Growing and Using Culinary Herbs, by Jekka McVicar

Jekka McVicar and GG Programme Secretary Sue Wheeler

Jekka’s eclectic career began when she was a singer and flute player in a progressive rock band.  The band was one of the first to appear at Glastonbury and to perform at the Isle of Wight Festival.  She subsequently worked at the BBC in the drama department and then went on to work at a herb nursery in Somerset.  In 1987, she and her husband Mac established their herb garden, which has now has the largest collection of culinary herbs in the UK hosting more than 500 different varieties.

Jekka has published many books, written for the RHS, contributes to many publications, and has been awarded the Garden Media Guild Lifetime Achievement Award ‘for services to horticulture, design, education and communication and excellence in the field of organic herb growing’ in 2012 and the Victoria Medal of Honour for her services to horticulture in 2017.

Jekka treated us to a fascinating and entertaining talk which started with her reminiscing on how as a child, she would visit her grandmother (Ruth Lowinsky), pick Mint from her garden and make mint sauce with sugar and white wine (or cider) vinegar.   A recipe she still uses today.    She then told us how she had started her ‘Herbetum’ 40 years ago, (etum meaning ‘collection of’) she continued to describe some popular herbs and the different ways we can use them.

Source: Jekka’s website

Mint when grown in a pot will last 6-8 weeks, it should be fed with a seaweed feed.  It should be cut back in September, fed and will keep growing until the frost.  It should be re potted in November.  Mixing Mint with peppermint can enhance good sleep.  Korean Mint is a beautiful plant which is not invasive and good for wildlife.

Bay is known for adding to casseroles, soups and bouquet garni, but is also delicious as ice-cream, the recipe for which is on her website.  

The best time to sow Garlic is on the shortest day and harvest on the longest.   Garlic was used in ancient Egyptian times for sores and has been scientifically proven to aid the healing of skin.  Welsh Onion, wild garlic and Siberian chives are all good for making flavoured vinegars. 

White borage flowers are lovely scattered on salads, also good in ice-cubes.

Calendula is good for putting in creams for skin but not for eating.

Heartease (Viola Tricolor) can be made into tea for long distance flying pigeons, they are nice in ice cubes.

Fennel, (which was introduced into this country by the Romans) helps with digestion and has been scientifically proven to lower cholesterol.

French Tarragon (different to Russian Tarragon) is also a good digestive herb. It is also good to use in oils and vinegar.   Russian Tarragon is just an upper-class grass and bears no resemblance to French Tarragon.

Herbs are good for making syrups, added to soda water is a refreshing drink. 

Celery leaf is a UK native herb which was taken to India.  It has a milder taste than Coriander, which although thought to be native to India originated in Italy.  Coriander, Sorrel and Parsley can be grown in North facing gardens.  Coriander and Dill are annuals.  Seed them when you want them to crop and do not transplant.

Lavender is a useful medicinal herb.  It can be used to make biscuits, cakes and is also good ice cream.  Make sure to prune Lavender, Sage and Rosemary in September as it an become woody.  Sage is a good tea for sore throats.  Rosemary tea is good for memory, also good as a tonic and for hangovers.

There are 10 different types of Basil, good for rubbing on bites, especially mosquito bites.  It also hates being wet at night so must be watered in the morning.  It is better grown against a wall and not in pots.  Marjoram and Oregano used on pizzas, are the same plant.  There are 13 different types of Thyme and a favourite with bees to treat themselves against disease.  Rhubarb and lemon thyme crumble is a good pudding to make.

Lemon Verbena is the Rolls Royce of herbs, best in tea and wonderful in ice cubes.  Not to cut the stems now but to prune in April/May when the leaves just start to appear.

Liquorice is the sweetest of herbs, but invasive.

Jekka stressed that you must feed herbs regularly as you would vegetables to be rewarded.  Seeds should always be kept away from the light and dry, only take seeds from the packet you need, never put them back in the packet after being in your hand. Never keep seeds in the fridge.

Lots of information of growing herbs and recipes are on Jekka’s website and in her many books.  Her new book ‘100 Herbs to Grow’ is published in March 2024.

Thank you Jekka for a very entertaining and informative evening.