Alison Swanson of the Scottish Allotments and Gardens Society delves into the magical world of herbs.

Happy with herbs
In an era where world happiness research is taken seriously it is high time we challenge old fashioned views about the purpose of allotments. Large yields of potatoes may well have been needed in times of war but nowadays we need spiritual and emotional sustenance too. Filling your plot with extravagant, luxurious, and magical plants such as herbs should therefore be encouraged. Fortunately, a vast range can be grown very easily.

Scottish Gardener:

Every allotment should have mint. This is brilliant with potatoes and superb with the heritage variety Pink Fir Apple. Mint is very easy to grow and being the ’Gloria Gaynor’ of the plant world will survive anywhere so long as it has enough to drink. Mint is very invasive so be prepared to rip up chunks of it regularly or keep it confined to pots. Alongside traditional Peppermint (Mentha piperita) another good variety is Spearmint (Mentha spicata) which is milder, or the hairy Bowles Mint (Mentha x villosa var. alopecuriodes). The rosy leaves of Eau de Cologne Mint (Mentha x piperita v. citrata), from which the perfume originates, smells nice and the plant is quite pretty too.True herbal ‘aficionados’ however would choose Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) instead. This is a completely different plant from mint but it is grown in the same way and the scent is absolutely gorgeous.

All varieties of mint and Lemon Balm can be grown from seed on the surface of moist compost in early to mid summer. Mint seeds should be left uncovered whereas Lemon Balm should have a light covering of compost on top. When the seedlings are large enough to handle transfer them to small pots and grow to around six inches in size before planting out. Alternatively, take the easy route and when no one is looking nip off a stalk from a plant you like, place in a glass of water and wait for roots to appear from the area where the leaves join the stalk. 

The single most important herb to enhance the flavour of home grown tomatoes is Basil. This is also easy but it is only partially hardy and can’t be neglected like mint. Sow Basil seed evenly in small pots of compost from around May when the spring sun has warmed the air. An unheated frost free greenhouse, cold frame or poly tunnel is a good place. Cover the seeds with a little compost and keep them moist. Seedling should be grown on in a warm place and make sure there is a good circulation of air because basil is susceptible to botrytis (grey mould). Keep sowing, eating and appreciating while you can as basil will naturally die off when autumn days shorten and the weather cools. Traditional Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is brilliant for salads and sauces but there are other interesting varieties not available in the shops to try too. Lemon Basil (Ocimum citriodorum) is quite fresh and Bush Basil Ocimum miimum), has tiny leaves, eliminating the need to chop it.

Scottish Gardener:

Botanically speaking, herbs are any non woody plants with seeds that die down to ground level in the winter. Being a shrub, Elder (Sambuccus nigra) doesn’t actually qualify, but given its many uses and magical properties it should. The creamy flat inflorescence produced around June is delicious in cordial and the berries, added to jams and drinks later in the season, provide vitamin C and a rich red colour. It is important to avoid using any green parts such as stalks or leaves because these are toxic. Elders can grow quite large but never chop one down. According to folklore this will upset the goddess who lives in the tree and who will seek revenge. It is therefore probably wise to only grow this in a big plot or alternatively to seek a nice small variety like Sambucus calicarpa which is barely bigger than a blackcurrant bush and if the committee ever question you about having a tree in your plot, just say it’s a big herb.

Being adventurous
It is possible with a little research to easily grow perfume, natural dyes, tea medicines, and even spells down the plot. For example, try sowing Woad (Isatis tinctoria) in spring for dye and Sage (Salvia officianalis) to add to pumpkins. Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) is another easy herb from seed which, in addition to its medicinal properties, has roots which taste of parsnips. The world of herbs is great fun and allotmenteers can experiment to their hearts’ delight.