Gardening: Herbal and verbal comforts: Who can resist a plant called 'hyssop'? Not Anna Pavord, relishing a hotel herb garden in Norfolk with 450 varieties

Click to follow
The Independent Online
How many people, when they plant hyssop, the aromatic perennial herb flowering now in blue, white and pink, really believe they are going to brew hyssop teas, distil hyssop oil, or marshal the local bees to produce hyssop honey? We just like the idea that one day we might. Having hyssop makes us feel comfortable. It reassures us that we have not entirely cut ourselves adrift from a long tradition of folk knowledge and thrifty housekeeping.

The word has a mesmeric quality if you say it over and over. Add horehound, bergamot and balm, and you have a mantra of powerful associations: monk, medieval times and medicine, with an incongruous dash of morris men thrown in as well. If you have a herb garden, you must have hyssop.

It flowers in vast billows in the soothing gardens of Congham Hall, north of King's Lynn in Norfolk. Over the past 12 years, Christine Forecast has made an ambitious series of herb gardens here, linked by a wide gravel path. Congham Hall is a hotel that serves serious food: baskets full of herbs disappear daily into the kitchen.

Mrs Forecast thinks she has more than 450 kinds of herbs. She has hairy, blue-flowered borage growing with purple-leaved sage. She has Greek oregano ('much the strongest flavour') growing with mounds of buckler-leaf sorrel. The leaves of the sorrel are arrow-shaped, sharply astringent in salads but equally good cooked and pureed to make a sauce for fish.

In a formal section of the herb garden, lavender hedges surround squares filled with decorative curled parsley, the green so bright you might be hallucinating. Other lavender squares are filled with dill and purslane. L-shaped beds round the outer corners of the squares are edged with alpine strawberry.

Some of the combinations in the herb garden would be good in any garden, herb or not. The lavender 'Princess Blue' showed off its rich deep spikes of flower brilliantly against a background of filmy bronze fennel. Bright-blue hyssop partnered equally bright orange English marigolds, and the white double flowers of feverfew were set-off well by elegant grey-leaved mint.

There is an irresistible urge with a herb garden to classify, sort and arrange. All mints here. All sages there. Mrs Forecast started with an orderly collection of mints in the long border along the right-hand side of the path, dividing the border into a series of triangles with bricks buried on the slant to make a zigzag edge. Inevitably, the mints have disobeyed the rules, trickling under the brick boundaries to fraternise with their neighbours, so she is no longer sure which is the mint that a friend brought from India or which is the one that came from the Emperor Hadrian's villa near Rome.

Many herbs have stories. Perhaps that is another reason why we like them. And they do not frighten us with Latin names. Lovage is lovage, never Levisticum officinale.

Lovage, like mint, is a perennial. Both can be bought as small plants, which is the easiest way to introduce them into the garden. Neither of them minds partial shade. Other herbs, such as chervil, dill, coriander and salad rocket, are best sown from seed. All four have a tendency to leap straight up to make seed themselves, rather than produce the handfuls of leaves that are hoped for. The best thing to do is to sow thinly every two weeks from April until the end of August. Keep the soil moist at all times. The seed should germinate in two to three weeks, and cutting can be started when the leaves are about 6in tall.

A few cuts can usually be made before the plant bolts, but with coriander, the first cut is much the best. The one that gives the best leaves is 'Cilantro' (Suffolk Herbs, 85p).

Each of these four can be grown in pots, but the bigger the better. Pot herbs (except, in my experience, basil) get exhausted more quickly than those growing in the open ground, and a succession of fresh sowings through the season is necessary.

Salad rocket, more of a vegetable than a herb, has leaves with a very rich, spicy flavour and is as easy to grow as mustard and cress, but it runs to seed very quickly in hot weather. If it is sown outside, seedlings should be thinned to about 4in apart. When picking, take single leaves or cut the whole seedling about 1in above the ground. If the soil is moist and the weather not too hot, the plant will sprout again.

Chervil, the summer crop at least, does best if it is sown in shade, but the soil needs to be fertile and damp. Sow winter crops in a sunnier position or, best of all, in a frame or poly tunnel. Sow August seed into Propapacks to provide seedlings which you can then transplant under cover. (It is brilliant in scrambled eggs.)

Dill, like coriander, works both as leaves and seeds. As with coriander, different dill selections have been made to favour the production of either one or the other. All will set seed readily enough. Getting them to leaf is more difficult. 'Dukat' (Suffolk Herbs, 85p) is the best bet.

Basil is one of my favourites. It has such an un-English scent, and smells of heat and liberation. There is nothing of monks or morris dancers.

My basil never gets farther than the kitchen windowsill, where it spends its entire life. It does very well there and is easy to raise, sown in a pot (this year on 22 April) and then pricked out, each seedling in a separate 3in pot. Once a week all the pots are plunged overnight in the washing-up bowl, filled with a couple of inches of water and a squirt of liquid manure. At present I am using KeriGrow.

If you pick the top out of basil, it is forced to sprout from the leaf junctions, so the plants become fat and bushy. If you grow Greek basil, you will have basil that is fat and bushy without too much effort. Greek basil is enchanting. Each plant looks like a topiarised box bush that is no more than 4in across. The leaves are small, but wickedly pungent.

Arranged as Mrs Forecast's are, the different kinds of basil make patterns in the bed, the neat, self-contained bushes of the Greek basil contrasting with the huge undulating leaves of the lettuce basil and the purple foliage of the decorative variety, 'Dark Opal'. Basils are a collector's dream, as new types keep being introduced. Chiltern Seeds has a Peruvian basil (90p), a Mexican basil (93p) and a Thai basil (99p) in its list, as well as lemon, liquorice and cinnamon basil. Connoisseurs of pesto should grow the variety 'Fino Verde'.

The herb gardens at Congham Hall, Grimston, King's Lynn, Norfolk, are open daily (2-4pm) except Saturday. There are about 200 different herbs for sale. Admission free. For hotel reservations, telephone 0485 600250.

Suffolk Herbs, Monks Farm, Pantlings Lane, Kelvedon, Essex CO5 9PG (0376 572456).

Chiltern Seeds, Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria LA12 7PB (0229 581137).

(Photograph omitted)