If you want to be generous with fresh herbs – not a sprinkle of this or that, but fistfuls of pungent leafy greens or tender sprigs plucked seconds before the dish needs them – then you need to grow your own. It’s the volatile oils in herbs that make them interesting to cook with and these are lost to the air every time the plant is bruised or bashed. Those wrapped in plastic packages in the supermarket are ghosts of their former selves, to say little of the environmental cost of the refrigeration and transport.
September is such a kind month to establish perennial plants: the soil is often warm and wet, and there’s time enough before the nights draw in for the plants to get their roots down. This goes for herbs as much as anything else. If you haven’t got a herb garden, this is the perfect moment to establish one. Common herbs such as rosemary, thyme, bay (remember, bay is a tree and will grow large if not pruned regularly), chives, marjoram, oregano, tarragon and mint can all go into the ground now. Here are a few of the more unusual ones that are worth having a go with, particularly as these stay in leaf over winter.
The anise leaves of dill will not survive outside all year, but the similarly flavoured chervil is quite happy outdoors – it will even weather the snow. There is still time to sow direct. If left to flower next summer, it will happily self-seed around your garden.
Russian tarragon is less punchy than French, but is not to be ignored as it is much hardier, staying evergreen all winter if you can keep it out of the worst of the cold rain. It works very well at the base of a wall where it can sit in the rain shadow.
Nor, for that matter, should winter savory be left out in favour of its summer counterpart, summer savory. It will stay in leaf as long as its feet remain in well-drained conditions somewhere sunny and sheltered, and it packs quite a spicy punch in cooking. It is particularly good with dried beans in stews and soups.
If you have space, then Korean perennial celery or seombadi, Dystaenia takesimana, which grows to around four feet, is worth considering. It tastes a little like lovage or more perfumed celery leaves, but is so hardy that even in the snow there are leaves to pick.
Most herbs prefer sun and well-drained conditions; they will positively hate wet feet in winter. If your soil is in the least bit heavy, then dig in grit or sharp sand before planting. Otherwise you will watch your newly planted babies rot over the winter.