Culinary herbs release aromatic oils when rubbed or cut and are used in cooking to enhance the flavour of food. Herbs have also been used for thousands of years as medicines, perfumes and insect repellents.
Choosing the site
Many herbs originate from Mediterranean regions of the world. To grow these herbs well you need a sunny, sheltered site with free-draining soil. Heat and dryness also help to intensify the flavour. Check the pH of your soil. Many Mediterranean herbs prefer alkaline soils and may not tolerate an acid soil.
Most herbs will survive the cool British winter temperatures, but not the wet. A free-draining soil is necessary to avoid roots rotting. However, herbs such as parsley, rocket, sweet cicely, sorrel, mint, chervil and even basil will be fine in some shade and enjoy the moisture-rich soil.
Design and layout of herb gardens
If you are lucky to have the space then you can create a herb garden at your school. Try to locate the herb garden where it is easily accessible for regular picking. A simple rectangular bed can be used for mixed herb planting. Place stepping stones throughout the bed to allow children to step amongst the herbs to pick them.
Ensure that each herb has enough growing space. Plant tall herbs such as bay or rosemary at the back of the bed, so they do not shade the other plants. Plant perennial herbs through a weed-suppressant membrane and leave clear soil areas to sow annual herbs; these will have to be sown each year.
Herbs in containers
Herbs grow well in containers. If space is limited, or your soil is not suitable for some herbs you can create the right conditions for herbs in a container. Use an old sink, a large pot, a tub trug – anything that will hold compost. The larger the pot the better, this will hold on to moisture and nutrients. Drill some holes in the base to allow for drainage. Use a soil-based compost with added grit for drainage.
Herbs in beds will need some annual maintenance, but are generally easy to maintain. Herbaceous herbs need to be cut back in the spring to encourage strong healthy growth. Woody herbs such as rosemary, lavender, sage and thyme benefit from pruning any frost damaged or dead branches in late spring. Pruning after flowering will encourage new strong growth. Fertiliser is not generally necessary.
Herbs to grow from seed
Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
Basil is a half-hardy annual native to India, the Middle East and some Pacific Islands. It has been cultivated in the Mediterranean region for thousands of years, but only spread to Western Europe in the 16th Century. Use leaves fresh on pizzas and in tomato soups.
Sow from seed in mid-spring on a warm windowsill or greenhouse. Plant outside in late May or early June once frosts have passed.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
This is probably the best-known herb in the West. It is native to central and southern Europe. Parsley is rich in vitamin C and seems to enhance the flavour of food.
Parsley is a biennial plant. The seeds germinate and grow leaves in the first year, then flower, set seed and die in the second year. Soak the seeds in warm water then sow in spring in pots on a warm window-sill or greenhouse. Plant out when large enough to handle easily. Make a second sowing in late summer to continue production into autumn. Protect with cloches over winter.
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
The leaves and ripe seeds have two distinct flavours. The seeds are sweet and aromatic; the leaves are pungent and lemony. Coriander is native to southern Europe and the Middle East. It was introduced to northern Europe by the Romans. Seeds can be ground to add to curries and the leaves are chopped and added also to curries, stews and salads.
It is best sown direct in the soil outside in short rows starting in April to June. Seeds sown in pots tend to run to seed. If you do sow them inside, sow into modules then plant out when large enough.
Herbs to grow from division
Herbaceous (and some bulbous) plants can be propagated by division in the spring and autumn. Lift clumps of the herb and divide into smaller pieces, removing any sections of the original plant that appear old, damaged or dead. Replant healthy, young growth and discard older growth in the centre of the clump. This rejuvenates the plant and allows you to make more plants.
Marjoram or Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
This is a Mediterranean plant which grows wild in Britain and was probably introduced by the Romans. Here it is known as marjoram; in Mediterranean countries the same plant is known as oregano. It is sometimes included in bouquet garni and is added to pizza and tomato dishes.
Buy plants in pots and plant in sunny position with free-draining soil.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
Chives are a member of the onion family and form small bulbs, dying back below ground each winter. Chop the thin green leaves for food dishes to add an oniony flavour.
Chives can be grown from seed sown in pots indoors from March or outside from May. Seedlings are slow growing and division of an established clump gives quicker results. Divide clumps every three to four years in spring.