Herbs for all seasons
Kiran Narain

Tulsi, the Indian cousin of basil, is well known for its medicinal value
Tulsi, the Indian cousin of basil, is well known for its medicinal value

HERBS are essentially soft-stemmed plants with medicinal and aromatic properties, also used for culinary arts. Every garden should have a part devoted to herbs. The most useful herbs are sweet basil, coriander, chives, fennel, mint, parsley, sage and thyme, some of which may be grown from seeds while others are better started as roots or crowns when early produce is required. Since a few plants of each kind are sufficient for an average household, only small beds are required.

For most of us, the pleasure lies in the use of garden fresh herbs in cooking. What can be more pleasurable than stepping out of your kitchen and picking out the required amount of herbs. They are easy to grow in your garden and most of them will thrive on the terrace, a sunny windowsill or verandah when grown in containers.

In general, they are not fussy. Although growing conditions vary from herb to herb, well-drained, slightly sandy loam, enriched with organic manure suits most of them. Most herbs thrive in sunny sites. Once they are established, it is usually not necessary to manure them. The soil need not be particularly rich, many of the herbs are more aromatic in poor soil. You may renew the pot soil, though, if growing in containers. Their own natural oils protect them from disease and pests.

Anise: Also known as aniseed, the annual herb grows well in sunny position in drills one feet apart. When seedlings are large enough to handle, they may be planted six inches apart. The seeds and leaves are used for flavouring.

Basil:An annual herb widely used for flavouring in Italian, Mediterranean and Thai dishes. Known as Niazzbo in Urdu, it is easy to grow from seeds sown in September to October in northern plains. Who is not familiar with the medicinal values of its Indian cousin Tulsi - Ocium sanctum.

Chives: A cousin of onion, it grows well indoors and acts well as an insect-repellent. It likes dampness, some shade and benefit from cutting to promote shoots, otherwise bright pink tufts come up as flowers. With mild onion flavour, it is good added to mashed potatoes, egg and cheese dishes. Sprinkle on salads, new potatoes, omelettes etc. Always snip chives with scissors rather than chopping them on a board in which case a lot of flavour some juices are lost. Sow seed and grow like onions - spacing 6 inches apart in rows 1ft apart. Sow afresh after every three years or even every year in very hot climates.

Coriander: Also known as Chinese parsley or dhania. It is an indispensable ingredient of Asian cookery both as powered seeds as well as fresh leaves for garnishing. Sown from seed.

Fennel: An original sacred herb of the Romans. According to ayurvedic medicine, its seeds are stimulant, stomachic, carminative and the leaves are diuretic.

It is known as "barisaunf" in India and is very popular in Kashmiri cuisine. The fresh leaves and stem have a delicate aniseeds flavour. Chop and use with salads or fish. Cultivated like any other winter vegetable and is best sown in site.

Mint: Known as pudina in Hindi is used for chutneys, raita and jalzeera for its refreshing flavour. It grows from pieces of root and requires a moist soil in a not so sunny corner of the garden.

Parsley: One of the most widely used herbs in western culinary arts. Used chopped to garnish most of the savoury dishes like soups, white sauce, chicken, egg and fish as also for stuffing, omelette, rissoles and salads. It is very rich in Vitamin C and a number of minerals. Seeds may be sown in shallow drills along the margin of paths and borders for their beautiful foliage, thinning the seedlings to 9 in. apart.

Sage: Reputed for keeping one young, it is used for tea and flavouring meat and vegetable dishes both when green or dry. It is remarkably easy to grow from seed and cuttings in semi-shade.

Thyme: Has a pungent clove-like flavour and is used in tomato-sauce, soups, stuffing for chicken, turkey and duck. Grows from seed, cuttings and division of roots.