Gardening: Mild winter in flavour for Mediterranean herbs

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The growing season is underway having merged from autumn into spring with not much of a winter.

The mild winter has meant many over-wintering produce such as chard, spinach and rocket have sprung into healthy life. Another class of plants that often suffers from harsh winters, but have thrived this year are Mediterranean herbs.

Mediterranean herbs have played an important part of people’s culture and wellbeing for thousands of year. Records date back to 2800BC when the ancient Egyptians used herbs for dyes, perfumes and food. There is much debate as to the origins of particular herbs however some of the common well known herbs that can be found growing wild all over the Mediterranean today include; 
oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, lavender, hyssop, mint and basil, which all belong to the mint family, Lamiaceae, consisting of over 6,000 different plant species. Shared characteristics include opposite leaves, square stems, small flowers, and oils in their stems and leaves, giving them their fragrance and flavour. Most of the plants in this diverse family are sun loving and drought tolerant, and are extremely important to pollinators such as honey bees.

Another major family of herbs is the Apiaceae family, consisting of over 2,500 different plant species. Some of the most common herbs in this family include; coriander, parsley, fennel, dill and chervil. The plants in this family usually have distinct tiny individual flowers forming an umbel.

Two herbs that have been a major part of my Italian upbringing are parsley and basil. Parsley’s (Petroselinum crispum) name is derived from Greek Petros meaning ‘rock’, referring to the natural habitat parsley is found all over the Mediterranean and Selinon meaning ‘celery’ to which Parsley is related and very similar to. Parsley is an excellent source of Vitamin A, C and K, and is good for bone strengthening. It was brought to the UK with the Roman invasion. Parsley is a biennial plant running to seed in the second year; however, it is often treated as an annual and used primarily for its leaves. The roots can also be eaten and made into a tasty soup. Seeds can be sown under glass in spring and summer, and do well with a few seeds sown in small modular units. Transplant out from mid-April after being hardened off and before becoming too leggy. Parsley prefers partial shade but can also thrive in full sun, providing the soil is relatively rich and is kept moist.

There are two types of parsley; curly parsley and flat leaf parsley. Curly parsley has a sweet and subtle taste, contributing more to texture rather than taste. Flat leaf parsley has a strong green flavour and is considered superior in Italian cuisine.

Basil’s (Ocimum basilicum) name is derived from the Greek, Ozo which means ‘to smell’, in reference to the strong odour of the herb and Basilicum, thought to have derived from Greek basileus meaning ‘King’ in reference to being once considered the king of herbs. There are many varieties of basil, however, there are three Mediterranean types; large green leafed which is sweet; Greek, smaller leaved with a peppery undertone; and purple, with dark leaves and a milder flavour. There are also Asian types of basil which are often stronger and more fragrant.

Basil is sensitive to the cold, therefore should be started off indoors during the spring in succession sowings. Basil does well sown in small modules, and then transplanted outdoors from June in a sheltered spot with full sun and a rich nutritious soil.

To avoid “damping off” disease, which is common, basil should not be overwatered. Ensure the compost is free draining and water in the morning or from below by placing your growing basil on a tray. Yield can be increased by pinching off flowers when they appear throughout the growing season.

Visit us at Harlow Carr in the kitchen garden for friendly advice regarding growing herbs, fruit and veg.

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