Spicy and zesty flavours from garden herb plants are not always fleeting summer delights. There are many herbs that will survive year-on-year in the garden. Some, such as angelica, are biennial offering leaves in their first year and flowers and seeds in the second year (usually so many seeds that you will never be without a ‘next generation’). Others including rosemary, thyme and sage are woody perennials that will survive the winter in most places, offering a harvest of leaves throughout the colder months; although their flavours might not be quite so strong in winter as they are at the height of summer. Other herbs such as chives and mint die back over-winter and you have to wait till spring before they re-appear again with fresh vigour.
Rosemary officinalis ‘Miss Jessopp’s Upright’ is a tall-growing rosemary that is useful as a back of the border plant or even as a short run of hedging. It grows to about 1m high, sometimes more. Its long stems are useful to use as aromatic skewers for lamb and chicken cubes cooked on the barbecue or under the grill. It can also be shaped into various upright topiary forms offering its flavour rich leaves for teas and roasts and stews.
In my opinion angelica (Angelica archangelica) is not the angelic plant it sounds! It is one of the most statuesque herbs in the box though and worth growing to give height to your herb garden. Its young foliage is a sort of yellow-green, and it is the young stems that it is prized for. These can be preserved in sugar syrup and used decoratively in baking.
I would describe it as devilish rather than angelic, because in its second year (it is a biennial, flowering and seeding in its second year), its seed production is enormous and you will need to weed out seedlings in spring, allowing just one or two to grow into garden plants. You can, of course, pot up any surplus and share with gardening friends.
Lovage (Levisticum officinale) shoots in spring are a russet-pink colour, full of promise of the wonderful spicy flavour that its foliage offers to casseroles and soups, as well as to zingy salads. The young leaves have the strongest flavour and continued harvest will produce more young foliage. The seeds are good crushed and used in salads or in breadmaking for a punchy flavour. Lovage grows to a height of at least 1.5metres, making it a good candidate for the back of a border in the herb garden. It dies back in winter and I cut it back in autumn when the leaves are looking yellow.
Sage is a woody perennial and most herb gardeners have it in its various forms – purple foliage, green foliage, variegated golden, tri-coloured, white-flowered and blue-flowered, but one of the best for garden ornament and culinary use is a selection called Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’. It has really large rounded leaves good for making sage leaf fritters and grows to make a mounded shape. Its flowers in early summer are magnets for bees and butterflies and it looks attractive in garden borders. I cut it back after flowering.
Winter savory (Satureja montana) is an evergreen woody herb that offers spicy flavours for hot dishes, as well as for salads. It thrives in a sunny position and its small white flowers attract bees and butterflies and are also tasty in salads. Cut it back after flowering. It grows in a mounding shape and trails over the side of raised beds and containers.
Garlic or Chinese chives (Allium tuberosum) are among my favourite herbs. The strappy leaves are the perfect garlic substitute. They offer the same flavour to salads and casseroles without all that peeling hassle! In summer they produce heads of attractive white flowers that are just as useful in salads or in omelettes. They die back in winter, but in spring are among the first shoots to appear.
Thyme of one species or another is every herb gardeners’ favourite, but among mine are the various fruit- or citrus-flavoured thymes. Variegated lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus ‘Silver Queen’) is probably my first choice: it is so attractive in the garden with its small, rounded white and green variegated foliage. In the kitchen it is good in salads and used with poultry and fish, adding an extra citrus-zest to the dish. There is an evergreen lemon-scented thyme and for a change I sometimes use orange-flavoured thyme Thymus fragrantissimus, which is just as versatile and is useful to make a fruity syrup for desserts or to add to a cocktail for a sweet-sharp flavour.
For a herb syrup
Basically you need to heat equal quantities of sugar and water with a good handful of flavoured thyme or other herb sprigs. For extra zest add a dash of lemon or orange juice, but if the orange or lemon thyme flavour is coming through well, leave out the lemon juice. Once the liquid has boiled, reduce the heat and simmer on a low heat for up to 10 minutes. Let it steep and come to room temperature, then strain into a clean jar or bottle. You can keep it in the fridge for about a fortnight. The flavoured syrup can be added to water, in teas and also to spice up homemade cocktails. Or why not add a splash to a gin and tonic?