A herb garden is a delight to plan, plant and enjoy, right through the seasons. Bring in the shrubby perennials and you have, at a stroke, the Mediterranean culinary basics: thyme, sage, rosemary, oregano.
Actually, it's not that simple, because there are tough decisions to be made. To choose citrussy tangerine or lemon thymes, wonderful with roast chicken, or dainty Silver Posie variegated thyme, to sprinkle on salads? These are just three of about 20 available thymes, bushy or carpeting, all smothered with flowers come summer.
Sage might be elegant, narrow-leaved Salvia lavandulifolia, which makes an excellent tea, the highly aromatic broad-leaved sage, perfect for stuffing, or perhaps Tricolor, with green leaves that are attractively splodged pink, cream and purple. Rosemary can be bushy, as in Rosmarinus officinalis, for which allow plenty of space, or well behaved, as in Miss Jessop's Upright, or one of the prostratus varieties, which tumble becomingly over the edges of a raised bed or tall container.
My rosemary, in a pot, has been flowering right through winter, and brings a flavour of Sicily to roast potatoes, lamb and courgettes. Greek oregano is pungent, wild and woolly, not for the fainthearted; Aureum has golden aromatic leaves, lovely to sprinkle on pizzas, while Origanum Kent Beauty is a decorative dazzler, with extravagant whorls of pale pink and apple green flowers.
IT'S ALL IN THE PLANNING
Add fragrant, blue-flowered hyssop, another Mediterranean subshrub, and the herb garden really starts to hum, with even more bees and butterflies, come summer. Blame it on those nectar-rich, pink, blue and mauve flowers that are produced in abundance by all these versatile and aromatic plants.
How can you harness these great herbs into one space? Plan your herb garden on paper first, and look to the classics for inspiration: a circular design segmented like a cartwheel, edged and divided by bricks; four quarters of a rectangle, with a topiary olive or bay at the centre, edged in a low hedge of compact lavender such as Hidcote, or perhaps wall germander Teucrium lucidrys, which has foliage like tiny oak leaves. Chives make a great edging, too, and can be chopped back brutally after flowering to grow again the following year. You could buy a raised bed kit or even have a tabletop herb garden on the patio - harrodhorticultural.com has a great selection of both.
Whatever you choose, site it in a sunny, open spot, and make sure the soil - or compost - is free-draining. Grit, not manure, is what these drought loving plants need. Don't waste your money on large specimens. Instead, this spring, buy three 9cm pots of each variety, plant them in a triangle, spaced about 20cm apart, mulch with pale grit or gravel, then watch them grow into an abundant clump, in just one season.
Leave space for annuals, too: basil, tucked in here and there when frost danger has passed, a few dill or fennel plants for their delicate good looks and winning ways with fish, and borage, so you can have authentic Pimm's when the powder-blue flowers bloom in high summer. Buckler-leaved or French sorrel, with its tangy, acidic leaves, is great in leafy salads, as is wild perennial rocket. Both thrive in shade.
Mint, another shade-lover, is compulsory but needs to be contained or it will run riot. Choose Moroccan mint for tea, pineapple mint to decorate desserts and chocolate peppermint - yes, really! - just for fun. To keep your potted mint garden in check, and to ensure generous handfuls, a stash of galvanised builder's buckets, holes punched into their bases, are just the job.