Herbs are such a huge part of the festive platter, from the richness of sage in stuffing, to rosemary with delicious roast lamb.
So, why don’t you grow herbs in your garden to fill your Christmas plate with flavour? It’s too late this year to start from scratch, but you can steal a march now by planning your festive feasts with herbs from your own garden in 2021.
“Rosemary, parsley, thyme, sage and bay are all great additions to Christmas fare,” says RHS chief horticulturist Guy Barter.
What conditions will they need?
“Almost all herbs, apart from mint and chives, require good direct sunlight. Imagine a place that gets more than six hours’ sunlight a day in June; that’s the best place to put them. Use a good multipurpose compost or John Innes, and it’s a good idea to repot them every spring because they don’t like waterlogging.”
These are his recommendations for easy-to-grow herbs which add flavour to festive dishes…
This wonderful evergreen is a must in stuffing, and can be bought now in pots in nurseries and garden centres, and can be potted up and put outside or in your greenhouse, says Barter.
“It’s not going to do a lot of growing until April, but if you trim it and use the trimmings in your kitchen, that will be fine. It will then be useful for future years. If you have a heated greenhouse or conservatory, it might well start growing for a second winter crop.”
Sage is one of the easiest plants to strike from cuttings, he says. “If you were to buy a plant in the spring, grow it in the garden all summer and then in August take cuttings, they should root and be growing by November.”
Older sage leaves are shed in summer and the plants can get leggy, so cut them back a little in April or in late summer to keep them bushy. Take cuttings as they are not a long-lived plant, Barter advises.
The leaves should be perfect for harvesting just before the flower buds open in late summer. You can dry them by hanging them up in a dark, airy place such as a shed, or freeze them until you need them at Christmas.
This underrated herb is brilliant added to a softened butter, lemon juice and crushed garlic mix to line the turkey between the skin and breast during cooking.
“Parsley is surprisingly hardy, so if you buy plants they will grow perfectly well outdoors or on a windowsill. It’s too late to sow seeds now, but if you sow seeds in July, you get lovely plants for winter,” says Barter.
Again, if you buy a pot of parsley now from a nursery or garden centre, it will be happiest outdoors in a sunny spot. It’s a biennial, so any parsley plants you have now will run to seed in the spring. Sow fresh seed twice a year, he advises – once in April for summer supplies, and another in July for strong plants for the winter. Parsley will need to be replaced each year.
“Sow parsley in a cell tray and then pot on the clumps of plants as soon as the roots bind the soil. Raise the plants in the cell tray in the greenhouse or cover them in a cloche or fleece to keep the carrot fly off. Parsley likes moist, but not waterlogged, soil.”
“This is a terrific garden evergreen, widely sold as small plants which will go on year after year. It’s always worth planting a bay tree if you have a sunny spot, or as an ornamental potted plant.”
The bitter-sweet, spicy flavour of bay leaves can be used to enhance soups, stocks, gravy or casserole, Barter recommends. “Like most herbs, the flavour is more intense in late summer, but the leaves have a pretty strong flavour in any season.”
4. Rosemary (now identified as salvia)
This herb is synonymous with roast lamb, its aromatic sprigs adding flavour to your traditional roast, but it also gives wow factor to turkey gravy if you let a few sprigs infuse while the gravy’s cooking, and then remove them before serving.
“If you have a dry, sunny soil, rosemary is very easy and reliable,” says Barter. “It can take neglect and will withstand pruning, although if you have clay soil it can be short lived. It’s easy to propagate from cuttings taken in late summer. Treat it exactly like lavender. All these sun-loving herbs from Mediterranean climates are like that.”
Coriander is a brilliant herb to add to Boxing Day salads, especially if you’re going for Asian, chilli-orientated concoctions with your cold meats, or to sprinkle over a spicy turkey curry.
“Seeds of these herbs are very cheap. Sow them in from early summer every three to four weeks for a constant supply, and pick the leaves when they are young. Sow them indoors in winter – and in three or four weeks you may have some leaves you can use for cooking.”
Dill, which provides the perfect accompaniment to salmon, hot or cold, is a large annual or biennial with ferny foliage. Sow seeds between mid-spring and summer and you’ll need to stake taller varieties such as ‘Herkules’ which grows to 1.2m, to stop them topping over.
Don’t allow compost to dry out and cut leaves as required during spring and summer and then freeze or dry them for Christmas use.