Herbs are an important part of an edible garden. But most gardeners stick only to a few well-known examples of culinary herbs. Unusual herbs offer something different. Whether in taste, use or function, choosing a wider range of herbs can give you more to work with in your polytunnel garden.
Why Grow Unusual Herbs?
Choosing more unusual herbs might allow you to:
- Expand your repertoire when it comes to home cooking.
- Provide additional herbal remedies for you and your family.
- Provide you will other yields – dyes, beauty products etc..
- Improve biodiversity in your garden, increasing resilience.
- Attract beneficial wildlife to make it easier to grow food and manage pests and disease.
What is more, of course, growing unusual herbs can simply be a very interesting thing to do. It can make your garden a more rich and rewarding place to be.
Which Unusual Herbs Could You Consider?
To help you expand and enrich your herb garden, here are some more unusual herbs and varieties that you could try:
Sorrel is a perennial herb with a slightly lemony tang that can be used to great effect in a number of delicious dishes. As a perennial herb it is little effort to grow and is easy to start from seed.Sorrel can be sown between February and Julyand planted out from late spring. In addition to growing Rumex acetosa, you could also consider Rumex sanguineus, (red-veined sorrel), Rumex patientia (herb patience) or Rumex scutatus (true French sorrel).
Another perennial herb, winter savoury is easier to grow than its annual summer version, unimaginatively called summer savoury. Its hardiness and convenience mean that it deserves consideration for a permanent place in your garden. Savoury is great for use with beans, or for stuffing for meat or squash. In addition, it also finds a use in herbal medicine.
Great for herbal teas and other drinks, and also used in other recipes, or for various other uses around the home, lemon verbena likes a free draining soil and so is easier to grow under cover in a polytunnel. As the name suggests, it has a lemon-like fragrance and flavour.
Lovage is a herb that used to be extremely popular for kitchen and herbal use and is now largely forgotten by many gardeners. It was brought to the UK by the Romans and was widely used in mediaeval times. Today, it is a great alternative to celery, where that is difficult to grow. A little of the plant goes a long way but different parts of the plant all have a variety of uses.Sow seeds in around March in a small container and then transplant to the final growing position as soon as the plant is around 10cm high.
Myrtle (Myrtus) has essential oils that have antiseptic properties and which are often used in tonics. Often considered simply as an ornamental shrub, myrtle is also a useful culinary herb. The leaves, flowers and berries can all be used in cooking and are an important part of Sardinian cuisine, where the leaves are used like bay to add flavour to dishes before being removed prior to serving.
Hyssop is an attractive herb with pretty purple, blue, pink or red flowers. It is often grown for its flavourful leaves and for the fact that it is absolutely fantastic at attracting pollinators to your garden. Also high in essential oils, it also has a number of medicinal uses and uses in cosmetics and perfumery. It also has culinary uses though it has a strong flavour. Sow hyssop seeds indoors around eight weeks before the last frost date in your area.
Yarrow has been used as a herbal remedy since ancient times and it goes by a number of different local names that reflect its various uses. It has delicate foliage and flowers that attract good predatory insects. While it can become invasive and be considered a weed, yarrow is also beneficial to a healthy wildlife or herb garden in a number of ways. Yarrow is usually bought as a plant or a division but can also be sown as seed indoors around 6-8 weeks before your last frost date. When placed in the herb garden or with any aromatic plants it is said to increase the production of essential oils.
Often overlooked, angelica is actually a very versatile herb, that can also look attractive in your garden. It can be used in salads or eaten as a vegetable, though its most familiar use is probably as crystallised decorations for cakes. This plant is a member of the carrot family and is a hardy biennial. A huge benefit of growing Angelica is that it is wonderful for attracting bees and other beneficial insects. By attracting moths with its flowers, angelica also encourages bats into the garden, as they will eat these night-flying insects.
Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) is a perennial plant. It is less commonly grown than many other herbs and yet many are familiar with the sweet treat originally made using an ingredient from the plant’s root. For those with an interest in herbalism, however, marsh mallow is also known for its healing properties. It also has attractive pale flowers in the late summer which are very attractive to butterflies, bumble bees and other insects.
Also known as Monarda, or bergamot, you may be unsurprised to learn that this is another great herb to choose for attracting bees. It is a member of the mint family with attractive flowers that attract a wide range of wildlife. The leaves have a bitter taste, somewhat like a blend of mint and oregano. They are used to make bergamot teas, in fruit salads, or as seasoning for a wide range of dishes.
This low-growing herb produces rounded, reddish flower heads from May to September. If crushed or walked upon, the leaves give off a smell of cucumber. This is a plant that truly lives up to its name as it is perfect for use in a range of salads, as well as summer drinks. It is grown not only for its edible uses, however, but also for its astringent properties which can be beneficial in herbal medicine.
Sweet Cecily, Myrrhis odorata is an easy to grow herbaceous perennial. It has umbels of frothy white flowers that bloom in late spring, followed by ridged green seeds. Its long tap roots draw up nutrients from deep below the soil. The leaves, shoots and seeds all have a sweet anise flavour and can be used in a range of different ways. Sweet cecily is often used to naturally sweeten tart fruit dishes. Cooking with sweet cecily means that you only need to use half the amount of sugar – and can cut calories. Chopped leaves can also be added to soups and stews.
Vietnamese coriander is often used in South east Asian cooking. It is a tropical perennial that has a strong, spicy flavour that is similar to coriander but lemony and spicy as well. Though tropical, the protection of a polytunnel (and perhaps an extra cloche in cooler areas) should see this plant overwinter well even here in the UK. If you like to cook with ingredients like chillies, lime, and lemongrass then this is a herb you might want to consider adding to your repertoire.
Unusual Herbs: Basils
As well as choosing plants you may not have heard of or grown, you could also consider choosing more unusual herb varieties of more familiar plants. For example, rather than just growing a typical basil, you could consider growing:
- ‘Mammoth’ Basil (with very large lettuce-like leaves).
- Lemon Basil.
- ‘Cinnamon’ Basil.
- Finissimo Basil (with tiny leaves, great for small spaces).
Unusual Herbs: Mints
There are also a range of unusual mints that you could try. For example:
- Banana mint.
- Basil mint.
- Chocolate peppermint.
- Ginger Mint.
- Grapefruit Mint.
- Lemon Mint.
- Lime Mint.
- ‘After Eight’ Mint.
- ‘Berries and Cream’ Mint.
- Moroccan Mint.
- Orange Mint.
- Pineapple Mint.
- Strawberry Mint.
- Thai Mint.
These are just some of the more unusual herbs that you might like to consider including in your polytunnel garden. Let us know your own suggestions for expanding a herb garden – which herbs could you not live without, and why? Let us know in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.