The ultimate herbal remedy

From headaches to hedges: Anna Pavord discovers the cure-all qualities of germander
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The Independent Online
It's odd how one thing leads to another in the garden. You go out intending to prune the forsythia and, two hours later, find that you have tied in a rose instead. You psych yourself up to weedkill an overgrown path, and on the way to get the watering-can you are diverted by the plight of young aquilegias drowned out by goosegrass. Recently, we set out to make a hazel tunnel and found ourselves with a herb garden.

It happened like this. I wanted a tunnel made of hazel poles to span the central path through the vegetable garden, a straight path that ends in a door set into a high stone wall. The tunnel was to be covered in runner beans, French beans and sweet peas; we made it with whippy hazel poles bent over in a series of hoops. These are joined up by a series of horizontal poles so that the whole structure makes a grid of roughly 18-in squares. The grass path that it arches over is about 4ft wide.

I hadn't realised that the effect of the tunnel, which you approach head- on from the house, would be to focus your eye on what happened at the far end of it. We slapped some paint on the old door and pulled a rod of the vine planted against the wall to fix over the top of the door. But it wasn't enough.

The bottom border that runs under the wall in the kitchen garden is about 9ft wide and faces south. I've always used it for crops, such as tomatoes, sweet corn, French beans and peppers, that appreciate the sun. There was also a random collection of herby things: rosemary, thyme, sage and tarragon, not planted in any particular order.

But the tunnel in an odd way created order, and demanded more order at its end. The crops I've been growing in that south-facing border don't get set out until the end of May, so for a long period it is almost empty.

The herbs were the starting-point. I wondered about planting old-fashioned box hedges round the borders to contain a collection of herbs. I wondered about planting standard rosemary bushes - clipped balls on top of tall stems - all along the border. Finally, I planted a series of X-shaped hedges of germander. They join up to make a formal pattern of diamonds and triangles, finishing at the cold frame at the far end of the border. Gradually, I've been filling the spaces with plants.

Germander, Teucrium x lucidrys, is a neat little herb, evergreen, growing eventually to about 18 in high, with tiny, lobed leaves and pinkish-purple flowers which continue from midsummer to early autumn. Culpeper, the great herbalist, said it "strengthens the brain and apprehension exceedingly when weak and relieves them when drooping". I can do with that. Germander was the medieval aspirin, widely used to cure anything, including dropsy, coughs, headaches and convulsions.

I like it because it is more relaxed than box. Box would have forced me to cut the grass edges around it and prop the tomatoes up snooty commissionaires. Germander is easy to strike from cuttings, set round the edge of a 5-in pot or dibbled straight into the ground. It can be lightly trimmed in spring or autumn. It is hardy in winter and does not need watering in summer. That's a bonus. Nor is it as greedy as box.

To highlight the two X shapes that lie either side of the end of the tunnel, I planted a bay tree with a clipped round head where the arms of the X crossed. Clay drainpipes, set on end at each of the four corners, are planted with thyme which will also be clipped into globes. The thyme can be grown from seed sprinkled straight on to the compost in the drains. I used upright bush thyme (Marshalls, 62p).

That gave the structure that the empty beds were missing up to now. Filled, the various triangles and diamonds create blocks of planting that make more impact than the usual rows. I've got six clumps of chives in one triangle, planted pyramid fashion in rows of one, two and three. This year, I'll try to remember to cut down one clump each week, so there will always be fresh supplies coming along.

In another triangular bed, there are three rosemary bushes, bought very cheaply from the Columbia Road market in London. In a third, I have replanted some of the tarragon that was originally growing in the south bed. That also needs cutting down in batches. It encourages fresh growth and will stop the tarragon collapsing on to the germander when it gets too tall.

In another bed there are three different sorts of sage, one the common cooking sage, Salvia officinalis, one a purple-leaved kind, and the third a Balkan sage. When I bought it, each leaf had a distinctive hooked indentation. That doesn't show on the growth it has made since, but it's a showy sage, flowering now with blue-grey spikes rather like catmint.

Sages don't grow old gracefully, but if you prune them regularly you can slow down the process of their becoming impossibly woody and gangling. The pruning is best done twice a year, in spring (to encourage masses of fresh shoots) and in summer, when the plants have finished flowering (to stop the growths getting too leggy). Sometimes you can rejuvenate an old plant by cutting it hard back in spring, but they don't always respond.

Some of the triangles are filled with herbs sown direct from seed. Not parsley. That prefers a moist soil and some shade, so I generally grow it in a side border. Parsley seeds are notoriously slow to germinate; if you sow in June you have the best chance of getting parsley to last right through to the end of the following year, before it runs up to seed.

But I've put coriander in the new herb patch, choosing `Cilantro' (Suffolk Herbs, 85p), which gives the maximum amount of leaf. If you want seed, go for Moroccan coriander (Suffolk Herbs, 85p) which is quick to bolt. Coriander seed is best sown direct where it is to grow. Like most of the umbelliferae family (parsley and carrot are fellow members) it hates being disturbed. It will leap straight up to seed if it is transplanted. It germinates much faster than parsley, usually between seven and 10 days.

I've also sown a salad mix known as `Misticanza' (Chiltern Seeds, 99p), with lettuce, chicory, rocket and watercress in it. It's a cut-and-come- again crop, which you scissor off like mustard and cress. If you cut just above the first pair of seedling leaves, the plants go on resprouting all through the summer. You shouldn't ever let them get more than about 3 in tall. Suffolk Herbs sells a similar mixture called `Miscuglio', made up of different chicories and radicchios, which you sow and harvest in the same way.

S E Marshall & Co, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire PE13 2RF (01945 466 711), Suffolk Herbs, Monks Farm, Coggeshall Road, Kelvedon, Essex CO5 9PG (01376 572456), Chiltern Seeds, Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria LA12 7PB (01229 581137). Germander, sage and a wide variety of other herbs are available (mail order only) from Jekka's Herb Farm, Rose Cottage, Shellard's Lane, Alveston, Bristol BS12 2SY (01454 418878).