Coriander, which I sowed on 24 April, is already looking like something we can eat. Madhur Jaffrey's recipes (favourite food at the moment) require vast quantities of the leaves, not always on sale in deepest Dorset. I'm growing it in pots: the first batch was a variety called 'Confetti' (Thompson & Morgan 99p), the second sowing was of seed bought at an agricultural research station in Mysore, India. It's in a park close to the palace. Look for a small sign saying 'Co-operative Nurseryman's Association'. It's an enchanting place.
I used to grow coriander from seed bought at a health food shop. It was some while before I realised that there are two quite distinct strains: one produces lots of leaf, the other is desperate to shoot straight up into seed. Both of course are useful, but I always want more leaf than seed and the health food shop coriander was not that kind.
Seeds germinate quickly. The advantage of sowing in a pot is that you can keep a succession going through the summer, sowing a new potful every few weeks. I use old black plastic pots, 22cm across or more. If you use anything smaller, the compost dries out too quickly. Sow the seeds (they are big, so you can set them quite far apart) on the surface of the gently firmed down compost and scatter some more compost on the top to cover them. Stand the pot in a bowl of water until you can see the surface of the compost darkening with dampness. Then water regularly, but only when the compost has begun to dry out. Coriander doesn't like to be too wet, but like most edible greenstuffs, it needs to grow fast. Scissor off the young leaves as you need them.
The first leaves of coriander are like flat French parsley, but as the plant shoots up, the leaves become much more wispy and have a different taste. But if you are growing seed in a succession of pots, you can chuck the first sowings when the supply of leaves begins to run out. Unless you want to gather seeds too. They are generally ready to harvest by August. You need to be quick to catch them. They drop as soon as they are ripe. Suffolk Herbs offer three separate strains, 'Cilantro' (£1.29) or 'Leisure' (£1.29) for leaf and 'Moroccan' (£1.29) for seeds. You can sow all the way through the summer outside, but from late September onwards, you will probably need to provide the plants with some protection against the cold. Don't try and transplant your seedlings. They have long tap roots which resent being disturbed.
The name, coriander, comes from the Greek word for insect because the leaves are said to smell like bed bugs. The last bed bug I met was on Mount Ararat in Turkey, but I never thought to smell it. Herbalists say it's good for the digestive system.
Both chervil and dill can be grown in the same way as coriander - sown, small batches at a time at fortnightly intervals until August. Unlike coriander, chervil and dill do not change leaves as they grow, so it is not quite so vital to catch them at the right time. They can all be treated as annuals, though chervil is actually biennial.
Fresh chervil is a revelation to anyone used only to the dried stuff. It has ferny leaves and hollow stems, white flowers too, if it is allowed to grow on for a second year. Like all natural biennials, when it has flowered, it dies. It grows quickly and you can be picking useful quantities of leaves only six weeks after sowing seed. You have to get fresh seed each year. It quickly loses its potency.
Medieval herbalists valued it more as a medicinal plant than a culinary one. 'What you need is a nice cup of chervil.' They prescribed it for ailing livers and dicky kidneys. It was used to cure anaemia and for dissolving blood clots. An infusion (up to 2oz of leaves in half a pint of water) of chervil was also popular for sore eyes.
Sown outside, chervil does better in light shade. With a greenhouse, you can keep a fresh supply of leaves going all through the winter. Sow the seed thinly in pots or boxes (cat litter trays or vegetable boxes lined with newspaper are deeper than standard seed trays and provide better long-term growing conditions). Sow batches from September onwards and keep the greenhouse at a minimum temperature of 7C.
Dill, like coriander, can be used either for its leaves or its seeds. It looks like fennel, but is smaller in all its parts, the plants reaching about three feet. It has thread-like leaves and flat heads of yellow flowers from June to August. Suffolk Herbs offer four different strains, one for seed ('Mammoth' 99p) and three for leaf ('Hera' 99p, 'Vierling' 99p and the dwarf variety 'Fernleaf ' £1.29).
The seed has a stronger flavour than the leaf, but you need to have it in the ground as soon as possible to be sure of harvesting it ripe. Cut the heads as the seeds turn brown and shake them upside down over a sheet of paper. Pick out any insects, stray bits of stem and other extraneous bits before storing the seed in an airtight jar. It has a strong, aniseed flavour.
Suffolk Herbs, started by Caroline and John Stevens in 1974, specialises in seed of herbs (21 sorts of basil), unusual vegetables (many of them Oriental leaf crops), wild flowers and cottage garden favourites. They import their herb seeds from all over the world. Their Greek oregano was grown from a single packet of seed, collected by an American nurseryman. Moroccan spearmint was sent as a cutting by a customer. Seed of wild bergamot comes from the States, much else from Japan.
There's a quicker way to grow yourself a herb garden, of course, and that's to buy young plants, rather than seed. Delfland Nurseries can supply basil, bronze-leaved fennel, chives, coriander, oregano, curly-leaved parsley and thyme. Once you've got them, fennel, chives, oregano and thyme should stay with you as they are perennial by nature. Parsley dies out after its second year as, like chervil, it's a biennial. Basil is tender, so you need to grow fresh plants each year. Delfland send out their herbs, ready to plant, in late May, five plants in a pack for £1.50 plus postage and packing. If you are making a really big herb garden, they can supply 70 plants (10 of each herb) for £11.50 plus postage and packing. Bronze-leaved fennel is as handsome in a herbaceous border as it is in a herb bed. The foliage at this time of the year is glorious. Later, there'll be flat yellow seed heads. They attract masses of hoverflies.
Suffolk Herbs, Monks Farm, Coggeshall Rd, Kelvedon, Essex CO5 9PG, 01376 572456, www.suffolkherbs.com. Delfland Nurseries Ltd, Benwick Rd, Doddington, March, Cambs PE15 0TU, 01354 740553, www.organicplants.co.ukReuse content