A zest for herbs by Caroline Holmes

The speaker at our meeting on 16th October was Caroline Holmes who gave a talk entitled “A Zest for Herbs”. Caroline is a well-known gardening author and lecturer who has written eleven books including works on garden history, studies of water lilies,  herbs and dung and books of general gardening advice. She has travelled widely giving lectures and speaking on cruises and giving tutorials.

Caroline started by giving us an opportunity to handle and smell a number of herbs  with examples of myrtle, rosemary, lemon-scented geranium, golden bay, rue, fennel, lemon verbena, lavender and thyme …

She spoke about their culinary uses, often with unusual examples such as rosemary used in biscuits or fennel seeds used for dieting because eating them makes you feel full very quickly. Lemon scenetd geranium can be used in sponges or custard and rue is valuable as a laxative. Most of these herbs can be propagated by taking heel cuttings at this time of year. Trim a lot of the leaves off and plant in pots in compost with between a third and a half of the stem buried. Cover the pot with a plastic bag.

Caroline continued her talk with illustrations on the screen. There were illustrations of more herbs, with further culinary and quirky examples of the way they can be used, together with several instances of gardens where there are particularly good herb gardens which are practical as well as attractive and which demonstrate that, in the words of a seventeenth century garden writer, herbs are “fit for use and delight”. Two such places easily accessible from Bedford are Coton Manor Garden in Northamptonshire and Woburn Abbey garden. Caroline also showed pictures of some fine French gardens beautifully laid out in a variety of formal patterns. One garden that Caroline designed for a client with a passion for cooking has separate beds for meat, fish and lemon scented herbs. At Yalding in Kent Caroline designed a herb garden with three separate sections illustrating the evolution of herb gardens from the medieval apothecary’s garden to the Tudor knot garden. A knot garden should look as if it has three threads with neither beginning nor ending and can use different coloured plants for contrast.

We then saw some examples of mass planting of one kind of herb, one used chamomile as a seat so that the scent is released when the leaves are crushed and at Sulgrave Manor there is a planting of thyme on a raised bed where sitting on the prickly thyme is avoided by having  an edge of flag stones built up on railway sleepers. At Woburn Abbey there is an attractive chamomile bed by the Folly.

Some of the finer leaved herbs, known as Fines herbs, such as  parsley, chervil, chives and French tarragon  are best used chopped  and folded into omelettes or salads rather than used for long cooking. The stalks of parsley and chervil can be used in bouquet garni  and leek leaves can be used to make an envelope in which the bouqet garni herbs are wrapped. Amongst the many herbs that Caroline talked about were some unusual ones such as red orache which is best used just for its looks in salads or Tulbaghia used for its garlic/onion flavour.

Caroline continued her talk showing some examples of herbs used for topiary. Rosemary can be cut  as  a hedge, Myrtle can be used for topiary in place of box which has been destroyed by box blight and even lavender can be trimmed into a conical shape. She concluded by showing how herbs can be used in salads with a particular reference to fennel and salad rocket.

In a question and answer session Caroline spoke about preserving herbs. She thinks the best way is to freeze good sized stems or heads of herbs and break them off as needed. Mint jelly is another way and mint can also be used in apple  or gooseberry jelly.

Our next meeting will be on 20th November when Simon White, Garden Centre manager at Beales Roses will speak on the A to Z of roses.

Jeremy Arthern 


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