From plot to pot: Why buy fresh herbs when you can pick them right outside your back door?

Carolyn Hart selects eight chefs' favourites to start growing now

Volume is what counts with herbs – and a certain impreciseness. You want handfuls, bunches, sprigs, even cupfuls, roughly chopped and cast into the pot with abandon. None of this accords well with the modern (let's say supermarket) method of selling herbs in tiny double-wrapped plastic packets or, worse, in pots in which they'll never flourish, but where they will die horribly the minute you start to use the leaves.

The answer is to buy herbs from proper greengrocers, by the fistful, wrapped in newspaper, at half the price. Or, grow your own – pleasing enough in any economic climate, but especially thrilling in the face of global meltdown. You don't need much to do it, either – a patch of ground near the back door, or a window box, or even empty tins of tomatoes lined up behind the kitchen sink.

"It's very easy to grow your own," says herbal queen, Jekka McVicar, but she adds: "If you are growing outside, prepare the ground first." Clear out winter debris, fork over and bestow a light dressing of organic fertiliser. If you're planting in containers, put in drainage holes."

Her must-have herbs include spearmint, compact oregano, winter or summer savoury ("a great digestif"), parsley, rosemary and French tarragon – "and make sure it is French," she advises. "Not Russian. French tarragon is raised from cuttings and makes your tongue zing with aniseed. If it tastes like upper-class weed, it's Russian."

In an age of instant gratification, it's good to know that your herbs can be picked from very early in their growing season. "Most herbs reach their peak of flavour just before they flower," McVicar says. "Snip off stems early in the day before the sun is fully up, or, even better, on a cloudy day, and cut whole stems rather than single leaves or flowers."

The list of herbs needed for a seasoned life is long: ginger mint, chervil, coriander, French parsley, chives, Corsican rosemary, garden thyme, angelica, fennel, winter savoury, Greek basil, buckler-leaf sorrel, bay, sweet cicely, garlic, Greek oregano, French tarragon, lovage, lemon balm, Moroccan mint, dill, lemon thyme, parsley, sweet marjoram. But you can transform your cooking by growing just seven or eight basics – most of which, once started, are fairly indestructible and will continue to repay use with more growth; an ordinary miracle in a world which more often equates use with obsolescence.


Rats hate the smell of mint, as do ants and fleas (rub a few leaves on your dog). For the Romans, mint was an appetite stimulant; today we know it more as a post-dinner digestif in the form of freshmint tea (much more delicious than the teabag kind). Mint leaves stewed with peas is one of those culinary matches made in heaven, and those wanting to disguise their beer breath can chew a few leaves.

Grow mint from the roots of an established plant. It likes a clay soil but will grow just about anywhere, and benefits from neglect and some watering in hot weather. Replant after two or three years in a different position. The trick is to stop it spreading; make sure that the roots are confined. Use it with teas, with vegetables, in ice creams, with chocolate, and to flavour meringues.


The idea that basil needs trauma to flourish may originate with the ancient Greeks, who assumed that it would not grow unless heaped with insults at the time of sowing. They linked basil to treachery and misfortune; the italians associated it with love but it took Boccaccio to put the two together in his tale of Isabella, the basil bush and her dead lover's head. Growing basil in this country is an infuriating process; it needs heat and sunlight and a little water (on the leaves as well as in the soil), not cloud and drizzle. Pinch out the new leaves as they form on the stems and never, according to Culpeper, plant it near rue. Basil with tomatoes is a god-like combination. Grow it indoors until June, then outside in full sun. Sow three seeds per pot in moist, medium-rich potting compost. When seeds have grown to roughly 3cm, pull out the weakest two plants. Use it with anything Italian but especially with tomatoes, in pesto sauces and with mozzarella.


This has a reputation for protective qualities – hide under its branches if plague strikes or the devil threatens and, if bald, wind a crown of bryony and bay round your head to ward off lightning. Bay puts up with shade, but hates frost. You can dry the leaves in an airing cupboard for up to a week, but if they go brown, they lose their flavour. It is difficult to grow, so buy from garden centre, shield from high winds, cut back in spring and give a liquid feed. Water it well in hot weather. Gather leaves for drying in high summer; fresh leaves can be used all year round

Use in custards and rice puddings, or add leaves to stews, soups and meat sauces. Grill dried leaves with fish.


Grow thyme where you can tread on it, and thus release the scents of an Elizabethan garden. Thyme comes in more than 100 flavours and varieties. Lemon scented thyme looks best in winter, but the silver-leaved varieties are the toughest and most flavoursome. Caribbean cooks use thyme in their mix for blackening fish. To grow, it likes cracks in paving stones and gravel. If you are growing it from seed, sow in multi-purpose compost and don't over-water. It thrives in drought conditions in warm sunny positions. Propagate it by layering in spring, and with cuttings in summer. Leaf flavour is most pungent in the summer. Use it with meat and fish, put sprigs into stews and soups, and scatter it over vegetables before roasting.


One of the few herbs you shouldn't chew if you want to be kissed – the aroma lingers like onion. But chives are excellent for lowering blood pressure and breaking down indigestible fats in food. Sprinkle on scrambled egg and stir into potato salad, and both dishes will be lifted beyond the ordinary. The mauve puffball flowers have a delicate flavour and can be used, with nasturtium flowers, pepper and lettuce, to make a very pretty salad. Grow chives from seed indoors, in spring, on a warm, sunny windowsill. Plant out in sun in early summer. Water in dry weather, cut back after flowering. Ideal in kitchen borders or in pots, and tolerates most soils. The leaves can be cut constantly until first frost.


"He that would live for aye/ Must eat sage in May," sang the medievalists, echoing the ancient Greeks and Romans who used sage as a mental stimulant. Modern research agrees that sage might be efficacious in warding off Alzheimer's. Arabian herbalists thought it a contraceptive, though I wouldn't advise anyone to count on it. Sage cheese has been made since the 17th century and sage tea was what the American patriots were forced to drink after they tipped all 342 of the East India Company's tea chests into Boston harbour in 1773. It grows well from seed. Sow three or four seeds in a small container filled with multi-purpose compost in spring. Plant out in June in light, well-drained soil in full sun. Use with pork, lamb and with liver. Excellent in cheese dishes, and adds sparkle to apple sauce.


Parsley first grew where the blood of Archemorus stained the ground where he was devoured by a serpent, and was used thereafter by the Greeks to decorate their tombs. During the First World War, parsley tea was found to be an efficient cure for dysentery. Today, we know it is rich in vitamin C and an excellent way to get rid of smelly breath (chew a raw leaf or two). To grow it, sow it all year round in containers. It needs six hours of sunlight a day and a rich, moist, well-drained soil. To grow outside, plant in rows, three or four seeds at a time, from May to July. Use it with soups, stews, sauces, as decoration, in salads, and with fish.


Sir Thomas More thought rosemary "sacred to remembrance". He loved it for his bees, too, and ancient herbalists used it as a hair rinse (boil a handful and strain), a wash for the skin and a tooth powder made from the ashes of the twigs. Placed in drawers, it scents linen and laid under beds it keeps troublesome dreams away. To grow it, take a semi-hardwood cutting from an existing two- to three-year-old plant between May and July. Cut a 10cm sprig of new growth. Remove all the leaves from the bottom half of the sprig, dip in rooting powder and plant in a pot of multi-purpose compost. Plant out after a few weeks in sandy, well-drained soil in sun. Use it with lamb, mutton, pork and fish, and to flavour roast vegetables

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution