I’ve long been fascinated by herbs. From the lemon balm that my stepmum used to make squash, to the sorrel that was my first foraged joy, there’s always been something magical to me about these flavour-intense delights of the plant kingdom.
Cooking on a budget becomes so much more decadent with a flourishing herb garden. Ice cubes with fresh mint or borage make tap water seem glamorous, while mint is also great in feta, lamb, chocolate and berry dishes (and can work cooling wonders in spicy noodle soups too).
Thyme and rosemary add depth to almost all stews, particularly bean or chickpea-based ones; and they lift a potato rosti to a whole new level. Both are great for roasts too, whether pushed inside the meat or turned into herb butters and used for basting or finishing.
Basil (and time – and thyme if you want) turns a tin of tomatoes into a fresh, simple pasta sauce, or makes a delicious fresh pesto, if pounded with pine nuts, parmesan (cheddar if you’re skint), garlic and oil. Add tomatoes and mozarella, or red onion, for a simple but delicious starter or lunch.
A scattering of chives (and finely chopped rosemary) is also a great way to lift tomatoes, and turns cheese on toast into something special. If you add a pack of budget smoked salmon scraps to your shopping list, along witb a sprinkling of herbs, you can turn scrambled eggs into a brunch delight for under £2. A selection of herbs, finely chopped, will even make an omelette feel like a treat.
Herbs are also great in cocktails, from the obvious mint-based mojito to borage flowers in G&T or a sprig of rosemary as a Bloody Mary stirrer. Herb sugars and salts can be used to rim cocktail glasses too. You can even grow a whole cocktail garden, if you really like your cocktails fresh.
Herbs can be used in toiletries as well as food and drink: see this cheating guide to toiletry making, if you’re stuck at home and have herbs to hand. Most of the ingredients should be in your storecupboard, if you have one. If not, they’re stocked in most corner shops.
Many herbs are associated with healing too.
Mint has long been used as a digestion aid, to ease nausea and settle the stomach (and freshen the breath, of course).
Mint contains rosmarinic acid, which is being studied as a possible seasonal allergy treatment. Mint water has also been recommended as a nipple-healer for breastfeeding women. If it’s gargled, mint is thought to help ease sore throats. As if that wasn’t enough, mint is also thought to be a friend of the flatulent.
Mint grows easily and spreads fast, making it a great gift (take cuttings by breaking off a stem and stripping the bottom 1/3 leaves off then putting directly in water or soil. I have many mint plant babies from using this technique.) Fresh mint tea can have many benefits – not least of which is that it tastes lovely – and a mint plant should generally be a welcome gift.
Rosemary has been lauded for its healing properties since Roman times. Among other things, it is thought to ease muscle pain, improve memory, promote hair growth and enhance circulation.
It is also the herb to choose to increase focus (with folklore backed by research in the journal, Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology.) This makes it a great herb to have in the office – particularly as it smells lovely.
Thyme is another healing herb. Sprigs of thyme were used to ward off depression in the middle ages; Hippocrates said it could aid respiratory healing; and it was also used to dress wounds years before it’s antiviral properties were discovered.
Research has found that thyme tinctures are more effective than benzoyl peroxide at treating acne; and it lowers blood pressure in rats (should you have a stressed rat to deal with). Thyme has also proved effective at treating thrush.
Whether you’re looking for healing or a tasty snack or drink, growing your own herbs makes life easier (and prettier, as many herbs have lovely flowers). Woody herbs are great for new gardeners as they tend to be forgiving.
Whether it’s a windowbox in your kitchen, a planter of fresh herbs and lavender in the bathroom or a full-blown herb garden, there’s always somewhere you can grow herbs. All you need to do is pick your favourites to plant.