Herbs are incredibly useful plants for permaculture. They will often grow in small spaces or pots, making them a good option for those with little or no land (a window box or a pot on a balcony can still generate decent yields of certain types of herbs). On the whole, herbs are pretty easy to grow, needing just some water and a decently drained soil. They add variety to a garden, with lots of different textures, colours and smells. And they are easy to harvest, as you just pick off the leaves that you need.
But, of course, the primary reason to grow herbs in your permaculture garden is that they are a brilliant way to add extra flavour dimensions to your food. Growing your own herbs means you can have the freshest flavour (and so preserving the maximum amount of nutrients) and avoid buying pre-packaged versions.
Herbs have another very important function, however, that adds to their utility as a permaculture staple. Many herbs have medicinal uses that offer a natural way to treat various ailments. They can alleviate pain, and so helping reduce the amount of artificial compounds you consume in manufactured medicines.
Here are some of the more commonly grown herbs, along with both their culinary and medicinal uses.
Culinary uses: The clean, fresh taste of parsley lends itself as an addition to salads and a garnish for soups, poultry and fish. Its flavour is particularly complimentary to root vegetables such as parsnips and carrots, while teaming parsley with tomato is a classic combination.
Medicinal uses: The flavonoids found in parsley are though to be beneficial to urinary tract, kidney and bladder function, and can be used to treat infections in all three.
Culinary uses: Sweet but slightly aniseed and peppery at the same time, basil is a robust flavour that can be used fresh as a garnish but will also handle being cooked in sauces and soups. It is well known as a compliment to tomatoes, particularly in sauces for pasta and in salads with cheese. Dried basil is useful in baking herb breads.
Medicinal uses: Basil contains a lot of antioxidants, meaning that it is an effective way to treat stomach upsets and other digestive issues. In ancient Chinese medicine, basil was used to treat mouth ulcers, as it can help combat adverse microbial infection.
Culinary uses: Most of us know that dill is a tasty companion to fish, particularly white fish. But it’s deep flavour means it is a very versatile herb. It will stand up well to being included in soups and stews, and is an important ingredient in pickling. It goes well with cream and cream cheese, and makes a potent flavour combination with mustard seeds and garlic.
Medicinal uses: Dill contains an essential oil called apiole, which is an effective treatment for gastrointestinal disorders. Dill infused in hot water can also have a similar effect as chamomile tea, relaxing the body and aiding sleep.
Culinary uses: Deeply flavourful, sage is a great accompaniment to roast meats, particularly pork. It is an ideal ingredient if you are making your own sausages, and goes well with pumpkin and beets in soups and stews. Less well known is how well sage pairs with strong cheeses like cheddar.
Medicinal uses: Sage can have an anti-inflammatory effect. It is also known to help stimulate the appetite and has been used to slow milk production in breast-feeding mothers who are over-producing milk.
Culinary uses: The pungency of thyme means it can withstand being slow-cooked in casseroles and stews, particularly those with meat. It is also good in vinaigrettes, soups and marinades. The flavour of thyme teams well with those of tomato, onion and beans.
Medicinal uses: Active ingredients in thyme can act as a muscle relaxant. For this reason, the herb is used to ease congestion from colds and flus, particularly when brewed in a tea with a dollop of honey, as well as relieving cramps and indigestion.
Culinary uses: The smell of rosemary drifting over the garden gives some idea of the strong aroma and flavour this herb can add to your cooking. It is brilliant for flavouring vinegars and oils, makes a valuable addition to any meat rub, and pairs particularly well with root vegetables and potatoes.
Medicinal uses: Rosemary has traditionally been used as a palliative, to ease headaches and migraines. Its active ingredients are good for the blood, and rosemary is beneficial in the treatment of wounds and high blood pressure. It is also good for settling upset stomachs.
Culinary uses: Peppermint and spearmint are the most common species grown in domestic gardens, and both grow rapidly in the right conditions. With a fresh flavour, mint is well suited as an accompaniment to fruit, particularly lemon, melon and strawberries. Mint is also used in fresh salads such as tabbouleh, to use in chutneys, and, of course, as an accompaniment to lamb.
Medicinal uses: Mint is typically taken as an infusion in hot water. Mint tea can help with digestive problems, as well as aid recovery from colds and flus, given the herb’s ability to open up the sinuses. It can also help with a sore throat.
Culinary uses: With a hot, biting taste, mustard seeds should be used sparingly, but can offer a zing to certain dishes, such as curries and stews. Mustard seeds are excellent additions to pickles and chutneys, while they compliment the flavour of cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.
Medicinal uses: Mustard has an antibacterial effect and, as such, is a useful treatment of coughs and colds, particularly when sinuses are congested. It also helps your system digest food more easily and when applied in a poultice can ease painful or rheumatic joints.
Ideal crops for zone 1 of your permaculture property, herbs add a great daily addition to your meals. But they offer so much more besides, and can be beneficial to your body as well as your taste buds.