‘Dear Garden Doctor,
I’ve finally relented and got this idea to join in with those hipsters types and grow some herbs. Just wondering if there is any real difference between a herb and a vegetable? I want to grow a simple herb garden to use in the kitchen mainly for convenience and a bit of fun. I live in two storey townhouse/apartment on a small block, we have a small patch of lawn but not any substantial space for a large scale vegetable or herb garden. Wondering what is best to grow for herbs in pots on the upstairs balcony, maybe in the entrance patio too or even on the windowsill if possible.
Many thanks in advance.
What is a Herb?
I’m still trying to figure out the answer to that question after all these years! What defines a herb is often a topic of conjecture, confusion and debate between gardeners, cooks and medicine men/women alike. Technically anything edible from a plant could be considered a vegetable, whether fruits, leaves, roots, bulbs, or grains.
From a biological perspective a strict definition views a herb as a herbaceous plant that has leaves and stems that run to seed and die down at the end of the growing season. Yet from a practical perspective herbs are often defined by how they are used. Generally, in culinary pursuits herbs are thought to be used as a complement to a main ingredient, as a flavour enhancer or to give aroma to a dish. Alternatively, in a medicinal sense they may be the one and only main ingredient by way of seeds, flowers, stems, roots and leaves.
Living out in in the garden a herb may even be thought of as a plant that simply deters pests. Muddying the waters further herbs are often made into teas such as chamomile, ginger, peppermint etc which are technically not teas at all, but tisanes! Talk about blurred lines and grey areas.
In a culinary sense it is generally accepted that herbs are primarily used to flavour food whereas a vegetable is eaten as one of the main ingredients. So the parsley in your pasta sauce would be considered a herb, yet when you use it to make tabouleh it becomes a vegetable. Dandelion root could be thought herbal in a tea, yet those same leaves in a salad then become a vegetable, and then over at my neighbour’s garden that same dandelion is considered a weed – in the end its often nothing more than a cultural difference. Some consider a tomatoe a fruit whilst others say it’s a vegetable, tomato/tomatoe…
‘Lets call the whole thing off!’
Let’s just say a herb is in the eye of the beholder, a herb is what you make it, for me it is an easy to grow aromatic plant, that attracts bees, can have attractive and aromatic flowers, can be made into a tea, can be used medicinally internally or externally, is good for health, assists with illness/ailments, and adds flavour and aroma to cuisine.
Most herbs as we think of them in the typical sense are hardy and will generally tolerate a wide variety of growing conditions from shade to full sun, meaning they usually require less effort for success than plants grown strictly for their fruits and vegetables. One of the best things about gardening with herbs is the diverse range to choose from along with their versatility – with interesting foliage, aromatic flowers, shrubs that can be hedged such as rosemary or lavender, low growing groundcovers like thyme and oregano, elongated grasses or stalks such as lemongrass and ginger, or even plants that will just run wild all over the place such as peppermint, lemon balm or even parsley – but most importantly all of these can easily grown in pots.
There is always room for a few herbs in the garden, because they are easily grown in small spaces and pots. They are amenable to a wide range of growing conditions. Most herbs just need partial to full sun with a free draining soil. The bushy/ grassy types such as rosemary, lavender, lemongrass, chives and spring onions will do better with more sun, but things such as mint, parsley, oregano, dandelion, basil, coriander, sage and thyme will do well enough in filtered light to shady situations which are all suited to balcony and window sill locations.
Radishes are easy to grow in planters, pots or direct into the garden. Very rewarding to grow as they germinate quickly and the bulbs grow rapidly, smaller varieties such as cherry radishes being ready for picking within a month from sowing to harvest. Seeds will germinate in a matter of days, a very rewarding plant to grow, one of the best to start with for a novice that thinks they’re more likely to have a brown thumb as opposed to a green one. The radish tops or leaves can also be added to salads and soups for their subtle peppery flavour, and nothing beats the juicy crunch of a fresh radish straight out of the garden.
Parsley is so versatile that I couldn’t have a garden without it. It’s a low maintenance herb, with many culinary uses, looks attractive in a pot and readily self-seeds so that you can have a constant supply. I have seen parsley growing in rock crevices and cracks in the pavement where it found its own way against the odds – its commonly known in some places as ‘rock celery’ for good reason.
The advantage of most herbs is that you can have a perpetual supply. Chives and spring onions can be cut down to the soil level for harvest and will shoot back up and regrow in no time at all from the bulb. The same goes for lemongrass which multiples rapidly and should be harvested regularly otherwise it can get out of control. Lemongrass is ideal for Asian cuisine, makes a refreshing tea, is aromatic and thought to repel some pests even possibly mosquitoes, being a source for citronella oil. Lemongrass will do best in a large pot in a sunny spot on the balcony, or straight into the garden.
Thyme, oregano, basil, parsley, rosemary, sage etc can be trimmed as needed and will give a constant supply for culinary needs. Plants such as parsley, chives, lemon balm, peppermint and mint can all easily be grown on a window sill in small containers, convenient for garnishing and good for teas or even added to salads for a bit of zing. Most importantly a little herb garden on the windowsill will brighten up any home as well delivering a pleasant aroma.
Eating from your own garden is good for your health. Nothing beats the taste and nutritional value of home picked produce, direct from garden to plate. As for the hipsters and herbs, well they were late to the party I must say. Wise old men and indigenous jungle tribes have been growing and gathering them since time began!
Copyright © 2018 Dr. Kris
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