Buying Herbs in Pots

By 8 a.m, there’s already a queue at the plant stall in my local street market. Boxes of seedling lettuces and pencil-slim leeks, hand-high plants of aubergines and sweet peppers are disappearing fast while pots of young tomatoes, cucumbers and artichokes are carried away by keen gardeners to be planted out in potagers and vegetable gardens before nightfall.

Beyond the kaleidoscope of colourful summer flowers destined for windowsills, hanging baskets and balconies, I find an array of glasshouse-grown herb plants, all beautifully labelled.

My April task is to replace the culinary herbs lost during the winter and also buy a few new varieties that I’m anxious to try in the kitchen. Top of the list: three pots of my favourite French tarragon – not the willowy Russian version with no taste – will go into a square green tub standing in half shade near the house. If in doubt about genuine tarragon, nibble a leaf to confirm the intense flavour of clove with a hint of aniseed that French cooks use in chicken dishes.

A couple of thyme varieties: one with lemon-flavoured leaves – now used by some New York chefs in lemon meringue pies – and another with variegated foliage, will be added to an island bed of other thymes surrounding a sun-dial – an English language joke in the Jardin du Curé.

And I can never resist a new season’s pot of pineapple sage whose leaves and slim scarlet flowers I scatter over summer syllabub. I grow this herb in a large terracotta pot where, by September,  it sometimes reaches a metre high. So I prune it hard for the winter and leave the pot in a sheltered corner, when the plant often survives until the next year.

As usual, the chilly mistral wind of November killed off all my basil plants, so I choose three kinds. First, large-leaved basil, for making Genoese pesto and for scattering over freshly-baked pizza; plus the useful, highly-aromatic small-leaved Greek basil, that I use in sauces; then the irresistible purple-leaved temple basil for adding to salads and sorbets and shredded over melon and strawberries. To maintain the moist growing conditions, I always grow basil plants in pots. And, every summer, one pot of basil sits on the kitchen window sill to keep flying insects at bay.

At the weekend, I’ll climb the hillside behind the house to find a few seedlings of winter savory, sarriette, commonly known as poivre d’âne or donkey pepper. At the end of the summer, I’ll take a small bunch of the aromatic grey-green leaves back to my Oxford kitchen for adding to slowly-braised meat dishes.
Finally, on a warm day this month: ‘Plant into wet, Sow into dry’, as they say, I’ll sprinkle some marigold seeds in one of my herb beds, the bright yellow and orange petals, once used to colour cheeses, make an attractive edible garnish to a green salad.