Ex-Tomorrow’s World presenter Judith Hann used to spend her time in a TV studio, but these days she’s out in her garden, growing more than 150 culinary herbs including borage, sweet cicely and others which taste great but aren’t widely available in supermarkets.
Judith, who runs Hann’s Herbs, courses on how to grow and cook with herbs, says: “My favourite herbs are those which are virtually impossible to buy in this country, but are totally simple to grow, and once you’ve got them, you’ve got them forever.”
In her latest book, Herbs, she offers advice on how to grow and cook with a huge range of herbs.
“Hyssop’s very easy to grow. I grow it in a dry, sunny area along with thymes and different marjorams. Once the faded thyme flowers have been cut back, the hyssops will be coming into bloom. It’s known for the blue-flowered version, but I also grow pink and white-flowered versions. It’s traditionally served with rabbit.
It has thin, spicy leaves with a hint of lemon, rosemary and mint. It can also be made into a syrup and served with fruits, such as peaches. It’s worth growing with other herbaceous flowers if you haven’t got space for a herb garden because it flowers in late summer when so many of the traditional plants have gone over. It’s a semi-evergreen hardy perennial, growing to 1m (39in) high and can be trimmed into a low hedge.
This is the one I most often use in my cooking. I grow three perennials – I’ve a 12ft run of broad-leaf sorrel (Rumex acetosa). I put the plants in over 20 years ago when I made the herb garden and the same plants are there. You just cut them back when the seedheads form and you have them for almost 12 months a year. I pick sorrel most days for soups, sauces, salads, tarts and terrines.
Some leaves are very big so you can wrap fish in them, but we serve sorrel sauce with chicken or fish. It has a mild, lemony taste and the smaller leaves are great in a mixed salad.
I also grow buckler-leaf sorrel which has these really pretty shield-shaped leaves which you use whole. Red-veined sorrel makes a plate look pretty, but you need to use the leaves small to get that lemony taste.
Sorrel will grow really happily in the shade, but my two edging beds are in full sun. I grow my salad herbs right up to them. Make sure you cut off the flower/seed stems regularly to keep the leaves coming.
This is my favourite herb, with its spicy, celery taste. I grow an 8ft-long run of it on the far side of my greenhouse and it grows up to 6ft tall and shades the greenhouse in summer. When the leaves are tiny, I use them chopped up in a salad but I also make lovage soup with onion, garlic, potatoes and some stock, which tastes exquisite.
It’s simple to grow. You can grow it from seed in spring in trays inside and covering with vermiculite, using a propagator to boost germination. It has quite long roots and likes a rich soil and sunshine or partial shade. Cut it back in summer when the leaves start to taste bitter and then go pale and lose their flavour.
4. Sweet cicely
This is in my pudding bed, which has herbs suitable for desserts, including lavender, violets, angelica and bergamot. Sweet cicely is a natural sweetener. It produces delicate, fern-like leaves with an anise scent and reduces the acidity of sharp foods such as rhubarb and gooseberries. You put a handful of sweet cicely in and you’ll get sweetness from it without adding sugar.
You can also chop up the leaves to add to sauces and seafood risottos. It’s an easy-to-grow hardy perennial which grows to 1m (39in tall), producing white flowers which turn into green edible seeds, which are nice chopped up and cooked in biscuits or added to tarte tatin.
The blue flowers of young borage taste of sweet cucumber and are perfect in drinks such as Pimm’s, or scattered on salads and summer fruits. It’s an annual which pops up in an unruly fashion all over the place because the birds take the seeds. The flowers appear in early summer and last until autumn and it self-seeds easily.
If the ground is very wet, I like to dig out the small plants where I don’t want them and put them in the herb garden. It thrives in sunny spots in any soil. Pick the leaves young before they go stiff and hairy.
Herbs by Judith Hann is published by Nourish, priced £20.