From bee-friendly ground covers to refreshing leafy brews, here are 10 herbs you need in your life.
Imagine a culinary existence without mint, thyme, sage, rosemary or basil. Herbs are nature’s flavour enhancers and make our food sing. Beyond their culinary appeal, we’ve been using them as our living medicine cabinets since forever, and while paracetamol will alleviate headache symptoms far more effectively than a cup of feverfew tea, homegrown herbal teas are deliciously refreshing – and free! These multitaskers also bring in bees, enhance planting schemes, and are mostly pretty low-maintenance.
So, in no particular order, here are some essential kitchen garden herbs plus a few standout faves.
Remember when every plate of sandwiches at a function was garnished with a sprig of curly-leafed parsley? Food garnishing has come a long way in Aotearoa in the last 30 years or so, but we still love parsley, although looser and large-leafed Italian parsley, also known as flat-leaf parsley, is trendier than its retro and stronger-tasting curly cousin. Use it in stews, smoothies and in pestos instead of basil. Don’t bother sowing parsley from seed as it takes at least three weeks to germinate. Purchase seedlings from the garden centre instead. Parsley is an annual herb, meaning it completes its life cycle in one year. It flowers in hot weather, producing a sea of frothy umbelliferous flowers (above) which are very pretty and cottagey to look at. I let mine flower and set seed, and new generations pop up without any intervention on my part. Not one to fuss, parsley will grow pretty much anywhere, and while it loves full sun, it will also cope with shade.
Although it can be a bit of a fusspot and loathes wet feet and boggy soils, sage is a dashing herb, with its green-grey leaves (sage-coloured, you might say). Purple varieties (Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’) add depth of colour to floral plantings. It has culinary uses beyond its role as a main ingredient in stuffing, and also has medicinal properties. I have a friend who swears she didn’t get a cold last winter due to the sage tea she drank every day. Sage is drought-tolerant, likes full sun and can also survive a frost.
Although it can be a polarising herb, due to a particular olfactory-receptor gene (some people think it tastes like soap), coriander is essential in Mexican, Asian and Indian dishes. It should always be grown from seed as it detests having its roots disturbed if transplanted. It’s relatively short-lived, and will flower and set seed in six to eight weeks. Wait for new plants to pop up, or sow seed every couple of weeks. It grows best in early spring and late summer, bolting to seed in hot weather, so sow it in partial shade if you can and keep it watered.
Every time my grandmother wrote me a letter she’d pop a leaf of lemon verbena in the envelope. It has the strongest lemon fragrance of any herb, with an almost L&P-like zinginess. Lemon verbena dies down over winter, looking somewhat stick-like, before leafing up again in spring, but its period of dormancy is worth it for the scent. Lemon verbena tea is delicious. Simply steep three leaves of lemon verbena in boiling water. Or put leaves inside an old sock in your linen cupboard to give your sheets a fresh lemony scent.
A type of mint with a decidedly unminty flavour, basil is the starring herb in pestos, pizzas and other Italian fare. You can have fun growing different varieties, from the large-leafed ‘Sweet Genovese’ (the best basil for pesto) to ruddy, cinnamon-scented ‘Red Opal’, and ‘Greek Mini’, which grows into chic, ball-shaped mounds. There’s even a citrus-scented basil called ‘Mrs Burns’ Lemon’. Buy garden centre seedlings or sow from seed. A heat-lover, it won’t germinate from seed until at least November and matures in two months. It needs full sun, but also likes a decent amount of water. You can prolong its life by pinching off any flowers.
And the award for the best all-rounder herb for attracting beneficial insects to its flowers (according to a 2013 University of Sussex study of 32 garden plants) goes to marjoram! Like oregano (Origanum vulgare), it belongs to the genus Origanum and is officially known as Origanum majorana, but has a sweeter, milder flavour. Marjoram can be used to garnish dishes including salads and soups.
Providing it has a damp spot, once you plant mint, it will never leave you. This beloved herb is somewhat of a thug, and will run and creep all over your garden once established. If this rampant behaviour is not okay with you, plant it in a pot, but keep it well-watered as mint likes cool feet. Beyond your run-of-the-mill winter mint, there is spearmint, peppermint, lemon mint, apple mint and even chocolate mint, which you can steep in boiling water for a liquid after-dinner mint.
With its small leaves and purple bee-attracting flowers, this low-growing plant is one of the most charming herbs and there are so many varieties – from variegated thyme to fuzzy-leafed woolly thyme. When it comes to scent, there’s lemon, orange, and even pizza thyme – with an oregano-like flavour reminiscent of pizza herbs. Plant it between the cracks in paving stones (below) or on pebbled pathways and it will grow into an aromatic living carpet. It’s hardy, coping with full sun and minimal water. Chop it back when it gets leggy and it will bush up again.
A 13th-century physician wrote: “He who sees fennel and gathers it not, is not a man but a devil.” This is certainly going a bit far, but he did have a point – fennel was traditionally used to soothe colicky babies and for digestive issues. I grow it for its firework display of yellow flowers that bloom in my Auckland garden almost year-round (apart from the coolest months). They grow 1-2m high and the flowers, which I like to nibble on, have an aniseed flavour and are fine-dining for a range of beneficial bugs. The bulb of Florence fennel is delicious grated raw into salads.
You probably don’t live on a Mediterranean clifftop beside the sea – rosemary’s native environs (its Latin name Rosmarinus means “dew of the sea”). But if you replicate those sunny, dry conditions it will thrive. Rosemary hates wet feet and will turn up its toes at rich compost. Grow it in a pot if your garden is boggy. Clip it back by one-third every year. Grow upright rosemary as a hedge or prostrate rosemary as ground cover. Use rosemary stems as fragrant kebab skewers.
Different groups of herbs prefer different growing conditions. In general, Mediterranean herbs, such as oregano, thyme, sage, marjoram and rosemary, are the least fussy. Plant them in free-draining soil in full sun and avoid overwatering.
Photography by Jacob Leaf, Getty Images