter is general manager of Springvale Garden Centre.