Flowerpot to cooking pot

Planting up a herb garden is not difficult and, even better, you can eat the results, says Anna Pavord
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Like dandelions and nettles, both of which are better cooked than fouling up the garden, common sorrel provides iron-packed fodder at a time in spring when there are few other fresh greens to eat. The over- indulgent Romans munched on raw sorrel to offset the effects of too many banquets. High-flying chefs serve it steamed and pureed to balance the savour of rich meat such as pork. The flavour is pungent, lemony, quite bitter.

Most sorrels look suspiciously like docks, but the buckler-leaved sorrel is the least weed-like, with arrow-shaped leaves on a sprawling, lowgrowing plant. The common sorrel makes an altogether more upright, dominant plant, the leaves growing from the base. After the first year, it produces rust-coloured spikes of flower which then scatter seed with all the abandon of a canary on a spree.

Common sorrel is native in Britain and many other European countries, growing in grassy places in cool, moist soil. This is what it will want in the garden. Buckler-leaved sorrel grows in the mountains of central and southern Europe, east as far as Turkey and Iran where it chooses stony slopes for its home. In the garden, it will thrive in drier, better drained soils than the common sorrel. Both these sorrels are perennials, so you need only buy a few plants to set out in a herb or vegetable garden. They will probably need renewing every couple of years as they are weakened by constant picking.

If you let a plant run to seed, you will have more than enough replacements. Both will grow in pots, but not the same one. Use common sorrel with mint and garlic chives in a big pot kept well watered in a shady corner. Plant the much prettier buckler-leaved sorrel in a windowbox between love-in-a-mist.

It has never occurred to me to plant wild garlic in the garden; there are acres of it flowering now in the nearby woods. It has small round heads of white flowers like an allium (which it is). The leaves are what is politely described as "pungent", too pungent by far for a small garden, I would have thought. You have only to brush past them to release a smell so palpable you can almost see it. It is also wildly invasive. The seeds are spread by ants and they evidently love their work.

Garlic chives (Allium luberosum) are much easier to accommodate. The leaves are long and flat (with both these garlics, use the leaves rather than the bulb) and the flavour mild. The white flowers, although not as showy as those of wild garlic, have a much longer season. Like the more common purple-headed chives, they make a decorative edging in a herb garden. They clump up fast, but die down to nothing in winter.

Order is the essence of formal herb gardens which is why they are most successful in the first half of summer. Most herbs peak by midsummer. You need to cheat by bringing in pots of scented geraniums, or tumbling piles of nasturtiums and marigolds to ensure the patch continues to earn its keep.

Herbs are often grown with as much regard to their looks as their usefulness. I cannot remember ever cooking sweet cicely, but it is in fantastic form on the bank, growing among white and purple honesty on heavy soil in shade. It is useful in a decorative herb garden because it comes into flower so early. Both the foliage and the seeds taste of aniseed, the flavour much more intense in the seed, which is green when fresh, ripening to black. Buy a plant and tuck it away in a cool, shady place. Seedlings transplant easily when young, but mature plants are difficult to move as they have long, carrot-like tap roots. Cut the stems in July for a fresh crop of leaves.

Fennel, too, I rate more for its looks than its taste. Well fed, it may go up to 6ft, producing flat yellow heads of flower. Fennel is another exuberant self-seeder. Get unwanted seedlings out while they are young, for the roots of an established plant can go very deep. The bronze variety, Foeniculum vulgare `Purpureum' is an even better garden plant, bronze rather than purple in its foliage. This makes a brilliant backdrop to plantings of the magenta gladiolus, G byzantinus which is out now, and is equally good later on with the brilliant red crocosmia `Lucifer'. A packet of seed, sown in late summer, will give enough feathery little plants to set off a bed of tulips. The bronze fennel is good used with a yellow tulip such as the fringed `Maja'.

Not all herbs adapt so well in mixed plantings in the garden. Basil, one of my favourite cooking herbs, needs to be grown on its own and pampered so it does not shrivel with homesickness for the Mediterranean. I have tried growing it in three different ways: on the kitchen windowsill, in the cold frame and in the open ground. The kitchen windowsill gives by far the best results. I gather basil also does well in a polytunnel.

One advantage of growing it inside is that you still have decent plants to use at Christmas. Outside, they shrivel at the first touch of cold. If they are not cosseted, they do not produce the amount of leaf you need.

I sowed seed on 20 April, but it is not too late to do it now. Sprinkle seed thinly on the surface of a 5in pot of compost, cover with vermiculite, water and wrap in clingfilm. Keep it on the window ledge until the seedlings emerge. When they are large enough to handle, prick them out, each one in a 3in pot. Water the pots and line them up on the window ledge.

After four weeks, when the oomph in the compost begins to give out, the plants will need extra feeding. Stand the pots overnight in a sinkful of water with liquid fertiliser added. Pinch out flower spikes when they start to develop and use the leaves at the top first, so that you force the plants to produce sideshoots. Greek basil is naturally more bushy than the ordinary kind. It has tiny leaves and looks excellent in pots, like a miniature piece of topiary.

Two growers will be bringing herbs to the Chelsea Flower Show next week: Cheshire Herbs, Fourfields, Forest Road, Tarporley, Cheshire CW6 9ES (01829 760578) and Jekka's Herb Farm, Rose Cottage, Shellards Lane, Alveston, Bristol BS12 2SY (01454 418878). Jekka McVicar is the author of `The Complete Herb Book' (Kyle Cathie, pounds 20).

Cooking with herbs, page 33