Now is a great time to plant herbs, Botanic Gardens, Melbourne

It’s starting to feel like spring at last and this is a time when most plants start moving and growing again and it is an especially good time for herbs. Herbs grow prolifically through spring, so plant them now and reap a bountiful harvest of fragrant leaves and flowers in a very short time. Many of you will already have common herbs like parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, growing in your gardens, but what about others like tarragon, or hyssop or five-seasons herb. Let me introduce you to some less common culinary herbs that are easy to grow, look fantastic in the garden and are really useful in the kitchen.

Blue hyssop flowers attract butterflies and bees

Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) is shrubby herb that reaches about 50 cm in height and width forming a compact bush, thus making it a useful low hedge or border plant. It also grows well in the pot. Hyssop has woody branches with small, dark green, narrow leaves with a lovely slightly bitter mint scent and flavour.  The flowers grow in one-sided whorls at the ends of the branch and are usually a dark vibrant purple-blue and very attractive to butterflies and bees. There are now forms with pink or white flowers. Although hyssop is not deciduous, older plants will sometimes die back in winter and should be pruned after flowering, generally in late autumn. New plants can be grown from seed sown, or tip cuttings taken, in spring, or root division in autumn. Hyssop likes a sunny, well drained position with some added compost or manure in late spring, but not too much as it will make the branches sappy and weak and lessen the flavour. The tiny flower buds add piquancy when sprinkled over a mixture of salad leaves and hard boiled eggs, while fresh finely chopped leaves (which are much more strongly flavoured) can be added sparingly to any salad, cooked vegetables (especially carrots), soft cheeses, sauces and dips.  They also combine well with most pasta dishes.

 

French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) has smooth narrow dark green leaves on stalks that grow from a spreading rootstock. It grows to about 40 cm, rarely flowers, and almost never sets seed. Of all the herbs discussed here, French tarragon would be the most difficult to grow, but once the right position is found, it will thrive. Its other drawback is that it dies back completely in autumn and does not reappear until mid-spring. So it is often dug up or replaced in the belief that it is dead, or it just get forgotten. I lost my last plant when my husband decided a path had to be widened and couldn’t see any plants growing. Propagate French tarragon by root division in mid-spring. Its main requirements are good drainage, compost-rich soil and sunshine for about half the day. In very cold regions the roots may need to be protected from heavy frosts with a layer of straw. Every two or three years, dig up the whole plant, break it into several clumps and replant or the plant will lose its vigour and die out. Russian tarragon is often sold as a substitute for French tarragon, and it is similar to look at, but much more vigorous; it both flowers and sets seed. It you are offered tarragon seed it will always be Russian tarragon. Even though it is much easier to grow, the flavour of Russian tarragon is no substitute for French tarragon and I don’t bother growing it. Try chewing a leaf and if the tip of your tongue goes numb then you can be sure that you have French tarragon.

French tarragon is a classic culinary herb

This is a classic culinary herb with a beautiful warm, aniseed flavour and no good cook should be without it in the garden. It doesn’t maintain its flavour well when dried so use it fresh. It combines beautifully with salads (in small amounts), sprinkle finely chopped leaves over a simple French omelette, or roasted mushrooms or stir into soft cheese. Add to any chicken dish (try roasting a chicken with half a lemon and sprig of tarragon instead of stuffing). The flavour can be preserved for winter use by adding to vinegar or by chopping finely, mashing into butter and freezing the butter. French tarragon is an essential ingredient of fines herbes, a traditional French blend of four subtle herbs, the others being parsley, chervil and chives. Fines herbes can be used in most of the same ways as tarragon on its own.

Grow winter tarragon in warmer regions where French tarragon won't grow

If your climate is fairly tropical and you have trouble growing  French tarragon then try winter tarragon (Tagetes lucida). This herb is also known as Mexican tarragon and sweet mace and is an easy-to-grow perennial reaching about 60 cm in height with erect stems and linear leaves. The golden-yellow two to three petalled flowers occur in clusters at the top of the plant in summer creating a vibrant and colourful display. Plants will thrive in any average soil in full sun with regular water. This plant is frost tender so does best in warmer, frost-free regions, but can be grown as an annual in frosty areas. The leaves of winter tarragon dry well and maintain their flavour. In warmer climates, cut the whole plant back to ground level after flowering has finished, it will re-shoot soon after, and every three or four years, dig and divide clumps in early spring. You can also grow new plants of winter tarragon from seed sown in spring or tip cuttings in late spring. The leaves have a distinct anise scent and flavour which is similar to French tarragon but stronger and more spicy. In Mexico this plant is prized for its affinity with corn, choko, squash and all poultry. It is also crushed with pecan nuts to make a pesto sauce. The leaves can be used in the same way as French tarragon but should initially be used more sparingly until you are used to the slightly different flavour.

Five-seasons herb (Plectranthus amboinicus) is also known as Cuban oregano, five-in-one herb, country borage, Indian borage, Spanish thyme and Mexican mint. The whole plant is succulent and softly hairy with sprawling pale green stems growing from a central root to a height of 70 cm. The thick, scalloped, opposite leaves are pale green, sometimes with reddish markings. There is a variegated form where the leaves have pale yellow margins. The flowers are pale pink and grow in short terminal spikes. The whole plant has a strong scent similar to oregano, but with an extra spiciness. Five-seasons herb is a perennial tropical plant that will not survive cold, damp weather. Grow new plants from seed or cuttings taken in spring. It grows well in a pot and makes an interesting candidate for a hanging basket. In cooler regions, try moving it inside to a sunny windowsill in winter, don’t over water, and it should stay alive through winter. Grow five-seasons herb in a sunny position in well-drained soil — don’t ever let it get too wet. From time to time, nip back new growth to encourage a bushier habit. Sprinkle finely chopped leaves sparingly into soups, stews, and egg and tomato dishes. Trying using it instead of oregano in tomato based meals like pizza and pasta sauces. In Malaysia and Indonesia, leaves are added to strongly flavoured fish, and meat dishes like goat and mutton. The flavour of the leaves combines particularly well with beans, so try stirring a finely chopped leaf into bean salad or soup. In India, leaves are dipped in batter and fried while the Vietnamese add them to sweet and sour soup.

Five-seasons herb is also known as Cuban oregano

The succulent leaves have a spicey oregano flavour