May

It goes without saying that we are all busy sowing and growing as the days lengthen and the soil warms up. A good indicator of both these facts is the weed growth. If the weeds will grow then so will many other things. However a warm April followed by copious heavy showers, indeed days of rain can lull us into believing it is later in the year than it is. Last May was cold with particularly icy winds so I am still aware that all veg plants must be well hardened off before planting and I am never tempted to put veg plants out before I am sure that the easterlies have gone off somewhere else for the summer and the plants will get a good warm start.

I always sow a few herbs, but with a lecture coming up for a local society I neededplenty of herbs to take with me so I was sowing early. All the herbs I would normally sow such as chives, parsley, coriander and various types of basil got going well on the propagating bench with a little heat and were ready for the talk and for display just a few days ago.

However, I took the view that we all know quite a lot about the more common herbs so I spent time researching the subject a little more deeply and was very surprised at how much information there is out there and even more surprised that some of the old books about herbs that I have are so out of date. The modern clamour for herbal remedies and companion planting has really spurred the scientific community into trying to establish which of the herbalists claims can be supported and which are old wives’ tales. I also realised how many herbs I might be selling but was not planting and using myself as companion plants or indeed culinary herbs. So a whole new world, that I thought I knew about, has opened up and I want to mention a few here that we can be sowing this month, without heat, that will be useful to us throughout the summer.

Chives – a few cheap seeds in a pot, will emerge in days and become a perennial clump in the garden for use in the kitchen and throwing up a few attractive flowers as they seed. However, they are one of the best plants to prevent fungal disease in other plants and with the wet weather we have experienced those diseases have proliferated. Planted under roses they prevent blackspot, planted under apple trees they prevent scab. However some patience is required as it seems to take about three years before a significant difference is noticed, but then it can be truly remarkable.

Chives discourage aphids on chrysanthemums and sunflowers and the strength of one claim for the power of the chive is proved by the commercial production of a spray made from its oil which is successfully used against downy and powdery mildew on cucumbers and gooseberries.

Dill – Great with fish, an essential ingredient in gravadlax; all the old books will tell us it attracts bees. In fact modern tests seem to indicate the opposite is true. Grown from seed now and not over fed or it becomes lank and weedy it will last the season without setting seed. Grown near cabbages, lettuces and sweet corn it will increase their yield. It should not be grown anywhere near fennel as it will hybridise and create a plant which bears little resemblance to either of its parents. And this is where I should mention fennel, as it may be the big enemy in the garden as it is the greatest inhibitor of other plants setting seed, so whilst we can have it next to root crops that we do not want to set seed, it should not be near flowers. Conversely and just to confuse you, coriander will inhibit fennel from setting seed, so this all sets you thinking really quite hard about where herbs can be useful or really quite detrimental.

Parsley – the trend for flat leaf parsley has increased as it does have a stronger flavour than the curly or moss type. It contains more concentration of the essential oil apiol and is very high in vitamins C and K. Flat leaf was apparently not popular because it could easily be confused with hemlock which is extremely poisonous. As one lady said to me at the lecture, in the days when hemlock was easily sourced it would have been very easy to murder your husband and claim a mistake in the garnish! Parsley attracts many insects which are beneficial bug eaters but in so doing it also attracts wasps so don’t put it in a tub where you are likely to sit regularly. Despite the tales to the contrary parsley is easy to germinate as long as the compost is warm. If not then use warm water to water it for the first couple of days and it will respond. The seed coat of parsley contains a chemical which is thought to inhibit its own germination and will inhibit the germination of seeds nearby so keep it on its own until it emerges and plant in pots first rather than straight in the ground.

There are so many herbs that I would love to mention and I will get round to few more and also with a mention for the perennials but finally, one which I am growing this year, borage. A member, indeed founder member of its family which includes the Echium, it has hairy leaves, the obvious blue to pink flowers and the bees love it. I am planting close to the beans and strawberries so we attract the pollinators. I am reliably informed it could double the yield of the beans and when dead is fantastic accelerant in the compost. It does set seed prolifically but I suspect it will be worth the trouble to have so many more beans and better compost. I will let you know.

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