Jekka McVicar's top tips for growing herbs

Julia Shaw

Julia Shaw talks to Jekka McVicar, Britain's best-known herb gardener



Jekka McVicar is undoubtedly Britain’s herb guru. Crowned the 'Queen of Herbs' by Jamie Oliver whose garden she developed, Jekka has been passionate about herbs since she was a child. She started her own organic Herb Farm over 25 years ago and now grows more than 600 species of herbs there. She’s gathered a few awards over those years too – 61 RHS Gold Medals for her herb displays including 12 at the Chelsea Flower Show. She has appeared on TV in Rick Stein’s Food Heroes, BBC Gardeners' World and Great Garden Detectives and on BBC Radio’s Woman’s Hour and the Food Programme. She has written books on herbs and is also a regular contributor to Gardeners’ World and Good Food magazine. Jekka, who will be appearing at the BBC Gardeners World Live Show from June 10-14, talks to Julia Shaw about her plant passions.

We’ve probably all tried to grow basil or mint, but what other herbs are growing in popularity and easy to grow?

"We’re seeing a return to the popularity of native British herbs, which is lovely. I think people are waking up to the fact that herbs such as sorrel grow so easily in our climate and taste great too. Salad burnet is a rising star too. It’s a delicious soft leaf salad that tastes a bit like cucumber and is great with fish. It’s been around for over 2,000 years and was used medicinally to heal wounds and stop haemorrhaging as it has astringent qualities. Its Latin scientific name, Poterium sanguisorba or Sanguisorba minor, means 'suck up blood', so soldiers used to drink tea made from it before going into war to ease their wounds. Sweet cicely is a great garden herb too. It tastes of aniseed and you can eat every bit of it, but the tender stalks and leaves are best in salads. You can use angelica in salads too."

Jekka's favourite seasonal herbs

Spring - Sorrel and nettles Sorrel is a great spring herb. It has arrow shaped green leaves that you can use in salads, but it works really well in a sauce with fish too, or try it wilted with a poached egg or in a soup. You can cook it like spinach, in fact it’s also known as spinach dock and it’s quite sour tasting. Its name comes from the French for sour and you can use it as a laxative too. We’ve used nettles for centuries for food, clothing and remedies. Even today there’s research into the medicinal use of the nettle. Pepys wrote that he’d eaten '...some nettle porridge, which was very good'. Nettles are a great source of magnesium, iron and calcium. Again, cook it like spinach in soups and stews. And once cooked it won’t sting!

Summer - Basil Amazingly popular, this gorgeous, aromatic herb originates from India. It loves the warmth and can be used in so many summer dishes from a salad to your own pesto sauce. It’s so easy to grow so plant some near your front or back door, or on your windowsill, for a great fragrant blast.

Autumn – Lemon verbena The lemony smell it exudes is just fantastic so it’s a winner in the garden for amazing scent and in cooking too as it will add lemon flavour to everything from fish and chicken dishes to cakes and dressings. You can dunk it in boiling water too as a herbal tea. Originally from hot climates, it was brought to Europe by the Spanish.

Winter – Myrtle Probably my favourite winter herb. I love it. Use it in cooking instead of a bay leaf. It’s an evergreen shrub and produces lovely small white flowers, so looks great in your garden too.

How can we get our kids more interested in gardening?

"Give your children a little patch of ground, or a plant pot on the windowsill, and get them growing. If they grow it, they’ll eat it, believe me. I brought my kids up on the farm and they each grew their own vegetables and flowers. My son used to grow marigolds and make marigold scones! We had schools out to visit the farm too. Kids love nurturing plants, so things like the cut and come again salads are brilliant, or try nasturtiums for their colour. They can eat them too so they’re a bit different. Just try to capture their imagination with plants and they’ll start to love gardening. When I grew up I had my own patch of land and loved growing things, but there wasn’t anything else for me to do. Kids have too many distractions now, too much choice of activity. There are loads of things happening at Gardeners’ World Live this year to encourage your children into the garden."

Do you think that schools could be doing more to encourage kids to garden?

"Yes, absolutely. As Jamie Oliver pointed out about Britain being full of non- cookers, we have the same problem with gardening. People love watching gardening programmes, but not many people are actually getting out there and doing it. There is a huge generation gap of people who’ve never grown anything, so they’re not teaching their children to garden either. Some schools are doing fantastic things, but we need more gardening in schools."

Are we a nation of 'virtual' gardeners then?

"I think we’re in danger of that. We've lost that connection between what we grow and what we eat. We’ve even lost the simple enjoyment of creating a beautiful garden. Watching plants grow is fascinating, but somehow many people have lost that magic. It’s great to see more interest now in people growing their own and taking on allotments, but we need to do more. I wrote to my MP about this to try to inspire them that gardening is the one way to connect people back to the soil, to what they eat and a great way to promote community spirit as people can work together. Of course gardening has massive health benefits too with the exercise and fresh air."

Jekka's credit crunch gardening tips

Easy ways to cut back on the cost of gardening.

  • Raise as many as plants as possible from seed. Buy organic seed or harvest your own.
  • Share gardening equipment. Why spend a huge amount on major buys like lawnmowers or hedge trimmers when you could share with friends and neighbours.
  • Use your garden to produce food. The day of the herbaceous border isn’t practical any more. It’s time to get back to basics.

Eight reasons to grow organic

"Everyone should try to grow organic. You get so much more out of your plants. When I first started growing herbs organically I was thought eccentric", remembers Jekka, "but now more and more people are aware of the benefits of foods grown free from pesticides and other harmful chemicals."

  • Organic principles respect the environment by working in close harmony with the cycles of nature.
  • Herbs are one of the most beneficial plants you can grow. Organic herbs attract insects, bees, birds and butterflies, so they encourage wildlife to your garden that help pollinate your plants and help your plants to grow.
  • Your children will love the experience of growing their own plants and seeing the wildlife they attract. They’ll learn from it too.
  • You’ll also be increasing biodiversity, maintaining the healthy natural balance of predator and pest by growing organic too.
  • There’s no danger of contamination from chemicals before you touch, eat or use herbs medicinally.
  • Slow-grown, local, seasonal herbs are hardy, long lasting, and more likely to flourish in our climate than those force grown herbs from overseas, so the carbon footprint is reduced by growing your own organically.
  • Some studies have shown that organic food may have a higher nutritional content than forced produce.
  • I really believe that your food will taste better too!
  • Get the soil right. You can’t just peel back grass and plant. You’ll really see the benefits if you add lots of nutrients and dig your soil over really well.
  • Grow what you know you will eat and then you’re on a winner. Don’t waste money on things you think you may eat. Choose your top four vegetables and plant just them. I must have onions, courgettes and dwarf beans because they’re no fuss. I love perpetual spinach too.
  • Don’t be too ambitious. Cut and come again salads are satisfying to grow because you can harvest fairly quickly and they keep producing more, so you’ll stay encouraged.
  • Be realistic about how much time you have. Start with simple projects like tomato plants that don’t need a lot of attention.

"That anything is possible in the garden. That they enjoy that space and realise how lucky they are to have a garden."

Find out more about Jekka’s Herb Farm at www.jekkasherbfarm.com

Jekka’s books include: Jekka’s Complete Herb Book, Cooking With Flowers, Seeds and New Book of Herbs.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

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