I have tried. There was an attempt 25 years ago, but I only got enough sorrel to put in a salad, and a small salad at that. Most of the coriander leaves were brown and stringy before I could even use them, and don’t even ask me about the chervil, the main reason I’d started the whole futile endeavour. I’d failed to grow a herb garden.
Then fifteen years ago, when I moved house, I tried gardening again. I love scented geraniums and floral ice-creams; in fact, I love that you can take herbs and leaves and extract their flavours by adding them to sugar syrups or warm cream or vinegar. How many more ribbons of flavour does this make available in your kitchen?
I find it hard to get to sleep some nights wondering what I can do with them all. So, I bought beautiful scented geraniums that came with copious notes on how to look after them and for a while, I did. I used those leaves for a summery bread and butter pudding with raspberries, the rose geranium scenting the cream and milk.
But when summer ended, I forgot all about them, forgot to check on them, forgot to move them indoors. One day I looked out the kitchen window and they were dead. Except they might not have been – they could have just been asleep. Wintering. Or autumning, or whatever it is they do. I knew so little about gardening I couldn’t even tell whether my plants were dead or alive.
Now – propelled by flavour, the thing that keeps me awake at night – I’m having another stab at a herb garden. There isn’t a problem with the major herbs. You can just buy parsley and mint. If you live near a Turkish or Middle Eastern shop, you can buy them by the armful.
But the most common herbs aren’t enough. I want angelica, which I discovered in Iceland (they make jelly from it to eat with smoked lamb, in fact many of the sheep in Iceland graze on wild angelica). I want lovage and lemon verbena and I still long for aniseedy chervil.
And then there’s all the unfamiliar herbs I came across in Vietnam. I can continue telling you what a wonder herbs are; I could make you hungry. But I want to be practical. About 25 pots of herbs arrived two weeks ago. I’d made a shortlist of twelve, thinking that if I kept my gardening ambitions small, I might succeed. Then I started to shop online, and good sense left me. The names of the herbs sounded soothingly incantatory as I said them to myself – anise hyssop, sweet cicely, summer savory – the herbal equivalent of the shipping forecast.
I checked my book on herbs by food writer and gardener, Mark Diacono. There’s a slim section at the front on growing so I read it – using a red pen to mark all the most important points – then contacted Mark to make sure I was across it.
First, he assured me that perennials were the thing to go for. They keep growing, unlike annuals that you have to plant every year. As a rule of thumb, though herbs vary, water every couple of days, and water round the base of the plant, not over the top. In spring and summer give the plants liquid fertiliser every few weeks. Don’t pick so much that you strip an entire plant of its leaves but pick enough to encourage growth.
My pots are out on the decking. I visit them every morning before I open my laptop, picking the odd leaf and rubbing it between my fingers, though you can smell the different notes just by walking by the pots. The herb book, with its alphabet of plants, is open on the kitchen table. I have a feeling it’s going to work this time. This time, I really care.
Linguine with pesto pazzo
This pesto isn’t Italian, in that it came out of my head, not an Italian’s. Pazzo is Italian for ‘crazy’ as this is quite unorthodox. Sometimes I even add a couple of anchovies, others a little chopped fresh chilli.
I find basil a bit cloying on its own – it’s so perfumed – which is why I make this with other herbs as well. This is still quite rich but not overpowering.