The editor has been throwing around directions of late. He tells me that I must speak of summer things and so I shall.
Perhaps my first love in life is the garden. I live alone in a windy, coastal village in the West of Ireland, where I have a patch around my house to which I am utterly devoted. I do not grow vegetables, largely because I fear the inevitable gluts that would occur in production, gluts that would leave me eating a particular vegetable for weeks on end. Those of you who grow your own food will argue that I could give away the surplus stock to neighbours or preserve them in some way, but I am not convinced that it is as easy as that and composting them is not an option for me either.
I was reared in a spirit of frugality and abhor waste of any kind. However, I do have lovely herbaceous borders and shrubs and have colour out there for nine months of the year. I also have a forty-foot long conservatory in which there is always something flowering and where I can grow tropical plants, which remind me of faraway countries lived in many years ago. I mention all this so that you will know of the circumstances in which I garden.
I grew up in an inland town in the West of Ireland and my parents had a large vegetable garden. Pride of place there was given to herbs. My mother loved them. Mind you, there was nothing very fancy, just the old faithfuls, like parsley, bay leaf, sage, thyme, horseradish (not exactly a herb but let us put that to one side for the moment) and mint. These were used all the year around (mint being the exception; it does not grow in winter) and largely accounted for the wonderful flavour of my mother’s food. She was an old–fashioned cook, who liked her soups and joints and they invariably came scented and tasting of the herbs she grew not far from the back door.
Even to type the last sentence wafts me back to the family dinning-room of my youth and platters of lamb swimming in mint sauce, plates of red beef accompanied by creamy, peppery horseradish sauce or poultry with stuffings pungent with the smell of sage or thyme, or even something as simple as a scattering of chopped parsley or mint over a bowl of new potatoes. What an uplift these herbs gave to the food ! And so it was that I could not wait for the day when I had a place of my own in which to grow herbs.
In preparation for this article, I went to the trouble of counting how many I now grow and was astonished to find that they number no less than fifteen. In addition to the stalwarts cultivated by my mother, I also have other herbs, which have become almost commonplace in recent years. I speak here of oregano, tarragon, rosemary, lovage, borage and basil. Apart from a few to be found in pots, I grow all these herbs in the herbaceous borders or in the raised beds on the patio.
I do not want to trespass into the area which is the responsibility of the gardening correspondent of this magazine, but suffice it to say that all of these herbs, excepting mint and basil – and I shall come back to them in a moment – will thrive in sunny, sheltered, well-drained soil and do not require any special attention. They can, of course, be grown from seed but if you can’t be bothered with all that that involves, small plants are cheaply and readily available in any decent garden centre. Some herbs grow all the year around but others, notably basil (an annual), oregano, tarragon, lovage, mint and borage (an annual which self-seeds and can indeed be invasive) are available in summer only. Mint likes a damp, shaded place. It tends to be rampant and thus, if grown in the open, should be confined by something like old slates stuck down into the soil. Basil, I grow from seeds, which I plant successively every six weeks or so over the summer. Once the seedlings are an inch or so high, I pot them on, but this is one herb, I never put outside. I don’t know about the east coast of our island, but my experience is that it simply will not grow in my garden here in the West. It remains contentedly on a ledge in the conservatory.
The garden is now luxuriant after all the recent rain but it nonetheless retains its spring freshness. How I love this time of year, a time when my eating habits change significantly, as I give myself over to salads and other dishes, such as pasta, which can be enriched and enlivened with fresh herbs from the garden. What a pleasure it is to go out in the evening with scissors in hand to cut the requirements for whatever confection is to grace my supper table ! And believe me when I tell you that the herbs you cultivate yourself will be fresher, tastier, earthier and more aromatic than anything you will buy in your local shop. Get going now ! Plant in those herbs and I shall come back to you next month with some recipes which will put them to great culinary use.