wellbeing-brand-logo

Inspired living

5 herbs for true herb lovers


vanilla_wooden_spoon

Most “herb gardens” are a cluster of wilting pots or a patch of weeds somewhere near the back door. Those who love (and use) their herbs will have their thyme spilling over its own big container, their rosemary rambling down a bank or hedged by the front gate and their parsley in a frilly row along the edge of the flower or vegie garden.

Then there are those of us who are fascinated by herbs, those strange scented darlings that will transform our food, our lives and our gardens. We’ll have banks of marjoram and at least three kinds of mint.

If herbs both fascinate and tantalise you, try these.

 

Caper bush

These grow like weeds on sunny Mediterranean outcrops, so they should grow easily in our gardens. Except they don’t. Frost and humidity kill them. Try them in a large pot on a sunny patio or in an extremely large hanging basket. You may need to ask your nursery to order a bush or two for you, or hunt the internet, but they are around. Capers, a sun-loving shrub, have attractive pink or white flowers throughout summer, though the petals drop after a day. The unopened flower buds are pickled but they don’t develop much flavour till they have been processed. Plant the seed in spring or take softwood cuttings in summer and keep moist.

Hops

The hop flowers grow on a hardy deciduous vine. We grow ours over where the backyard dunny used to be. It now tangles through the orchard and up the plum tree. Hops are superb climbers on pergolas in cold areas. They shoot in early spring, shade you in summer, then in autumn wither quickly into such small pieces the leaves blow away, though you will have to cut back the dead vines on a post. If they are grown as a groundcover they’ll turn into soil by spring. Hop flowers are used in beer or for hop sleep pillows. The new shoots are eaten like asparagus. Propagate from root cuttings taken in early summer or late winter. Seeds can be sown in spring but seedlings are delicate and slow growing.

Horseradish

This is a perennial moisture-loving plant. It trails all through the garden but is cut back by heavy frost, though it should shoot again in spring. The roots are usually grated and added to cream or vinegar for horseradish sauce, though the leaves are also edible, if fiery. If you’ve hated bottled horseradish, do try the fresh stuff; just a small grate of root flavours your sushi or even homemade cheese and is gorgeous with sour cream on baked potatoes.

I grow horseradish in full sun, in semi-shade under trees and around our potatoes to help fungal problems. Horseradish helps reduce excessive mucus from colds, hayfever or sinus problems. Plant a bit of root in winter.

Tarragon

Russian tarragon is the most prolific and almost tasteless. “Real” tarragon is French, has an almost aniseed flavour and the seeds are sterile. (If you buy a seedling it will be Russian tarragon. Feed it to the chooks.)

French tarragon must be grown from cuttings or root division. It’s perennial but short-lived. I find it grows best given its own pot so that nothing smothers it when it dies down in winter. It likes moist, but not wet, soil and full sunlight. Tarragon is said to stimulate the appetite. It is one of the most delicious of herbs, delicate yet pervasive, stunning in a herb butter with steamed potatoes or carrots, in a cream sauce or with chicken or fish, or added to a yoghurt sauce to serve with tabouli.

Vanilla

Confession time. I haven’t yet managed to grow this but I’m still dreaming of my own vanilla crop in the sunny corner of my living room. I just need to heat the living room a bit more in our frosty winters.

Vanilla comes from the vanilla orchid and, yes, you can grow your own vanilla orchids, though for hundreds of years vanilla was grown only in Mexico. Wild vanilla is pollinated by a complex association of bees, ants, humming birds and butterflies only found in Mexico. But once growers discovered hand-pollination, vanilla could be grown all over the world.

Well, the warm parts of the world, anyway, or if you have a greenhouse or nice warm windowsill. Vanilla tends to die fairly quickly if the temperature goes below 16°C. It prefers to be between 26°C and 30°C and demands high humidity, too.

First of all, you have to find your vanilla orchid. Specialist herb nurseries are the best place to look, or ask your local nursery nicely if they can order one in for you.

Now find a place for it to grow. Vanilla orchids are climbers, so you’ll either need a trellis in semi shade — under trees is great — or let your vanilla orchid clamber up a tree. Vanilla has a fairly thick stem and long aerial roots that cling to trees or posts so the vanilla can clamber up it.

If you’re in an area that gets colder than 16°C in winter, grow your vanilla in a large pot filled with rich compost, with a two-metre stake for it to clamber up. Vanilla will grow to about 10 metres or even more — but not in a pot! Keep the pot outdoors in semi-dappled shade in summer, and take indoors to a heated room by a not-too-sunny window when it’s cold.

Keep your vanilla orchid moist, mulch well and wait three years. In the third autumn, prune the tip of the vine to encourage flowering, then watch carefully in spring, as each vanilla flower will only last a day, and you have to be quick to pollinate them.

Each flower has two little lips inside, covering the pollen and the female part of the flower, the stigma. Use a toothpick or a kid’s tiny paintbrush to move the sticky pollen to the sticky stigma. I know this sounds extremely rude but I promise the plant won’t mind! And it really isn’t as difficult as it sounds. Once you peer into the flower it’s easy to work out which bit is which. One vine should give you well over 100 pods — and probably a lot more!

The vanilla pods take about 10 months to ripen. Once the pods change from green to yellow to brown they are ripe. Usually, they smell delicious by now, but don’t panic if they have no scent at all; they just need to be dried. Most commercial beans are picked when they are still green, and mechanically dried and sweated till they are fragrant. Bundle the pods together so they stay moist and sweaty and keep in a hot place for about two weeks, then separate them and dry them in a hot place out of direct sunlight. However, if you find your vanilla already smells stunning, don’t bother with the drying stage — the pods will have dried sufficiently on the tree.

Store your beans in sugar to flavour it or add the chopped bean to vodka for homemade vanilla essence. I love to add the lovely sticky pulp from inside the vanilla bean to homemade icecream or choc-chip biscuits or custards. The flavour is incredible and the tiny black flecks just add to the charm. But beware — you’ll find homegrown vanilla is so much stronger than commercial vanilla, or even old vanilla beans, that you will only need to use a very small amount for a stunning fragrance. This is a good thing; even passionate herb growers will find it hard to grow a lot of vanilla, especially in your living room, unless you decide to devote it entirely to your herbs.

 

Herb butter

This is glorious with tarragon, also good with thyme, oregano and savoury.

1 part herb leaves, stripped from the stalk and finely chopped, or a combination of herbs
3 parts butter

Mash the two together, place in small pots and cover with plastic wrap. These will keep for a month in the fridge. A little lemon juice is sometimes added, or a touch of parsley or garlic as well as the main herbal ingredients.

 



 

Jackie French

Jackie French is a gardener, ecologist, honorary wombat, 2014-2015 Australian Children's laureate, 2015 Senior Australian of the year and passionate believer in the need for all humans to feel part of the earth around them, by understanding the plants that sustain us.