Herbal highs: It's time to get potting dill and parsley to garnish summer dishes
Courgettes in the garden have been coming on rather fast and I've been looking for new ways to use them. One of the most successful was a pasta dish, quick and easy to make: fry an onion and a couple of garlic cloves (both finely chopped) in butter till they are soft. Add six small courgettes, finely sliced, and cook for about five minutes. Add about 150ml of crème fraîche and let the mixture heat through. Pull the pan off the heat and mix in a bunch of finely chopped dill. If the sauce seems too thick, add some warm chicken stock. Then tip in whatever pasta you've cooked, stir it about and serve it up with lots of freshly grated Parmesan.
It was the dill that gave this sauce its kick. I've always thought of it as a fish herb, the must-have ingredient in a classic gravadlax, but I'm glad to have found another use for it. It has the same kind of slightly aniseed taste as fennel. Both have fine, feathery foliage and big, flat heads of yellow flowers in summer. Fennel, though, is perennial. Dill needs to be sown fresh every year.
Little and often is the best way to sow seed. You can start off dill any time between May and August, and if you are lucky, you'll be cutting your first crop within eight weeks. Young plants won't transplant, so sow direct into a large tub or in short drills in the ground. Water the earth or compost first, so the seed goes into damp ground. It'll succeed in semi-shade and, like many Mediterranean herbs, doesn't need rich ground. It grows in a rather floppy manner and in a pot, this can be irritating. Prop up plants while they are still small with twigs rounds the edge of the pot, or a ready-made half-dome support.
Dill was once grown commercially in the east of England, a vital ingredient in the gripe-water given to colicy babies. It's still reckoned to be good for the digestion, but it's not a herb that improves with cooking. You need to add it to dishes fresh and at the last minute. Eventually it will get fed up with producing leaves and will try to shoot up to flower. You can slow down the inevitable end by cutting out the flower stems, but eventually the plant will turn purplish and die. If you allow a few flower stems to develop, you'll have a free source of seed for your next sowing.
Parsley is another herb that can be sown during August or in early September. It's probably the most widely used of what I think of as 'British' herbs: mint, parsley and sage. Parsley is a biennial, and needs more than one growing season to complete its life cycle. That's why now is a good time to sow. I grow parsley in black plastic pots, 28cm/11in across. They stand just outside the back door so there is no excuse not to use them. I use our own compost to fill most of the pot and top off with sterile multi-purpose stuff to make a seed bed that won't sprout too many weeds while the parsley slowly grinds itself into action. It is a slow mover. Dill will germinate within two to four weeks. Parsley takes at least six.
Parsley growing in a herb patch. Grown from seed in August, it will take six weeks to germinate (Alamy)
Water the compost before you sow, scattering the seed as thinly as possible. Top off with a thin layer of more compost and press the top down. I use the base of a similar-sized pot to do this. Cover the pot with netting against blackbirds and squirrels. Then wait, watering if the compost seems to be drying out.
Professional cooks swear that, in terms of taste, flat-leaved parsley is better than the curly-leaved kind. For cooking, I'm equally happy with either, but for looks the curly kind wins easily. Crops in pots catch your eye more than crops in the ground, so if the pot is in the spotlight, grow the curly-leaved 'Lisette' (Thompson & Morgan, £1.99). I sowed a potful of seed on 13 September last year > and am still picking from that crop, but next month, I'll start off another batch. Parsley is perfectly hardy, will stand outside all winter and does not need full sun. It's a hungrier herb than dill and so, occasionally, you should give it some liquid fertiliser when you are watering.
I can't remember ever using sweet cicely when I have been cooking, but if you choose herbs as much for their looks as their usefulness, this is a good one to have. Earlier this year it was in fantastic form on the bank, growing among white and purple honesty in shade. It comes into flower early, looking like a refined cow parsley, though not so stringy, the flat white heads of flower carried close to the foliage which is bright-green and beautifully cut, like a fern's.
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. Nothing could be easier to grow. Buy a plant and tuck it away in a cool, shady place. Herbs are mostly sun lovers, so it is useful to know which ones can cope with shade. Cut the stems down in July to bring on a fresh crop of leaves.
You can raise sweet cicely from seed (look for Myrrhis odorata in a flower catalogue if you can't find it listed under herbs) but you need to sow in September or October, as the seeds won't germinate unless they've been through a few months of cold weather. The seeds are quite big, so you can sow one to a small pot and leave the pots outside or in a cold frame for the winter. In spring, you can transplant young seedlings quite easily to their final growing spot. Mature plants are much more difficult to move as they have long, carrot-like tap roots.
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