Herb your enthusiasm
If the production of homemade fertiliser is the hard smack of gardening, then herb cultivation is its gateway drug. My neighbour and the street’s greenest thumb, Iris, knows this and that is why she, an inveterate pusher, has prepared little pots of kitchen herb seedlings for her two daughters-in-law these past three Christmases. “They’d probably prefer a fancy soap,” she told me. “But what’s the point of smelling nice if you have to pay $3 every time you need a sprig of rosemary for the lamb?”
As I respect Iris, whose advice flowers daily in my garden, I didn’t point out the false character of this dichotomy. I believe it is possible to be both personally fragrant and cultivate fragrant herbs. Although we should mention that rosemary, a real Mediterranean diva, is the Maria Callas of edible plants. I have managed only to raise this difficult star from seed to a height of one centimetre before she died La traviata-style. Strike rosemary or buy a seedling as you would do with the perennial thyme. And when they have finally become established, treat both these decorative herbs such as Aristotle Onassis treated Maria. Mean.
Other perennials, such as bay trees and Kaffir limes, become good leaf providers grown in half-barrels or in the ground. Sage, which you can cut back hard in winter, will keep on giving, and mint, along with the stupidly named non-mint Vietnamese mint, are impossible to destroy and a snip to propagate. Also perennial are many of the herbs that may serve as an amuse-bouche to your cat. But be cautious and buy the cat thyme, cat grass or catnip that are clearly marked as feline friendly. Of course, they may choose to ignore your offerings but I have found Evil George, the neighbour’s tom, screwing his heft into a patch of Nepeta x faassenii, or catmint, twice this week.
Perhaps the thought of a permanent fixture such as rosemary or bay is too much for you to bear right now. Let’s just keep it casual and temporary and summery, as most herbs and bad habits are. Just try a little flat-leaf parsley. Come on. This dill won’t hurt you.
Dill, in fact, is a marvellous starter herb. A fine companion to fish, an obligatory partner to lox and a great corsage for your salad or herb bread, it grows as fast as romance. I have noticed that it is rarely available in seedling form and I imagine this may be due to its tendency to reach great heights inconvenient to retail in no time at all. Not to worry; it doesn’t transplant well, anyhow. Just buy some seeds by online mail order, sow them directly at a depth of three times the seed in a pot or a bed that gets a good deal of sun and by Christmas you’ll have a water-wise plant just like Iris’s in-laws.
If you have sufficient bed space to allow it, select the two healthiest plants from your seedlings and pick one often to encourage leaf growth while you let the other produce its bright yellow umbels. These flowers will attract pollinators and a range of aphid predators that are just as important to balcony gardeners as they are to the quarter-acre homesteader. Follow these instructions for the white blooms of coriander, although do remember this madam might enjoy a little more water than dill and may require a little more patience in temperate zones. Eventually you’ll be able to collect the seeds for future sowing when they are brown and hard.
Parsley is a similar beast, although it is an alleged biennial that won’t bring forth its rather dull flowers for 24 months. And frankly, by that time, it tastes like something that has been dying down the bottom of the vegetable crisper in a reservoir of cooking oil long since passed its best-before date. So just buy seeds or a seedling every year and, for heaven’s sake, try not to scream “Why? ” into the face of Gaia when your annual plants do not, by some miracle, last longer than a season. After all, you paid just $2.50 for the flourishing equivalent of a hundred sad supermarket scraps.
A striking craft project for the urban aesthete is the green wall style of planting. One can use vertical gardens to grow herbs, such as tarragon or oregano, with modest moisture requirements. I have seen some adept gardeners place high-quality potting mix in hessian bags artfully stitched into individual squares with small apertures at their centre into which they place the seed or seedling. I have also seen people drop three figures on “architectural” purpose-made vertical beds. Heck, whatever it takes to drive you headlong into gardening mania.
Despite my habit of adding a no-dig garden bed and filling it with disaster every other week, I do grow culinary herbs in horrid pots outside my kitchen door. This is for convenience but also for reasons of fascist control. Frankly, I do not want the person with whom I cohabit nosing around my vegetable garden looking for sage, lest they take executive decisions about the emerging okra.
On a recent drive to the conspicuously organic Victorian town of Daylesford, I asked local horticulturist John Beetham, supervisor of the kitchen garden for the two-hatted Lake House restaurant of famously finicky super-chef Alla Wolf-Tasker, about responsible container use. Beetham recommends pots with holes right around the circumference of the base and counsels against the old gardener’s trick of using rocks or terracotta chips in the bottom of the pot to increase drainage. “I’ve watched horticultural experiments on water osmosis and these indicate that the water just stays in the pot,” Beetham says before restating the advice that any expert talking to the container gardener gives: “If there’s something going wrong, you’re probably overwatering.”
Overcrowding is another problem for plants. If your basil, which you should be planting now, is suffering, give it room to drain and breathe. In humid places such as Sydney, basil leaves may turn brown because of downy mildew. A common mistake is to believe your plant is parched and water it, thereby compounding the problem. If things do get mouldy, spray your homemade fungicide – a few drops each of olive oil and liquid soap with three teaspoons of baking soda dissolved in four litres of water – and “mulch, please, mulch!”, as Beetham urges, letting the basil plant abide for several days between waterings.
Personally, I’m a fool for the flavour of Genovese basil, a cultivar of Ocimum basilicum, often labelled as “pesto basil” in nurseries. I grow its sweet, stout leaves all about the place and have tried the alleged companion-planting must with tomatoes. It is said to deter pests but I have never found this to be the case. Basil is a pest-deterrent pussy when compared with marigolds or calendulas and the claim that its proximity to tomato plants creates some sort of magical flavour enhancement exchange cannot be verified by any reliable horticultural text. These two plants work well together on bruschetta but I have seen no proof that this is the case in the garden.
Remember, as Beetham advises, to extend the culinary life of your herbs by pinching off all blooms with your thumb and forefinger as soon as they are evident. And when courting leaf growth, a nitrogen-rich fertiliser is key. Now, if you’re in a small space, you really might want to consider the pong. As my partner is quite used to me and my garden reeking of weed tea, chook shit and fish emulsion, I am not bound by olfactory restraint. But if you’re in a little flat filled with the spare beauty of Denmark, you probably don’t want the nitrogen stink wafting in because it says “mid-century modern” less than it does “bubonic plague”. As one of Beetham’s kitchen gardens is set around a cafe courtyard, he uses Perma-Fert, a non-stinky worm-casting product from Ballarat, to condition his soil. You, too, have my begrudging permission to buy a no-smell, water-soluble commercial fertiliser, because I can actually remember what it is like living in a small Sydney apartment in summer.
But, you do not have permission to use any old dirt. Please don’t just use garden soil in your containers or garden beds. Without heavy conditioning, it’s not going to work, especially for more ambitious plantings such as lemongrass, which I have successfully turned to a tower of rot for three straight years. Nourish your soil or buy some prenourished, and if you’re feeling a little lab coat, buy a pH tester for about 10 bucks. Generally, says Beetham, you will find that your soil is acidic and raising it to neutral is a matter for a testing stick and a bag of garden lime.
Good soil is the basis of a healthy herb. It is second only in importance to the obsessive hovering I dare you not to develop as your culinary garden rewards you with flavour and the thrills of addiction.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 25, 2014 as "Herb your enthusiasm". Subscribe here.