The arrival of spring is always cause for celebration. Soon it will be goodbye to nippy mornings and hullo warm, sunny days, when salads and light meals are on the menu. Adding your own homegrown herbs will bring something special to every dish.
There is a surprisingly large selection of herb leaves that can be used in salads and dressings. Don’t forget the health aspect either as most herbs have healing properties that aid digestion, ease anxiety or act as a source of vitamin C, such as parsley and chervil. Because they are used fresh, none of their goodness is lost through cooking.
- Where the soil is still too cool to sow directly, start by sowing in seed trays or small pots, kept in a warm, sheltered or sunny space to germinate.
- Once the herbs germinate, feed with a liquid fertiliser like Margaret Roberts Organic Supercharger at half strength every two weeks. Keep the soil moist but don’t over water.
- Once the herbs have two proper leaves, harden them off before planting out into the garden. Put the seedling trays in the sun during the day and back into shelter at night until after the last frost (mid-September) when they can be planted out.
- Prepare the beds by digging in well-rotted manure or compost and a dressing of lime that increases soil fertility.
Five summer herbs you shouldn’t be without.
Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is indisputably the most popular summer annual, loved for its spicy sweet fragrance and subtle anise flavour. For more variety, RAW seeds offers a Basil ‘Culinary Blend’ and ‘Lime’ Basil.
The ‘Culinary Blend’ consists of Genovese (the original pesto basil), Corsican, Lemon and Cinnamon basil. The strong fragrance of Lime basil is matched with a mild citrus flavour.
Basil should receive at least six hours of sun a day. Space basil plants 30 cm apart but if sown thickly the thinned plants can be used as baby salad greens, letting fewer plants mature Remove flowers to prevent the plant going to seed and to keep the bush compact.
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) also called cilantro, has distinctly flavoured leaves, that adds zest to just about everything, especially when used fresh as a garnish. Kirchhoffs annual coriander looks and grows like Italian parsley with a height of 50cm and spread of 30cm. Pick just before using because the soft leaves wilt quickly. Coriander takes 10 to 14 days to germinate and can be harvested from 60 days from sowing.
Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) grows about 30cm high and 30cm wide and is also known as French parsley. It can grow in full sun or semi-shade in light, well-drained soil. It is a good subject for pots and window boxes. The leaves have a delicate taste that can be used in light dishes – sauces, soups, eggs, fish, chicken and added to salads. Excellent for herbal butter and herb vinegar.
Chives and garlic chives
Chives and garlic chives (Allium schoenoprasum ) can be snipped over salads and cooked dishes, adding a milder, but no less tasty, flavour of onion or garlic. The flowers are also edible. Feed with liquid fertiliser at half strength once a month and they last well for two to three years. Chives may take up to three weeks to germinate, so be patient.
Rocket (Eruca sativa) is a quick growing annual with peppery, nutty tasting lobed, green leaves. Pick the leaves frequently to prevent it from getting straggly and don’t let it flower. It tends to bolt in heat so is a good spring and autumn salad leaf. Grow in moist, well composted soil.
Tips for using herbs:
- Preparation: Always wash your herbs before using them, even if they are grown organically. Just pick what you need for the salad because stored herbs quickly lose their goodness and freshness. Many soft leaf herbs bruise easily so wash and dry them carefully.
- Tear or chop? Herbs like chives, mint, parsley, and lemon balm, can be cut or chopped. The leaves of rocket, sweet basil, and nasturtium should be used whole or torn rather than chopped because they bruise.
- Garnish: Keep aside some of the fresh leaves to sprinkle over the top of the finished salad as a garnish.
Kirchhoff’s and RAW herb seed packets are available from garden centres or you can contact the BallStraathof customer care line: 0861-blossom (or 0861-256776) or email [email protected]
TEXT: Alice Coetzee.