BEAUTIFUL AND PRODUCTIVE Western Herbs & Veg, where Chris Smith produces organic herbs and vegetables for sale.
In the garden
We have been growing herbs for over 35 years outside Westport. Herbs are not only useful in cooking but are a splendid addition to any garden in terms of scent, colour and structure, and many can also be used for medicinal purposes.
For anyone interested in growing herbs there are a few things you should keep in mind – they need to be grown near your kitchen, as this allows for easy access when cooking. They can be grown in pots or window boxes, but they are better grown in beds in the ground. Whether you decide to grow the herbs in pots or in the ground, most need good drainage, as their origin is Mediterranean.
Tips for the west
The easiest herbs to grow here in the west of Ireland are mint, parsley, chives, lemon balm and rocket. Drainage is not as critical for these herbs and they can tolerate our wet conditions. If you have had little success in growing thyme and rosemary, it could be because you have acid soil, and in this case they should be grown in pots.
Basil is a very popular herb, but most gardeners struggle to grow it. This is because it prefers hot, dry, well-drained soil – which is certainly a challenge for us here in Mayo. I grow basil in a polytunnel, but you can grow basil on a south-facing window sill in a pot indoors. Bear in mind that the main mistake that gardeners make is overwatering; the basil plant must dry out between waterings.
Tarragon is another herb that is a great addition in cooking but is difficult to grow outdoors. The key is to grow it in poor soil – about 75 percent grit to soil – in a raised bed or a pot.
Oregano is a good addition to any garden – it attracts bees, is very easy to grow and lasts over ten years in the same place! Thyme and sage, on the other hand, can become woody and untidy after four or five years and can be replaced.
Herbs can be purchased in spring in garden centres, or from myself in Westport Country Market. It is advisable not to plant out any herbs until the soil is warm – so the end of April into May.
Some herbs are better to grow from seed – these include coriander, dill and rocket. These need to be sown regularly (every three to four weeks) from May onwards throughout the summer to maintain a continuous supply. Watch out – they have a tendency to bolt and go to seed! Cutting seed heads off helps will give the grower a longer supply.
While it is important to have good drainage, herbs do not like to be overfed, as this can lead to disease and even reduces the flavour of the herbs.
Bees love comfrey, and this herb also has many uses. In herbal medicine, it is called the knitbone herb and is claimed to promote the more-rapid repair of broken bones. Comfrey cream, which can be purchased in Ylang Ylang in Westport, is very good for cuts and hands in general. I use it as a hand moisturiser.
Comfrey is used in my garden as a liquid feed. I harvest the leaves of the comfrey and place in a bucket with a large stone to compress the leaves. This bucket is then covered, and after about four to six weeks (depending on the time of year) you have a solution of dark black liquid. This is then diluted ten parts water to one part comfrey feed, and we feed this to tomato plants, strawberries, dahlias, roses and agapanthus.
Feverfew, which has a pretty daisy-like flower and is native to Ireland, has been known to ease migraine.
Customers tell me that a couple of leaves eaten in a sandwich have reduced their headaches.
I am not a chef, but I would encourage readers to try out some herbs in their cooking. Oregano and basil is good in any Italian dish. Thyme is wonderful is soups and stuffings, while coriander is used in curries and Indian food, as well as Thai food.
Finally, I would encourage you to try some teas made from fresh herbs. A handful of peppermint with boiling water makes a great tea. Lemon balm is native to Ireland and makes a very refreshing tea – and it is reported that it is good for colds, flu, headache and indigestion. The great Muslim physician Avicenna recommended this herb because ‘it makes the heart merry’.
I would encourage all gardeners to experiment with herbs – they really do give great pleasure, both in the garden and as additions to dishes of all sorts.
Chris Smith has been running Western Herbs & Veg for more than 30 years, producing organic herbs and vegetables for sale at Westport Country Market. He is a member of the Clew Bay Garden Trail, a chain of beautiful and unique private gardens that open to the public during summer to raise funds for charity (see www.clewbaygardentrail.ie for more). Each month, an article by a trail member will appear in these pages.