Gardening: The four seasonings

Plant a few varieties in your garden or window box and you'll never be short of the perfect herb again. Sarah Raven explains which of the many types to grow and how best to do it

FRESH herbs can turn an everyday cook into a gourmet chef. Anyone can put a chicken in the oven to roast and it will taste OK. But if you first lay the chicken on a bed of tarragon, stuff it with a couple of lemons, half a bulb of garlic, yet more tarragon, and cover the lot with a good splurge of olive oil, it will be simply delicious.

You could buy supermarket sachets of cut herbs, or seedlings in those little plastic pots, but they are relatively expensive and can be floppy and browning by the time you get them home. It's much better to grow your own, which you can harvest as and when you want them, and you know there will always be plenty more.

Don't buy every herb the garden centre stocks - you'll end up feeling overwhelmed. Start off with four or five and you'll become a dab hand at using them. Basil and coriander are easy to buy fresh, so my selection would be rosemary, sage, tarragon, mint and flat-leafed parsley. They are simple to grow and they all thrive in pots.

Herbs divide into two groups. Herbacious perennials and shrubs, which return year after year, and annuals and biennials, which must be resown. Mint is herbacious, and will disappear in the autumn and come up bigger and better the following year. Rosemary, sage and tarragon are shrubs, and parsley is a biennial.

Apple mint (Mentha suaveolens) and Bowles mint (Mentha x villosa f. alopecuroides `Bowles') are the tastiest mints for use in food and drinks. Mint is rampant and will spread itself quickly, so you only need buy one small plant of each. If you are planting it in the garden, enclose the roots in a large plastic pot hidden below the soil so that it does not take over.

A leg of lamb tastes just fine with redcurrant jelly and mint sauce, but so much better with a herby salsa verde. Mix a handful of chopped flat-leafed parsley and some mint leaves with a flat dessertspoon of capers, a heaped dessertspoon of chopped-up olives and add the lot to a bowl of extra virgin olive oil. Add a few chopped and deseeded fresh chillies, and all you'll need is some new potatoes cooked with mint to soak up the lamb juice and herbs.

The standard rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, thrives in a sunny, well-drained corner and does well in a pot, but it has more interesting forms. I like the look of `Sissinghurst Blue' or `Benenden Blue', which have mid-blue, rather than the more usual grey-blue, flowers in the spring.

You could also try `Miss Jessopp's Upright', which throws up vertical branches that make it ideal to use as a hedge in a sheltered spot. If you have a flower bed along the top of a low retaining wall, or want to grow your rosemary in a window box, the weeping variety, `Prostratus', is the one for you. It will get too big for a window box after three or four years, so take cuttings or buy a new plant every third year.

There are many varieties of sage and they vary hugely in their degree of flavour. Purple-leaved and variegated sage have little, so buy a strong- tasting form, such as the silver-leaved Salvia officinalis. `Berggarten' is the best, its large leaves mean you can only pick a stem or two at a time. To release the flavour, shred the leaves into 1cm (12in) strips and fry in oil for a minute or two.

Tarragon is excellent with chicken and with fish. Buy two or three plants of the French (Artemesia dracunculus), not the Russian (A dracunculoides) variety, which is widely available, being hardier and easier to grow, but has almost no taste. French tarragon needs sun, shelter and good drainage and is not fully hardy, so if you grow it in a pot bring it in over the winter and keep it on a cool but sunny windowsill.

Parsley grows leaves in its first year and flowers the next, so it is best to sow it fresh each year. The curly and densely packed English parsley that adorns fishmongers is not as tasty as the continental flat-leafed form Carum petroselinum. Sow it direct into rich moist soil or into a pot any time now. It is slow to germinate and may take a month to appear. Speed it up by soaking the seeds in lukewarm water before planting. Two weeks after they appear, thin the seedlings out to 15cm (6in) apart. Once they have filled out, cut the leaves to the ground and they will sprout again in about 10 days.

Your local garden centre may not stock the tastiest varieties, so it is worth getting a catalogue from a herb specialist.

Jekka's Herb Farm, 01454 418878, fax 01454 411988. Cheshire Herbs, 01829 760578, fax 01829 760354


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