One of the things that started me on my journey to becoming a gardener was a fascination for herbs. Herbs have been used for thousands of years as medicine. For a while there, I got really fascinated with that.
I sourced some pretty big books about herbs – how to grow them, use them, and store them. I learned that herbs themselves are powerful. They can improve your health, improve the diversity of your garden, and add richness to your cooking. Herbs form an important part of my garden, and play an important role in my kitchen too.
I’m not really a lover of herbal teas, but when I cook, I use herbs by the handful. Things like a stew, spaghetti bolognaise – even burger patties – are at least 5% herbs by volume. When a recipe says to use a sprig, I use three. When it says a tablespoon, I use a handful. The photo at the top of this page? That’s what I put in my pasta last night.
I only tend to grow triple-curl parsley. I don’t know why, but since I’ve learned the trick to growing it, I never lack it. So I don’t really see the point in growing flat-leaf as well, I guess.
I’ve found parsley does best when it’s planted directly in the ground. It can grow in some really marginal places, as long as the tap-root can keep going down. Parsley can grow in pots, sure. But it really thrives when that tap-root can just do what it wants. If you’re like me and want never-ending parsley, that’s the trick.
I let my parsley go to seed each year. Last years plants have recently begun bolting. The flowers are good for attracting beneficial insects into the garden, and when the seeds are ready, I collect them for next year (there’s also some available in my store). I scatter a few plants in corners of the garden each year. In Northland, it behaves as a biennial (grows one year, flowers the next, then dies), so planting every year means I constantly have plants in various stages of development – and I never run out of fresh parsley.
When I cook, I tend to be very generous with parsley. Partially because I have so much of it, but also because it’s good for calming bad breath. I kind of use it to counteract all the garlic I grow and cook with too.
I grow just one variety of oregano as well – the plain, common one. I’m aiming to cover an entire section of my herb garden with it. It’s a perennial, so once this section is covered, we should be set.
For the last few months, my oregano is creeping along and covering the ground. But recently, it’s begun popping up long stems. I’ll have oodles of the stuff soon.
Over spring and summer I use it fresh, but because it dies back a lot in winter, it’s good to dry some as well. When the stems get long enough, and just before they go to flower, I cut them back, and hang them in bunches. I leave them in a dry, cool, dark spot for a couple of weeks.
Once dry, I remove the leaves from the stems, and store the leaves whole in a glass jar. When I’m cooking, I crush them by rolling between my palms. The flavour is way better than dried herbs purchased in stores. A little sprinkle can really liven up a frozen pizza.
Oregano also forms the basis of a herb combination I use a lot: equal amounts of oregano, rosemary, and basil. It’s amazing on garlic bread or pasta.
A classic. I’ve been trying to grow a good rosemary for a long, long time. I’ve lost a few over the years for a range of reasons, but I’m finally at the point with our bush that it’s at least there for harvest year-round, if not big enough to harvest for drying just yet.
If you don’t already have a good rosemary, it’s worth paying for the biggest one you can find. It can be a slow grower, and if you’re like me and like to use it as well, you’ll go through a lot of small ones before anything really establishes.
I’m pretty sure I have the variety ‘chef’s choice’ which is described as a ground cover, but it’s kind of unusual in that it grows both up, and down. Usually, rosemary comes in two main varieties: upright, and creeping. Chef’s choice seems to be some kind of hybrid of both.
Over time, I think I’ll include a lot more rosemary around the property. It’s very hardy, and can cope with the harsh sunlight, and drought we get here. It also smells delightful and is great food for the bees. I’ll likely go for a range of varieties, so if you’re ever looking to buy me a gift – a rosemary could be a nice one!
Eventually, when I have enough that it needs pruning, I’ll be drying the leaves by hanging bunches and preparing in much the same way as oregano. I like having it on hand.
At the moment, I also only grow one basil too – a giant leaf genovese. I started growing it a few years ago and it did so well – I let it go to flower, saved the seed, and I’ve been growing it ever since.
Growing and saving your own seed is an easy way to ensure lots of cheap basil every year. I tend to keep a few plants pruned of flowers to ensure a longer harvest, but I let the rest go to seed when they want. I’ve only ever paid for the seeds once (and it’s another one available in my store).
Basil doesn’t dry very well at home, but you can freeze it. Last year I turned a heap of it into pesto (but without the parmesan) and froze it in ice-cube trays. Once frozen, I took them out of the trays and stored them in a ziploc bag. I had basil available for a lot of winter. You can also just freeze the leaves in a container too. They’ll go black, but retain their flavour.
This year’s basil plants are just little at the moment, but I’ve been using the excess seedlings like micro-herbs to include in my cooking. I’m looking forward to planting them out in the garden and having way more available though! Lots will be planted near my tomatoes as a companion plant, but it’ll also be a gap-filler.
We are blessed with some beautiful kawakawa in our bush block. I’ve learned exactly where it is because I like to both cook with it as a herb, and I use it in skin balms I make for friends and family.
It likes to grow in the shade. It’s a great under-growth plant, with beautiful heart-shaped leaves. They say the leaves with the holes in them are the most potent.
In cooking, kawakawa is like a peppery basil. You can use it in place of basil in a lot of cooking, but my favourite discovery is as a stuffing/marinade for lamb. Chop 6-8 leaves finely, mix with lime zest and juice and fresh red chilli, then roll into a seasoned leg of lamb. Let it rest a few hours before roasting (preferably on a BBQ). It’s utterly delicious.
Medicinally, it’s possible to write chapters on what it can do. It’s a super-food if ever there was a super-food. It’s anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, great for skin and hair. It can be used externally and internally.
There is tikanga around the use of this rongoā, and it pays to do your research on that. I attended a rongoā workshop a few years back, and I do maintain tikanga practices when harvesting this one. If you can find a rongoā class, I highly recommend learning from people with the whakapapa and knowledge to guide you in being respectful with your use of this taonga.
I’ve only discovered lovage this year. I found a packet of seeds amongst some seeds I’d inherited. I did some research and the things I read about it fascinated me. I learned it had a rich umami-flavour. I had to try it.
Months and months later, despite numerous sowings, I’m yet to get any of those seeds to pop. But it’s OK ‘cos I just picked one up at a garden center, and apparently one is all I’m going to need.
They grow up to 2m tall when in flower, and disappear each winter. My biggest (and most difficult) decision is where to put it!
However, my little plant has been big enough to cook with, and it is indeed savoury umami goodness, and delicious. As soon as I find a permanent place big enough for it, it’s going in.
How to pick your herbs
For a lot of herbs – including oregano, rosemary, mints, basil, and thyme – there’s a trick to picking them that will help them thrive.
Look for long stems, and find a spot with two leaflets above a leaf. Cut just above those leaflets.
Each leaflet will begin to grow into a stem – meaning you take one stem, and get two back! It’s a trick I use with my catnip. This weekend I harvested 14 bunches so Kat’s Nip can be back in stock in time for Christmas. But as I picked, I was really looking to double my main harvest which usually happens in mid January.
I also pick selectively when just gathering herbs for dinner. By doing this, you can give your plants a boost to become even bigger and better.
There’s always more herbs
I have dozens of books dedicated to herbs in my bookshelf. And I’m still learning more each year. Working part-time in a garden center has also helped – I have to get to know new herbs as part of my product knowledge. But I haven’t even covered all of my favourite herbs here.
I have a deep love of catnip, and I’m always attempting to improve my coriander growing. I’m a member of the Herb Federation of New Zealand for good measure, and try to donate to their seed bank annually. They’re the foundation on which all my cooking rests, and they’re good for me to boot.