By: Paul McKay
GROWING FRESH herbs in the vegetable garden is something that is often overlooked. This is unfortunate because fresh herbs can make the difference between a meal being dramatic or just mediocre. Herbs in a dish can be subtle and unobtrusive but, without them, the meal lacks that special zest. Fresh herbs involve very little work, take up hardly any space and can be used fresh, frozen or dried. They really are versatile and, when picked fresh and used immediately, add more flavour than shop-bought herbs could ever hope to provide.
The parsley to grow in Portugal is flat leaved parsley. The plants grow vigorously, they produce fresh leaves for most of the year and the flavour is far superior to the curly leaved varieties grown in the UK. Seeds can be purchased from most of the usual outlets (co-operatives, supermarkets and so on) and provide good value for money.
Start the seeds off in spring in a seed tray, keeping them moist and warm. Germination takes place quite quickly (six to eight days). Once the seedlings reach a height of two to three centimetres, transplant to their final bed. The plants need around 10 centimetres between each other and very quickly grow to fill that space. Plant them in rich fertile soil in full/part sun and always keep the soil quite moist.
After six to seven weeks, the plants will have enough leaves for you to take your first harvest. I simply go down with a kitchen knife from time to time and slice off what I want to use. The plants look a bit sorry for themselves but soon perk up and begin shooting again.
Towards the end of their lives, the plants become quite tall and straggly, producing flowers. If these are left, seeds develop and the plants reproduce themselves like weeds the following spring – all you need to do is remove the real weeds around them to prevent them from being swamped. Flat leaved parsley is delicious in a number of sauces, in salads and in many stews, casseroles and salads.
Have you ever eaten a true Algarvean tomato salad and wondered what the delicious seasoning is? The answer is oregano, but not the oregano you buy in packets. It is actually the dried flowers from the plant which bloom abundantly in early summer.
Oregano can be planted from seed or, alternatively, small plants can be bought from gardening centres. Like most herbs, they can survive quite well with very little human intervention. They grow in much the same way as parsley, but give them a little more space in the plot, around 30 centimetres between plants. The plants come back each year, a little stronger and more substantial than the year before.
As the heat of the summer begins to hit, the plants begin to dry out. Snip off the leaves and the flowers at this time, and tie in bunches in a warm and dark room (the dark ensures the oregano keeps its rich green colour). After a week or two, the flowers and leaves can be shook off the stalks and into a paper bag or an airtight jar. The flavour with tomatoes has to be experienced and they can be kept until next year’s oregano is ready for harvesting.
When planting your herbs, remember they will live for many years, so choose a convenient spot, away from the usual rotation of your vegetable garden. Happy eating!
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