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Growing Mediterranean herbs

Val Bourne / 27 March 2015

Growing Mediterranean herbs such as sage, rosemary and tarragon can add interest to a garden, as well as being a rich source of nectar for bees and a great resource for cooks.

Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary can be an excellent source of nectar for bees

Every garden, however small, should contain some herbs.

Many of these will be aromatic, with pungent oily foliage that smells when rubbed through the fingers. This oily coating is a sun screen and it indicates a need for a sunny, open position and good drainage - so herb gardens need to be sited carefully in open spaces for most of them are sun lovers from the Mediterranean.

Read Val Bourne's guide to planting up a summer herb container

About Mediterranean herbs

Common examples of Mediterranean herbs include rosemary (Rosmarinus offinalis), Sage (Salvia officinalis) thyme (Thymus) English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and tarragon (Artemesia dracunculus).

These have been used for flavouring and for medicinal reasons. The species name officinalis indicates that it was commonly used by apothecaries before the age of modern medicine.

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Caring for Mediterranean herbs

Mediterranean herbs have a tendency to be evergreen because in their natural environment they do their growing during the wet, mild winters.

In our cooler climate Mediterranean herbs grow in summer instead and can therefore look ragged in bad winters. Neaten them up in mid-autumn so that they make good winter features but don't hard prune them until late-spring.

This will rejuvenate them, so that they look handsome by early summer. Sages, santolinas, hardy English lavender, artemisia and thyme all respond well to this regime. However rosemary needs more sensitive treatment, just trim it back a little.

Taking herb cuttings

Herbs can be easily raised from cuttings taken in midsummer, from new growth that has started to firm up.

Cut off new shoots, roughly two to three inches high.

Trim the stems to below a node - the bumpy part where the leaves appear.

Remove the lowest leaves and any flower buds and plunge into small seed trays full of either 100% coarse horticultural sand, or a 50% mixture of John Innes no 1 and coarse sand.

Leave these to root and, once rooted they can be potted up into small round pots either in September or in early spring.

Read Martyn Cox's guide to taking softwood cuttings

Nectar-rich flowers

Mediterranean herbs have a tendency to produce highly concentrated nectar which attracts bees and butterflies, particularly in the second half of summer.

Studies have shown that the flowers of marjoram (Origanum vulgare) are the most nectar-rich of any, containing 76% of sugars and this small mound-forming plants can be accommodated at the front of herbaceous borders, put into herb containers, kitchen gardens or in traditional herb gardens. You will also find many of these aromatic herbs soothing to touch.

Find out how to make a bee-friendly garden.

10 herbs for year-round flavour

Plant these herbs for culinary use year after year.

Round-leaved Sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’)
A rounder-leaved version of common age, with grey-green lollipop leaves and very large pale-blue flowers.

Purple Sage (Salvia officinalis Purpuresecens Group)
Purple-leaved sage is stunning in full sun, with leaves that darken to damson in summer, accompanies by deep-blue flowers.

The Narrow-leaved Sage (Salvia lavandulifolia)
Small, narrow leaves and a neat habit make this the ideal sage for mixed planting.

The Broad-leaved Thyme (Thymus pulegoides)
Strongly flavoured dark leaves and pink flowers. Less twiggy than many thymes, so easier to prepare.

Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum)
A late-flowering, white-flowered chive with a gentle growth habit. Mild garlic to onion flavour.

French Tarragon (Artemesia dracunculus)
The best herb for chicken, with narrow linear leaves flavoured with aniseed. Take cuttings as it hates wet winters. Find this the best hot spot you have and then it will overwinter.

Garden Mint (Mentha spicata)
Beware! Mints are invasive so need growing in a pot sunk into the ground. There are many to chose from but Apple mint ( Mentha suaveolens) is subtle enough to be used in cooking.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Flowers early in the year, so an excellent early bee plant. It comes in many forms and the blue flowers vary in intensity. ‘Benenden Blue‘ is full hardy and reaches 80 cm, with dark-blue flowers and fine dark green needle-shaped aromatic leaves. It has an upright habit, but others ( generally labelled Prostratus Group) spread. Others are very tall.

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
Summer-flowering, foot-high chive with pink balls of flower. Deadhead to prevent unwanted seedlings.

Compact Marjoram (Origanum vulgare ‘Compactum’)
Large pink flowers on a matt-forming marjoram that’s really good to cook with. Can be grown in a niche on a patio as well in containers and in the garden.

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