A dance to the music of thyme

Herbs such as mint, thyme and the little-known burnet add zest both to garden borders and the salad bowl

Mint was one of the herbs that the 17th-century essayist Francis Bacon mentioned when writing about scent in the garden: mint, wild thyme and burnet. "Set whole alleys of them," he urged his readers, "to have the pleasure when you walk or tread."

That's a nice idea, if you've got the acres to play with that Bacon had at his own garden, Gorhambury in Hertfordshire. Most of us haven't, and my efforts are rather spent discouraging mint from making alleys. It is an easy herb but, with its bullish, running roots, it needs restraining. You would think the answer would be to grow it in a container, but I've not found it likes that. It develops rust and looks hideous - not at all the sort of thing you want to tip over your roast Welsh lamb.

By nature, mint is a herb of the waterside; in a garden it likes cool and damp. It is happy in shade. So its requirements are quite the opposite to those of Mediterranean herbs such as thyme, rosemary and marjoram. (The so-called Corsican mint, Pycnathemum pilosum, is not in fact a mint at all, and enjoys the same hot conditions as its Mediterranean neighbours.)

The ordinary mint of a million gardens is the spearmint, Mentha spicata. I also grow the soft, larger-leaved apple mint (now M suaveolens, not M rotundifolia), and its variegated cousin with its pretty crinkly leaves, splashed round the edges with white. They all need cutting down when they get untidy, as they will any time now, after they have flowered. But they are simplicity itself to grow.

Left to themselves, they start making fresh growth in March. If you want to enjoy fresh mint earlier, lift a few roots in October and plant them in large pots or boxes. Overwinter them in a greenhouse, and remember to water them. That way, you will get fresh leaves at least a month earlier than usual.

Thyme is a completely different animal. It is widely spread in the Mediterranean countries, but grows as far north as Greenland. People of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland believed it gave strength and courage, and drank tea made of wild thyme to ward off nightmares. It likes good drainage and as intense a baking as it can get. Heat intensifies the essential oils that give thyme its flavour. In damp soil (or if you water it too much) the flavour suffers and plants rot, as they tend to do in our heavy clay.

That is why we experimented with a different way of growing them. Now most are planted in old clay land drains, anchored at various points round the edge of the herb patch. The drains are set upright, leaving 10 inches or so above ground. Some are wider than others: they vary between 4in and 6in across. We filled the drains with compost mixed with grit and planted the thyme plants on top. Now they have settled and are growing well. We clip them over after flowering, so that they look like miniature topiary bushes standing on clay stems.

For this kind of planting (and if you are using thymes to fill a bed in a herb garden) shrubby, upright types are best. Look for varieties such as the camphor thyme (Thymus camphoratus), lemon thyme (T x citriodorus), the Porlock thyme (T praecox 'Porlock') and the common thyme (T vulgaris), which comes in several different forms. My favourite is 'Silver Posie'. The leaves are silvery grey with a wash of pink on the underside; it is just as good for cooking as the plain green kind. All these grow about a foot high.

For the Persian-carpet effect, to clothe a hot, dry bank, or to plant in between the cracks of paving stones on a terrace, you need creeping thymes, mostly members of the T serpyllum family. There are red- and white- flowered forms and a very pretty pink one called 'Annie Hall'. The least successful is one called 'Goldstream'. It has golden, variegated leaves that jar hideously against the pinkish-mauve flowers.

Though thyme will put up with being crushed underfoot, it does not thrive on it. Don't expect it to put up with the regular traffic of children's bikes or football. Francis Bacon would have tiptoed through his thyme alley as a special treat, not on a daily basis.

The taller-growing lemon thyme is particularly good for stuffings and herb bread. Get into the habit of cutting down some of the shoots in June to encourage plenty more new leaf for the rest of the season. Take cuttings of thyme now, if you have not already done so. Use side shoots about 2in or 3in long with a heel attached and line them out in friable, sandy soil.

Burnet is now much less common in gardens than mint or thyme. The plant Bacon wrote about is salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor) a hardy, evergreen perennial about 18in tall, with very pretty leaves divided into pairs of frilled, cut leaflets. In summer it produces spikes of dark crimson flowers. They sound showy, but they aren't. And to get the best from burnet, you need to keep cutting it to prevent it from flowering.

The leaves can be added to salads - they taste of cucumber - or bashed about with other herbs to make herb butters and sauces. Writing in The Flora of West Yorkshire, published in 1888, the naturalist Frederick Lees said that burnet, infused in water, was much used around Ripon "as a cure for, or an alleviant of, drunkard's thirst". Well, you wouldn't expect a beady old Yorkshireman to waste good money on a drying-out clinic, would you?

You could use burnet as Tudor gardeners did, to make an edging for paths. It also looks good dividing up the different compartments of a herb garden. Plants are easy to raise from seed, sown in spring. For an edging, set the plants 7in to 8in apart. In the wild, it favours chalky soil, but will thrive in any well-drained garden soil in sun or light shade. It is stalwart in drought and never flags.

The herb I use more than any other is parsley, though coriander is fast leaping up the list of favourites. Parsley belongs to the huge family of umbellifers. It includes the wild hedgerow plant Queen Anne's lace, as well as other herbs such as angelica and fennel.

Mine is looking very umbelliferous at the moment, having shot up to seed. This crop (a variety called 'Curlina' from Marshalls, 83p) was sown on 9 June last year. A few weeks ago, after a fortuitous shower of rain, I put in some flat-leaved parsley (Marshalls, 49p) which is not as pretty, but has a better flavour.

I hesitate to say that I grow parsley well. That's a gift that's supposed to belong only to pregnant women and witches. But I have found that by sowing in summer, rather than spring, you end up with a longer supply of leaves. In its second year it always runs up to seed, though you can delay the process for a while by cutting off the flowering stems.

Parsley is very slow to germinate and, like other tap-rooted plants, hates being transplanted. So you need to sow where the plant is to grow, in a well-prepared seedbed. Make sure the soil is really moist before you sow. Dryness is one of the chief reasons why parsley fails to germinate. Do not let the seedbed dry out at all during the long period of germination. Even when thoroughly cossetted, parsley is notorious for its slowness. You have to wait a month, perhaps even six weeks, before seedlings begin to show. Where cats and their scratchings are a problem, cover the seed bed with netting until the young plants are safely established.

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