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Must Haves for the Food Garden

Herbs are the food gardener’s best partner in the quest to grow veggies organically.

The partnership goes far beyond planting herbs as insect repellents or for use in sprays. Planting herbs to make a nutrient-rich liquid fertiliser that saves on costs by feeding the plants for free is another great option. Added to the compost heap, herbs break it down faster and add micro-elements for a well-balanced compost. Other herbs improve the soil, acting as green manures. Flowering herbs attract pollinators, which improves the productivity of fruiting vegetables. They also improve the flavour of vegetables when interplanted amongst them. Although it is hard to prove, veggies planted together with their ‘companion’ herbs seem to be more disease resistant.

Many herbs are edibles in their own right, and not just for adding flavour, although it is hard to imagine food without the subtle addition of herbs. Think of salad herbs like rocket, sorrel, parsley and chives, or pesto made from basil or rocket leaves for a simple but sublime pasta. Herbs transform the basic salad dressing, mayonnaise, marinade and sauce. Planting herbs for their delicious qualities is well worth the effort.

Herbs are subjective: we all have our favourites that we swear by, but for beginners to food gardening planting herbs for a productive, healthy edible garden is a ‘must have’.

Best compost herb: The leaves of comfrey are rich in potassium, calcium and nitrogen, which gets released when it breaks down. Once cut, the leaves and stems break down fast, activating decomposition in the heap. The high carbon-to-nitrogen ratio adds to its effectiveness as a compost additive. To grow: Comfrey is best propagated from root cuttings. Grow in full sun to semi-shade in fertile soil that drains well. Plants die down in winter but sprout in spring.

Best fertiliser herb: Borage Borage is a spreading, water-wise herb that grows easily from seed. The leaves are rich in calcium, potassium and mineral salts. An infusion of the leaves acts as a plant tonic, applied as a foliar feed or drench. Add a bucket of boiling water to half a bucket of borage leaves. Let stand overnight, strain and use. It is an excellent green manure and the leaves, stems and flowers can be used as a nourishing mulch. To grow: Sow seed in situ in full sun. Water regularly. It is a short-lived annual that sows itself.

Best pollinator herb: Yarrow produces flowering heads that attract beneficial insects such as ladybirds, bumble bees, hoverflies, butterflies and wasps. But its benefits go far beyond that: it has a tonic effect by helping nearby plants resist disease by stimulating their production of essential oils. Use the leaves to make a mineral-rich liquid fertiliser or add them to the compost as an activator. To grow: Needs full sun and fertile soil that should be kept consistently moist.

Best insect-repelling herb: Southernwood Southernwood is a small bush with pungent, grey-green leaves. The whole plant deters insects and can be used as general insect repellent. Branches laid between rows of beetroot, cabbage, carrots and onions will deter carrot fly and aphids. To deter aphids, ants, moths and whitefly, make an insect spray using a southernwood infusion with a little liquid soap. Spray 2 – 3 days in a row, until the pests have gone. To grow: Plant in full sun in light soil that drains well. Cut back hard in late spring.

Best companion herbs: Sweet basil is not only a prized culinary herb but is especially beneficial for tomatoes, improving their flavour and helping them to grow better. It is a general insect repellent for all plants, because of its strongly aromatic leaves. To grow: Plant in fertile, well-drained soil in full sun to semi-shade and water regularly.

Oregano is another essential culinary herb that is a good companion to a long list of edible plants: brinjals, carrots, cucumbers, green peppers, pumpkins, radishes, strawberries and tomatoes. The leaves contain high levels of aromatic thymol, which has strong insect-repelling abilities. This also makes it useful as a pesticide in natural control remedies. Its flowers attract bees and butterflies. The groundcover varieties can be used as an insect-repellent groundcover, especially prostrate varieties like golden oregano, and ‘Country Cream’ (variegated variety). To grow: Plant in full sun, in fertile, well-drained soil.

Nasturtium has edible flowers, leaves and seeds, and also adds colour to the garden. It acts as a trap crop for aphids, making it a particularly good companion for broad beans, broccoli, cabbage, cucumber, radishes and tomatoes, as well as other plants targeted by aphids. To grow: Plant in full sun, in ordinary garden soil. Do not fertilise as this develops leaves at the expense of flowers. Pull out plants that are infested with aphids and throw them away, then sow a new batch.

Easy edibles: Herbs that can be eaten almost as ‘vegetables’ are basil (pesto), rocket (pesto and salad), sorrel (salad), lemon thyme (for salad dressings, flavouring), and parsley and chives for garnishes, salads, dressings and cooking (Italian parsley).

Parsley: ‘Moss Curled’ is the traditional garden parsley that is added at the end of cooking, while ‘Italian Giant’ flat-leaf parsley grows into a bigger plant. It has a better taste and withstands longer cooking. It is a multi-vitamin, soothes indigestion and attracts aphids away from other plants. To grow: Parsley needs at least four hours of sun a day, and deep, fertile soil that drains well. Fertilise monthly and water regularly. The soil should never dry out completely. Do not plant with mint. Set out new plants every six months.

Lemon thyme has a robust flavor that makes it good for potjies and braai marinades, as well as in salads and salad dressings. Because the stalks are tough, strip the leaves off the stems or use whole sprigs and remove them after cooking. To grow: Plant in full sun and gritty soil that drains well, or in a pot.

Sorrel has soft, broad, green leaves that have a deliciously sour tang. A variation is blood sorrel, which has lance-shaped leaves with deep red veins. The sour flavour of the leaves is milder than normal sorrel. Use the young leaves as the old ones can be tough. To grow: Sorrel grows like spinach, liking full sun and rich, well-composted soil. Water frequently to keep the leaves juicy. Cut flower shoots off to encourage the growth of leaves.