Once upon a time, on my parents’ property, I had a herb garden.
A really big, old-fashioned, formally laid-out herb garden. I grew herbs for cooking, and also for medicine. My poor family: they were my guinea pigs. I used to grind up herbs and squeeze them into glycerine tablet casings to make them easier to ingest. I made verbena-infused lemon butter and pineapple sage jelly and herb crusted pies.
At some point during the 90s, I wrote this:
“…My garden becomes a place of comfort: hard work, gentle rest, no need to swallow these herbal remedies for the healing to begin.
“Grape vines curl and twine up the walls and espaliered wire that anticipates their embrace. Old briar roses climb over one arch, filled with used and abandoned finch nests, and at the other end, jasmine pulls apart a flimsy metal gate. Different tastes and colours of thyme, marjoram, oregano and sage blend with camomile, tarragon, two types of parsley and lemon grass.
“In this garden comfrey grows in abundance – kept green even in the harsh summer by its deep tap root – tansy, horseradish and borage; onion chives, garlic, santolina and marigolds.
“Chinese allspice flourishes here with the rose-scented geranium, lemon balm smells so good I can almost taste it, mint, spearmint, cold and dark, French lavender fills a middle diamond, while coriander and tarragon spice the furthest end. Strawberries line the path, though few survive the birds’ early morning breakfast – and a lemon verbena tree is a suitable diving board for the bellbirds to splash in and out of the birdbath.
“In summer, the basil takes hold, calendula marigolds go wild, and in some years, sunflowers are encouraged to wave their golden heads over the front fence.”
It sounds like a rather heavenly place, doesn’t it. It was.
Now, I have a tiny, one-metre square box in which I grow herbs and vegetables (although I’m working some extra hours and saving as hard as I can to have our tiny courtyard converted into a tiny garden to grow herbs and flowers and where the children can play. One day…).
But the good thing about herbs is that they grow just about anywhere and for just about anyone. And herbs are incredibly versatile, wonderful plants to have around: they smell good, they taste good, they look good, and many of them come packaged up with a generous dose of colourful history and folklore.
If you’d like to start a herb garden, these are my 10 favourite herbs to grow:
Why? Yum! And also, oooh that smell.
Cool folklore quirk: in medieval times, some ‘experts’ believed that if you laid basil to rot in horse dung, it would breed venomous beasts. I have not personally tried this.
Why? Purple flowers almost all year ’round. Crystalise the tiny petals and use them to decorate cakes; dry the flower heads and use them to give a relaxing and cleansing scent. Mildly antiseptic.
Cool folklore quirk: “Lavender is of special good use for all the griefs and pains of the head and brain that proceed of a cold cause, as apoplexy, falling sickness, the dropsy, or sluggish malady, cramps, convulsions, palsies and often faintings.” Culpeper, 1653
Why? You will never smell anything better. Beautiful to flavour summer drinks, jellies and jams.
Cool folklore quirk: apparently taking lemon balm makes you live a long time. For example in the 13th century, Llewelyn Prince of Glamorgan regularly took lemon balm tea and lived to be 108.
Why? Grows rampantly and covers a big area with beautiful, sprawling, orange and yellow flowers. The flowers taste like pepper in a salad.
Cool folklore quirk: native to Peru, nasturtium was first brought to Europe in the 15th Century by the conquistadors.
Why? Takes your Asian salads to a new level. Not to mention your cocktails, your smoothies, your desserts…
Cool folklore quirk: in Greek mythology, Minthe was a nymph who caught the eye of Pluto, the god of the underworld. When Pluto’s wife found out about their affair, she turned Minthe into a plant. Pluto couldn’t save her, but he gave her a wonderful smell that would get even better when someone stepped on her (!)
Why? A beautiful little tree with rough, lemon-scented leaves that you can use in cooking or tea. Gives the garden soft shade in summer and lets the sunshine through in winter.
Cool folklore quirk: I couldn’t find one! Came to Europe from South America in the 17th Century (via the Spanish).
Why? Happy, sunny, yellow and orange flowers. The petals are a nice addition to salads, and can also be used to treat pimples (true!).
Cool folklore quirk: the name comes from the fact that it seems to flower just about all year ’round.
Why? To eat! In anything (savoury)!
Cool folklore quirk: was used by the ancient Greeks to crown victors at the Isthmian Games. Can you imagine sticking parsley on the heads of our athletes today? Let’s bring this tradition back!
Why? Apparently full of vitamins, and has more protein in its leaves than any other veggie. Also does amazing things for compost.
Cool folklore quirk: historically comfrey was considered a “miracle herb” that could fix all kinds of ailments and even mend broken bones.
Why? Tastes great with meats and roast vegetables, grows into a beautiful hedge, smells amazing.
Cool historic quirk: was believed to strengthen the memory and therefore became an emblem of fidelity.
Photos are of Scout planting and watering basil in our little garden box on the weekend