It’s that Thyme of the year.

I am a real sucker when it comes to thyme plants.  I can be found at plant fairs hunting them out, as others hunt truffles.  They come in all shapes and sizes.  They can vary in scent from wonderful spicy orange and a herby lemon to a pungent pine.  The leaves can vary from large and round to long and thin, or even woolly.  I defy any one not to want them in the garden especially when they are in flower.  Historically they have been used medicinally since Assyrian times, which was at the end of the second millennium BC.  Current research has shown Thymus vulgaris arrest the ageing process and is very beneficial in the treatment of stomach ulcers.

My collection has expanded over the past two decades to over  50 different thyme varieties and it is at this time of year they look so beautiful.

The best culinary thymes  in my opinion are, Orange scented, Thymus ‘Fragrantissimus’, Broad leaf thyme, Thymus pulegioides, Golden lemon thyme, Thymus ‘Golden Lemon’, Lemon thyme, Thymus ‘Culinary Lemon’ and French thyme, Thymus vulgaris ‘French’

If I had to just choose one it would be the broad leaved thyme as this is so useful with its large leaves that can be used whole or chopped, roasted with vegetables,

Thymus pulegioides

used in marinades, or infused in water then added to the bath to ease my aching muscles.

The  creeping varieties  are wonderful for bees and butterflies and spread delightfully over gravel and rocks. Here are just four to inspire you.

My top tip for growing thymes is to cut them back after flowering, this encourages the plant to put on new growth which helps to protect them from the vagaries of the winter.

We will be taking a lovely selection of Thymes to  this  years RHS Hampton Court , 2nd-8th July, where I am going to create a small herb garden that you will be able to walk through.  This will be situated down by the Rose Marquee site number TH/5   and near the Thames entrance.  Look forward to seeing you there.

The sage words of Mary Berry

Watching BBC2 the Great British Food Revival the other evening, I was transported back to last August, when Mary Berry

Picture from the Great British Food Revival

visited Jekka’s Herb Farm. We have known each other for over 20 years but to date she had not visited the herb  farm  so it gave me huge pleasure to show her around and to be able to share together our enthusiasm not only for the flavour and texture  that  herbs can bring to food but also their social history.

During the transmission Mary said   ‘try something new’.   I know like myself she is concerned that the knowledge of how to use herbs in cooking is disappearing. We were both lucky that our mothers and grandmothers both cooked and handed down their knowledge. Sadly today,  as the availability of  many herbs becomes more difficult, we are all becoming more cautious about what we can and cannot eat.  So not only try something new in 2012, try something that our grandmothers used  in their kitchens .

Three of the herbs we chatted about in the programme were

Marshmallow, Althea officinalis

This native herb of the UK can be found growing wild mainly in the south and west of the country.  The Romans considered it a delicious vegetable, they used the young leaves and  roots  in barley soup and  in a stuffing for suckling pigs . I remember the soft , sweet marshmallows which were originally flavoured with the root of this herb.  It also has many beneficial medicinal properties.

Broad leaf sorrel, Rumex acetosa

Photograph by Torie Chugg

As a child, I remember going on many walks with my father all of which were adventures. He taught me to pick and eat Rumex acetosella, Sheep’s sorrel, that grows wild throughout the UK, and to chew on if  I was thirsty, just as the Roman Soldiers did. My mother on the other hand always had a large patch of broad leaf sorrel that she used with gusto in the kitchen. One of her recipes I use to-day is Sorrel and Lettuce soup, which can be found in Jekka’s Complete Herb Book, it is delicious on a hot summers day.

Lemon Balm, Melissa officinalis

Melissa originates from the Greek word for Bee.

Lemon Balm is a native of the Mediterranean but unlike many of its cousins, for example Thyme and Sage,  it has adapted happily to our climate so much so that I know it can be invasive in the garden. But despite that fact it is certainly worth growing, for not only is it beneficial for bees, they love the high nectar flowers, it is also incredibly useful  in the kitchen.  It is great with stewed fruit as it takes away the tartness.  You can make Mary’s wonderful Lemon Balm ice cream   and  you can also make a tea from the leaves, which is said to relieve headaches, tension and to restore the memory.  What more could you ask from a cuppa.

So I do hope that in 2012 you do try something that our ancestors used with relish.

© Jekka McVicar , Jekka’s Herb Farm,  November 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jekka McVicar and Jekka’s Herb Farm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Autumn herb tips – treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em green

In life sometimes, you have to be cruel to be kind. And this goes for herb plants too.

Can you imagine standing all night long  in winter, with your bare feet buried in cold, wet, compacted soil? “But I’m a person, not a plant!” you’ll retort. True. Just trying to give you a bit of empathy with your herb plants – many of which originate from sunny mediterranean hillsides, and won’t thrive in chillier climes if you water them late in the day, especially when autumn night temperatures begin to drop. Even if it’s one of those hot old Indian summers, and your basil looks like he’s gasping for a drink at 5 in the afternoon – don’t do it – it’s too late. You might feel cruel, but he’ll thank you in the morning. The same goes for all the other mediterranean herb species, such as thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano etc. Water well when it’s hot, but water early.

Basil, is of course, an annual, so he’s not going to make old stems anyway. You can keep him going for as long as possible, by pinching out and picking regularly to prevent flowering, by watering before midday, by not transplanting (which can cause the plant to bolt), and by giving protection from the midday sun (ditto).

Sweet, fussy basil - but he's worth it. Use a glut of tatty old leaves in home-made pesto

It’s true – basil is a bit of a fusspot. But the reward is clear, when you’re chomping down on ciabatta topped with tomato, mozarella and freshly torn basil – because he’s worth it. Use up a glut of tatty old basil leaves by whizzing them up with garlic, parmesan, pine nuts and olive oil for home-made pesto sauce. Or make some basil oil. See Jekka’s Herb Cookbook for some gastric-juice-inducing basil recipes.  Hurry now though – as soon as the firsts frosts come, he’ll be gone. If your basil has gone to flower, harvest the seeds for future sowings. If basil’s in a pot, bring him inside and pop him on the kitchen windowsill to prolong his life.

Many thyme, rosemary, sage, and oregano varieties are fully hardy perennials (thyme and rosemary are also evergreens, so you can harvest them all year round).

Harvest Thyme - all year round

So, in theory, they should survive winter temperatures down to about -15 degrees C. But if it’s an excessively wet, dark winter, they’ll suffer (like us all) if their roots get too cold and wet.

We grow them from seeds and cuttings on the farm in South Glos,  so they’re not raised to be fair weather plants, but instead to endure wind, rain, snow..and the odd (very odd, this year) spot of sunshine. But it’s worth remembering that these herbs are native to hot, dry, sunny climes and rough, sandy soil. You’ll find clumps of thyme growing wild and picturesquely on the mountains of Greece, and big, beautiful, rosemary bushes thriving on the plains of Spain.

So, don’t plant mediterranean herbs in clay soil. It has tiny particles which stick like glue when wet, which makes the soil heavy and difficult for roots to penetrate. Clay soil is also very moisture retentative, which doesn’t make for good drainage. One benefit of clay soil is that because it’s so sticky, it is more likely to retain nutrients. But these mediterannean herbs are used to surviving on very little food and water and too much will spoil the plant and damage the flavour. A raised bed is one solution. Or plant in a pot. But if you absolutely have to plant thyme in clay soil, then improve it first, as good drainage is essential to prevent cold, continuously wet roots: dig in horticultural grit, sand, organic mulch to break it down. Autumn gives a perfect window of opportunity for soil improvement – once you’ve tidied up the beds, harvested your autumn berries

Myrtle berries - harvest in late autumn

and roots,  and sown your autumn salad herbs (under protection), planted your hardy perennials (which will put all their efforts into establishing healthy roots over winter before spring growth) there’s not much else to do in the garden. So, plenty of time to dig. Warms you up too.

PS – we’ve just been featured on Pocketchange.com, in their latest ‘Best of the web’ - hoorah!

© Jekka’s Herb Farm,  October 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to  Jekka’s Herb Farm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.