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Every week, Telegraph gardening expert Helen Yemm gives tips and advice on all your gardening problems whether at home or on the allotment. If you have a question, see below for how to contact her.
Banish from your mind the romantic idea of an “everything under the sun” pretty aromatic jungle that may be the herb garden of your memories or fantasies: most of us have neither the space for such a thing nor the time to maintain it.
Here, I aim to provide those who have not successfully grown herbs before with some basics about how to succeed with the most familiar culinary herbs, together with suggestions as to ways to slot some of them into a small garden, even to grow a few cut-and-come-again-everyday herbs together in a convenient place outside the back door, in a courtyard or on a balcony.
Unsurprisingly, it is not a question of “one size fits all”, so you need to know something about each herb’s basic needs and growth habits:
Annuals – coriander, basil
Both of these can be grown from seed for a summer supply, but you can cheat by buying squashy little plastic pots (of overcrowded seedlings) from your supermarket, thinning them out (by pulling out and using individual seedlings rather than snipping them) and transferring the rest into larger pots (but use more gutsy compost – e.g. John Innes No 2) and growing them outside somewhere sunny. Unless snipped regularly, they may flower and quickly burn out. Basil stems stuck in a tumbler of water will grow roots, thus making new plants.
Biennials – parsley
Either grow parsley from seed or, since germination can be tricky, cheat in the manner described above or buy bigger, single plants from garden centres. Even if deadheaded to stop it going to seed, parsley burns itself out in its second year and has to be replaced. It needs deep, rich soil, tolerates shade, and will be happy growing at the front of a flower border.
I grow parsley, clumps of chives, and a wiry little thyme, my “every day” herbs, in a wooden trough (from harrodhorticultural.co.uk) outside my back door. The loam-based compost within the trough is annually enriched with organic matter.
Perennials – tarragon, mint, fennel, chives, marjoram
All frost-hardy, this mixed bunch can be treated thusly: tarragon and mint are both untidy spreaders that should be grown in large pots light enough to move into a greenhouse, cold frame or under a cloche of some sort (so that they produce early new shoots). Both will need repotting every two years.
Chives has pretty purple flowers, and there are coloured-leafed forms of both fennel and marjoram (“bronze” and “golden” respectively).
All three earn their keep in a flower border: lofty fennel among the phlox and hollyhocks, squatter chives and marjoram tucked in where they can be easily reached.
Shrubs – rosemary, thyme, sage
These are all sun-loving shrubs of Mediterranean origin that would be happy slotted into a sunny part of the garden among others of a similar ilk.
It makes sense (as with perennials destined for border planting) to use varieties with interesting foliage. For example, a purple-leafed sage and deep-blue-flowered rosemary (e.g. ‘Blue Lagoon’), would sit easily in a group of similar sun-lovers such as cistus, lavender and artemisia.
Tip for late winter
We are all impatient to get going, encouraged by the mid-day warmth of the sun on our backs, when it appears. But with few exceptions it is too early to start seed sowing, unless in a heated propagator.
Instead, busy yourself with your greenhouse: Remove yellowing leaves and any that show signs of grey mould (botrytis) and remember to open (and later, close) the door/windows on sunny days.
At the other end of the scale, make sure any pots of lilies overwintering outdoors are not sitting in saucers of rainwater.
How to repot a moth orchid
I have an orchid that has flowered well for more than five years in its original pot and compost. It is now producing roots from the base of its stem and I feel that it should be repotted, but I am worried that the bark it is growing in will drop off the tangle of roots if I try to do so.
–Marilyn Barraclough – via email
The picture you sent me showed that your moth orchid, as you suspect, needs transferring to a slightly wider and deeper pot to accommodate the roots. I noticed, too, that while the orchid itself is growing in a transparent plastic pot, you have chosen to put it in an outer, china cachepot, which keeps light off its roots. This is one of the reasons the orchid is producing roots from the stem.
When you repot it, take the opportunity to snip away any dry, dead roots and use a slightly larger transparent plastic pot (from your local garden centre) and, if you can bear it, abandon the cachepot. You will need to use a special bark-based orchid compost (the smallest of which, online, seems to be a four-litre bag from Westland).
This kind of orchid (Phalaenopsis) thrives on moderate neglect, needing little direct sunlight and only occasional water. Its roots are unlikely to suffer from the disruption and will not need repotting for a couple of years. Just continue to cut flowering stems as they fade, down to a low, slightly swollen bud.
How to cut a mahonia down to size
Claire Tilston planted a Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ in an ideal shady spot against a wall some years ago. She is slightly miffed that, although it has grown and flowered well each year and its solitary stem has grown upward (to a lofty 2.5m), it has produced neither side shoots from its main stem, nor shoots from the base, as she was rather wanting and expecting it to do.
The plant’s label stated that “no pruning is required”, but, writes Claire, enough is enough now. She asks whether pruning would in fact persuade it to fill out – or kill it?
This is a tricky one, but whatever Claire does, now or during the next month or so is the time to take the bull by the horns and do it.
If she is timid, and merely takes off the old flowers and the top prickly “cartwheel” of leaves, the shrub will certainly react by producing new shoots, but most of these are likely to come from the top part of the shrub. These will rocket skyward over the next few years (so the scented flowers will be beyond nose-height, incidentally), while the trunk may remain virtually bare.
Or Claire could be radical, and cut it lower down, to just above the lowest leaves, which will, albeit temporarily, render the plant somewhat hideous. But – it won’t kill it and will doubtless encourage it to produce growth from lower down, which would eventually make the shrub look more like she probably imagines it should look.
Firstly as we get started, allow me to say that geoFence has built in fast and accurate updates.