A garden for utility and Delight

I wrote recently about Cottage gardens and the charm of their seemingly haphazard dense masses of plants. One of their great pleasures comes from the mixing of utility and delight, where food, medicine and beauty commingle, with flowers, herbs and vegetables jumbled together.
However growing vegetables can feel a big step and many can take up a lot of room. But there’s no need to deny yourself the pleasure of harvesting and eating your own produce. I mentioned in my Cottage Garden post that I’d write more about herbs as they can provide such pleasure yet are so often thought difficult or fussy. In fact, with a little thought and care, and much fun planning and researching, you can grow a surprising variety of herbs in most gardens and balconies.

Fresh homegrown herbs will transform your cooking.

Herbs are primarily thought of now for their use in the kitchen, and they can enhance just about every dish you can think of, but for centuries they also were also used as much for medicine as for cooking. Today we’ve largely forgotten this intriguing aspect of herbs. Indeed there are good reasons why processed medicines are preferable – take an aspirin and you know its purity is guaranteed and the strength and dosage is precise and controlled. Compare that to making a tea of feverfew freshly picked from your garden. It may be a charming notion, but how strong is the medicinal component? How much should you put in that tea?

Rediscovering medicinal herbs

I don’t recommend using your own herbs medicinally but if you are interested and want to find out more James Wong, the Kew trained, best-selling author of ‘Grow Your Own Drugs’ which was also a BBC TV series, has made it his business to bring a fresh eye to the use of plants as medicinal drugs. After all millions of people around the world still use plants as their primary medical care, and it’s James’ passion to breakdown the dividing line between natural and conventional medicine, ‘A lot of people here put a big black line between traditional plant remedies and conventional ones. Yet up to 50 percent of the world’s top conventional drugs are originally derived from natural sources. Major drugs such as aspirin, morphine, penicillin have natural origins.’ www.jameswong.co.uk

Growing herbs is easier than you think, and so cheap!

There’s a lot of interest to be had looking into and growing herbs that have medicinal properties, but even more pleasure can be got from herbs for the kitchen. Now that every supermarket has a selection of herbs you might think why bother? Well, there are far more herbs in the world than the six or seven you see in every supermarket. Vietnamese basil anyone? Also once you’ve tasted your own home-grown herbs you’ll have no doubt. Supermarket herbs are boringly bland, and how many times have they died on you just when you need them? But they have a much better use – grow them! I get a whole summer’s worth of basil from one supermarket pot. I simply gently tease the tangled mass apart and plant up three seedlings in a 10cm pot, I usually make up three or four pots. I’m happy if half of these make it through, giving me 5 or 6 plants which is plenty. I bring them on inside for a week or two and as soon as I see new leaves form I harden them off and pot them on or put them into a border. They look different to the insipid seedlings, the leaves get a bit knobbly and are smaller, but the flavour! I’ve got fresh, really tasty, basil all summer, whenever I need it!, There’s often enough left at the end of summer to dry off for the winter.

This year I did the same with flat leaf parsley and just one supermarket pot has produced frothing masses which, along with my mint, I use in one of my favourite summer dishes – tabbouleh. Supermarket tabbouleh is a soggy, dull disaster. The real thing is an explosion of herby zingy flavour just perfect for barbecues. The secret is to use masses of parsley and only a little bulgur, the very opposite of the supermarket version. It should be eaten as soon as it is comes out of the fridge, before the juices turn the herbs soggy. Use fine bulgur if you can get it, as it only needs a few minutes soaking, whereas coarse bulgur takes 45 minutes or more to soak. The final tip, never use a food processor, chop everything as finely as possible using a good sharp knife. Here’s my recipe for two;

Tabbouleh salad

  • 50g bulgur wheat
  • 75g flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • 25g mint, chopped
  • 200g firm ripe tomatoes, deseeded and diced
  • 3 spring onions, finely sliced
  • juice 1 lemon
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • If you have fine bulgur soak for 5-7 minutes in 200ml cold water. For regular (coarse) bulgur soak in 200ml boiling water for 45minute. Thoroughly drain, you want it as dry as possible.
    Chop all the herbs finely set aside, slice the spring onions super thinly, dice the tomatoes finely drain them.

    Toss everything together and dress with the best olive oil you’ve got and lemon juice. Cover and refrigerate for half an hour.
    Some people like to add diced deseeded drained cucumber to their tabbouleh. But some people think cranberries in cheddar cheese is a fantastic idea.