Tiny tubs of taste: Growing your herbs is the biggest favour you'll ever do your food

Herbs are simple, inexpensive and the crowning glory of so many dishes
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The Independent Online

I was slightly freaked out when I went into the kitchen of a culinary-minded friend recently. She would never dream of shopping anywhere but a posh supermarket, but while her meat is deliciously organic and her lentils always puy, her basil was... substandard. Growing in one of those plastic pots on the windowsill, it was the perfect picture of long, leggy and yellow.

How can you care about food but not about herbs? There's no reason for herb laziness. Herbs are one of the simplest things you can grow. Even if you don't have the energy for pricking out vegetable seedlings and your heart sinks at the thought of bringing back Gro-bags from the garden centre, there's room in your garden for some of these easygoing plants.

My absolute essential is rosemary. You don't even have to pay for a plant, as you can grow this from a cutting. Ask around friends and family to find out if they have a particularly tasty variety, then choose the new growth, which this time of year is paler green. Cut off a good finger-length piece and strip the lower leaves off carefully.

Cut the stem just below one of the junctions you just picked leaves off, then plant your cutting in an already-watered mix of half soil, half grit. Tie a plastic bag over each pot to keep in the moisture, sit back and wait. Give it at least four weeks, and you should have tiny plants ready to go. Now, all you need is a lamb barbecue, an Italian roast chicken, or a frying pan of tiny sauté potatoes to use it on.

For others, there may be even higher priorities. What about basil, planted in the outdoors sunshine for full-flavoured, slow-grown leaves? Try it from seed in pots, on upstairs windowsills to keep it away from the demon slugs. Flat-leaf parsley and coriander are also great grown this way, and their flavour will be better the longer they spend in the sun. Make sure to keep them watered to avoid floppy stems.

Then there are the unusual herbs, which even the best supermarket will never have. Here, my pick would be lovage, a gorgeous, meaty-smelling herb with celery-like leaves. Its flavour, fried with some shallots, gives a bacony tang to potato salads, and adds depth to a dish of those posh puy lentils.

But finally, for a touch of French class, I would add tarragon to the list. I know some readers will disagree with me, shouting at the bare minimum "mint!" and "thyme!" , but that's the great thing about herbs, they are a whole world of options waiting to be discovered and argued about. And French tarragon in a creamy sauce with some chopped sun-dried tomatoes, cooked for a few minutes, then mixed into a dish of fried chicken and pasta... it's like summer in a frying pan.

Superb herbs: Four to grow yourself

Basil

Jekka McVicar offers five subtly different flavours to grow from seed (£8.50, www.jekkasherbfarm.com). Then add another six kinds from Seeds of Italy (£1.69 per packet, www.seedsofitaly.com)

Lovage

From the national herb centre near Banbury, Oxfordshire (£2, www.herbcentre.co.uk). Or grow from seed (£1.69 per packet, www.seedsofitaly.com)

Tarragon

A big pot from Jekka costs £5.50. Or try pink packets of seed labelled Estragon (£1.49 a pack, www.seedsofitaly.com)

Rosemary

Can't wait for a cutting? Try a "Miss Jessops Upright" for strong vertical stems, pale blue flowers and a neat shape (£5.99, www.crocus.co.uk)

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