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How to grow Mediterranean herbs

How to grow Mediterranean herbs

If you love to cook, you are guaranteed to adore Mediterranean herbs. Is there anything more delicious than freshly-picked, torn basil served with buffalo mozzarella and home-grown tomatoes? We don’t think so.

The great news is that Mediterranean herbs are happy in pots, so you can grow your own whatever space you have, whether it’s a window box or a huge garden with acres of space.

Mediterranean herbs are also really attractive for bees, so your little kitchen garden will be helping out your local wildlife, too.

So, if you’re hoping to grow your own herbs, keep reading for all the advice you’ll need.

Many cooks’ favourites are Mediterranean in origin. The most popular include:

  • Basil
  • Bay leaves
  • Chives
  • Dill
  • Fennel
  • Marjoram
  • Mint
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Tarragon
  • Thyme

Sage, rosemary, thyme, mint and basil are the most commonly searched for herbs in the UK.

In fact, strong and earthy sage is the most popular of all, with hundreds of thousands of online searches per month.

Oregano, bay leaves, marjoram and parsley are also popular due to their frequent use in Mediterranean and North African dishes.

Mediterranean herbs to grow together

The beauty of a M editerranean herb garden, trough or window box is that when herbs are grown together they can release a wonderful aroma, especially in summer when they come into their own.

At Muddy Trowel you can buy specially-selected combinations of herbs in our window boxes and plants in a pot ranges. You can choose between a kitchen garden-style window box combining rosemary, spearmint, thyme and oregano or, if you’re a bit of a mixologist, we have a carefully curated “Gin” pot that includes thyme, lemon balm and basil mint, as well as edible flowers to garnish your favourite tipple.

How to grow and care for Mediterranean herbs

The general rule of thumb if you want healthy, thriving Mediterranean herbs is to provide them with sun, shelter from winds and good drainage so they aren’t at risk of being waterlogged. Of course, they still need regular watering, but the key is to make sure they don’t sit in water or waterlogged soil. This is why at Muddy Trowel we add horticultural grit to the compost we supply with our potted herb garden collections, as this helps with drainage.

The other great thing about Mediterranean herbs is that they prefer soil that isn’t that rich in nutrients, so you can be sparing with the frequency you feed them. During the summer, you probably only need to feed them about once a month.

Can Mediterranean herbs grow all year round in the UK?

It depends on the herb. Some, like basil, can’t cope with our freezing winters, so they are annuals – meaning that you’ll have to replace them every year if you keep them outside.  Others, like thyme, are perennial, and will keep growing year after year outdoors, providing they are well looked after.

How to grow basil

close up of basil leaves

Annual or Perennial? Annual

Goes well with: Pasta sauces, pizzas, salads, tomatoes

Basil is an ‘annual’ plant in the UK, because it won’t survive our chilly winters. However, it also grows well indoors, so consider bringing some inside in a pot in autumn so that you have a supply throughout the winter.

How to grow basil:

Basil needs a combination of water, heat and sun to really thrive. When watering basil, try to avoid getting water on the leaves and water early in the morning so that there is less chance of the plant developing problems with powdery mould. Avoid making the compost permanently soggy. If in doubt, push your finger a couple of centimetres into the top of the soil. If it’s dry, water, but If still wet, leave it and recheck in a couple of days. 

If your basil really takes off and you’re growing it in a container, consider dividing the plants into separate pots to allow them to fill out and become more bushy.  

Feeding basil during the summer every four weeks or so with a liquid fertiliser will encourage new growth and basil flowers, which the bees will absolutely love.

How to harvest basil:

To harvest basil, simply pinch the top growth from the stem, just above a leaf joint (where the leaves grow out from the stem) or cut the stem down to three or four pairs of leaves. By doing this, you will be picking the freshest, youngest leaves and encouraging new growth and side shoots which will make the plant bushier and more abundant. 

Although basil doesn’t survive outside in the winter, the good news is that it can be frozen with a little water in ice trays to make basil ice cubes. These can be used to make pesto really easily and the leaves don’t require defrosting (they will go slimy if you do this.) Just bung them straight in with your other pesto ingredients, blitz and add to your favourite pasta. 

How to grow oregano

close up of oregano leaves

Annual or Perennial? Perennial

Goes well with: Pizza, lamb, tomatoes, aubergines, salad dressings

Probably best known for being dried and sprinkled on top of a pizza, oregano is a wonderfully versatile Mediterranean herb that will bring a hint of Italy to your dishes. From lasagne, pasta sauces, pizzas and roasts, the depth of flavour from oregano more than justifies the need to have it in your herb garden.

How to grow oregano:

Oregano is easy and low maintenance. It will die back completely over winter and start shooting new growth in spring, so try to keep it on the dry side regarding watering throughout the year and, if potted, move to a sheltered location in winter where it will be protected from frost and not battered by cold downpours.

Repot every couple of years with fresh compost and keep it in a sunny spot, watered but never waterlogged and it will reward you every year.

Occasionally, give the whole plant a haircut to encourage new growth. If you only do this once a year, then do it in July or August.

How to harvest oregano:

Snip off stems regularly as needed  from late spring. You can use the leaves either fresh or dried, and like basil, they can also be frozen in ice-cubes for winter use.

How to grow marjoram

close up of majoram leaves

Annual or Perennial? Annual

Goes well with: Sausages, pulses, poultry and as an infusion for oils and vinegars

A gourmet chef’s delight, marjoram is the more aromatic cousin of oregano. Its leaves are typically used fresh and added to Italian, Greek and Spanish recipes to impart their beautifully aromatic and slightly citrus oils, providing depth of flavour as well as a lemony freshness.

How to grow Marjoram:

Marjoram care is the same as for oregano, as they are close relatives. It likes full sun and to be watered sparingly.

Once flowering is finished, prune it to promote new growth.

Over winter, put marjoram in a sheltered spot that protects it from frosts and winter wet weather, but where it can still get light. If you want to bring it inside, it will be happy near a south facing window indoors.

How to harvest marjoram:

You can cut the stems you want to harvest right down to the base. Marjoram is at its most flavourful just before flowering. However, marjoram flowers do make a lovely garnish if sprinkled over a dish.

How to grow rosemary

close up of rosemary leaves

Annual or Perennial? Perennial

Goes well with: Chicken, stews, lamb, as an infusion for oils and vinegars

A brilliant and versatile plant with many uses, rosemary is one of our favourite herbs. As well as being excellent in recipes, you can garnish drinks with it, use it as a basting brush for barbeque marinades, tie it up and dry it for use throughout winter, infuse oils and vinegars with it – the possibilities are endless.

How to grow rosemary:

Cutting rosemary back after flowering can help it become less woody and fragile. However, be careful not to cut back into existing woody stems as it will not regrow from those cuts.

Rosemary plants can become quite large, so you may need to repot a potted rosemary plant every couple of years after it’s fully established.

In winter, make sure the rosemary is kept on the drier side so that frost doesn’t freeze the water in the soil and damage the roots. If potted, move it to a sheltered spot where it won’t be subjected to cold winds and winter downpours.

How to harvest rosemary:

Harvesting rosemary stalks regularly during the summer will encourage fresh growth that will be packed with aromatic oils.

How to grow sage

close up of sage leaves

Annual or Perennial? It depends on which kind of sage you choose! There are hundreds of different types, so read the instructions carefully when you’re buying plants or seeds.

Goes well with: Stuffings, pork, root vegetables, as an infusion for tea, fish

Sage is so beautiful that it is often grown just for its ornamental impact. It comes in all sorts of colours, including purples, yellows and whites.  It is a true Mediterranean stalwart that no Mediterranean herb garden should be without.

How to grow sage

As with all the Mediterranean herbs, this plant loves full sun. It will also benefit from regular watering, light occasional feeding throughout summer (every 4-6 weeks) and protection from being waterlogged and frost damaged during winter.

How to harvest sage:

Harvest the leaves as you would harvest rosemary, and remember to avoid cutting into the woody stems. Regular harvesting will help sage keep a bushier shape and not become leggy.

If you’ve bought a perennial variety, you can pick sage leaves all year round. However, late morning or early evenings are the best time of day, as this is when the plant’s oils are most concentrated in the leaves.

If you have annual sage, pick the leaves before they flower.

How to grow sage from a cutting

Sage grows well from cuttings. If you’d like try this, the brilliant people at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) have great advice here.

How to grow thyme

close up of thyme leaves

Annual or Perennial? Perennial

Goes well with: Eggs, fish, lamb, Mediterranean vegetables

Such a happy and humble herb and loved by pollinators, thyme is perfect for garden pots, gravel gardens, edges of paths and window boxes alike.

We are spoilt for choice with the varieties of thyme available, different coloured leaves, flowers and even aromas: lemon thyme is particularly lovely with fish and chicken or as a botanical garnish to your favourite gin. Thyme is wonderful as an addition to roast vegetables, roast chicken, pies, soups, oils and vinegars. It compliments other Mediterranean herbs, such as rosemary, sage and marjoram and is often added to a bouquet garni for making casseroles, stews and homemade stocks.

How to grow thyme

Thyme loves well drained soil and full sun and can have an upright or creeping or hanging growth habit. Its beautifully dainty small leaves and wonderful miniature flowers provide a real charm in any outdoor space as well as being very useful ground cover that suppresses weeds.

If planted in the ground, thyme generally takes care of itself, and you’ll rarely need to water it.

If grown in a pot, however, weekly watering with a liquid feed throughout summer will keep it in peak health.

As with all Mediterranean herbs, thyme needs good drainage and won’t enjoy sitting in cold, waterlogged soil during winter, so make sure you place it somewhere it won’t get drowned by British downpours.

How to harvest thyme

Pick or cut the stems you wish to use and give it a good trim when it has finished flowering.

The other wonderful characteristic of thyme is that it is evergreen, and many are frost hardy. It can continue to be harvested all year round, albeit that its flavour is at its peak during hot summer months.

How to grow fennel

close up of fennel leaves

Annual or Perennial? Perennial

Goes well with: Pork, chicken, apples, fish, salads, potatoes

Not to be confused with Florence fennel (the bulbs of which can be harvested and cooked), herb fennel is a plant that gives you the most delicate fronds of airy leaves and flowers that, if left to dry on the stem, will provide delicious fennel seeds for use in cooking or to grow more herb fennel!

Herb fennel aids digestion and the leaves and seeds can be used as an infusion to drink after a meal. Fennel is a superb accompaniment to fish; salads and the leaves and seeds can be added to homemade pickling brine to provide a hint of aniseed to pickled onions and cucumbers.

How to grow fennel:

Fennel can grow very tall if planted in the ground (up to 5 feet) and is an attractive plant in a border due to its feathery leaves that sway in the breeze and the delicate yellow flowers that pollinators love.

It prefers full sun and soil that drains well. Once established, fennel is a low maintenance plant that won’t require much watering (it is drought tolerant) and it’s hardy so will grow back year on year.

Herb fennel may require tidying up at the end of the growing season and going into winter, so you can cut the dying stems back, or leave them for insects that want to seek protection in the hollow stems.

If you leave some of the flower heads on the plant over winter, not only do these look spectacular when covered with frost, but they can provide very welcome seeds for birds and small animals.

Please do be aware that herb fennel can self-seed and you could well end up with lots of baby herb fennel plants sprouting around your existing fennel in Spring.

How to harvest fennel:

You can harvest sprigs of fennel leaves as required from in every season except winter.

How to grow lavender

close up of lavender leaves

Annual or Perennial? Perennial

Goes well with: Citrus, berries, mint, chocolate

It’s almost impossible to think of lavender and not think of Provence in the south of France, where lavender fields stretch towards the horizon and fill the air with the heavy, rich scent from the oils warmed by the sun.

It’s a plant that rewards you when you run your hands through the outstretched stems, as this releases a fragrance from its natural oils. Placed next to paths, seating areas, doorways or windows you will be able to savour its beauty and scent as well as benefiting from it being a natural mosquito deterrent.

How to grow lavender

To keep lavender looking its best, we recommend you deadhead (or prune) the flowers that have gone brown and dry by cutting back the flower stalk to the first set of green leaves.

Once the plant has finished flowering, prune it by cutting back all the stems to the top of the green leaf growth. If you want to shape the plant into a more compact mound, you can cut the stems down further but avoid cutting into the woody part of the stems as lavenders will not regrow from these hard, woody sections.

Once summer is over and before winter frosts, move your potted lavender plants to a less exposed location, where they can still get light but are protected from frosts and cold downpours.

How to harvest lavender

The best time to harvest lavender is in early to mid-spring, because it gives the plant time to grow more flowers for a second harvest.

When choosing which parts to harvest, look for swollen buds which are about to open, rather than those that have already flowered.

How to grow dill

close up of dill leaves

Annual or Perennial? Annual

Goes well with: Fish, potatoes, tomatoes, yoghurt, cucumber

Easily confused with fennel, dill also has feathery leaves and yellow flowers. However, it requires a bit more care than fennel and is often treated as an annual plant that will naturally die as autumn turns to winter.

Dill is wonderful with smoked salmon and fish in general, as well as scattered on salads and is frequently used in Indian recipes. 

How to grow dill 

Dill is a hungry and thirsty herb, so the key to growing dill is to give it full sun and keep the soil damp. Avoid letting the soil dry out as this will trigger the dill to bolt, which means it will develop flowers, to produce seed and then die back.  

Feed with a liquid fertiliser every week during summer.

How to harvest dill

Pick off the flowers (they are very tasty scattered over salads or as a garnish on fish) to prolong its growing period over the summer. 

If you wish to gather dill seeds to sow the following spring, you can cut the flowers once they have faded and dried and then shake the flower heads over kitchen roll to catch the seeds that fall. Store the seeds in a paper bag or envelope somewhere cool, dark and dry over winter. 

One final tip: avoid growing herb fennel and dill close by to each other. They can cross pollinate, to the detriment of both plants in that the seeds they produce will not be true to the parent plant and not as flavourful.