The company of herbs.

herbs dont need much space
The age old question in gardening is what plant goes well with another. And when it comes to herbs the ‘well’ takes on a different context as many herbs can impact on the health of not just the eater but their neighbour in the ground. So just what works well with herbs both on the plate and in your garden.

Putting combinations of plants together for their visual effect is the essence of gardening. But putting combinations of plants together for their mutual benefit is perhaps one of the oldest gardening traditions. Lost or dismissed then remembered and extoled so many times over the history of garden writing it has however never been absent from the skills set of active gardeners. We plant some plants amongst others to naturally let them benefit from the sturdiness of the others and those not need staking, we plant shade loving plants in the cast shade of taller others as we do with those new plants needing protection from the wind. We give plants company and they like it or at least perform better for the actuality of it. We put plants together organisationally for numerous interactions and juxtapositions that makes the garden thrive and come alive. But beyond aesthetic matches, structural trickery and taking advantage of micro pockets of shade and shelter, we can give plants company in a way that the combination is helpful in defence of pest and disease but also in maintaining the health of the community of plants collectively.

Companion planting is not a one trick pony, trotted out to attract beneficial insects or decoy harmful pests (but boy is that some trick), no, companion planting can also help the plants of the community better absorb nutrients, share disease defence mechanisms and get pollinated quicker than a lone stand. I love gardening, just to be amongst nature and the elements enriches my soul, breaks my back sometimes but then so does yoga, but I love food too. So edible gardening is a big part of my life and it is in edible gardening that companion planting is most often applied. In this article I want to look at what plants help each other out but also what plants work together on the plate.

Some people say the phrase the best thing since sliced bread, to that I say the best thing since pesto on toast.. and so to basil, the hey presto of pesto. Basil (Ocimum basilicum and its relatives) is an herb holy in many faiths; warding off evil, encouraging detachment from earthy trappings and even blessing the union of lovers. In the garden it keeps good company with tomatoes, its fragrance repelling many of the insect pest of tomatoes, it is not hardy and hard enough to cultivate outside beyond a term as an annual (great in polytunnels under tomatoes) but on the kitchen windowsill it will last several seasons and continues its warding off benefit by repelling flies. In the kitchen it is again great company to tomato and of course pine nuts and olive oil. It works well with cheese, aubergine, onions, pasta and potatoes, as an herb condiment, a garnish to soup and a topping on pizza. Carnivores might like it with pork, lamb, chicken, duck, rabbit, eggs and even fish. Vegetarians will find no better friends than the herbs that keep company on these pages.

However much I love basil my favourite herb is chive (Allium schoenoprasum), so easy to grow, a perpetual performer in the garden, beautiful as well as tasty. Carrots appreciate their company as that oniony fragrance deters many carrot pests as it does with tomatoes too. That scent that makes humans salivate or retrench will keep aphids away from chrysanthemums and other ornamental flowers. Chives and garlic have a role in keeping green and blackfly off roses via companion planting where the rose absorbs the garlicky/oniony taste and the sap suckers hate it or via a homemade foliar spay of blitzed chives or garlic clove with a cup of water and drop of liquid soap to help it adhere to the aphid and poison them off the plant. In the kitchen I often try cheffy things, I am a fan of Monsieur Hervé This and molecular gastronomy but nothing beats a simple chive sandwich after a mornings graft in the garden or Potatoes au Gratin with Brie and Chives after a day at the typewriter but you could try chive with any vegetable dish, excellent in sauces, dressings and dips, it enlivens casseroles and rice dishes and is a natural companion to cheese, eggs and fish.

Speaking of being all loved up, Lovage (Levisticum officinale) is a herb reputed to boost the immunity and improve the flavor of other plants in its company. It attracts ichneumonid wasps that are parasite to many garden pests and also invites beneficial pest munching and soil improving ground beetles. The roots, seeds and leaves are all edible but it is not a supermarket staple so most people are deprived of the opportunity to discover its continued flavour enhancing properties in soups, stews and casseroles. As a flavour in its own right it goes great with potatoes and is wonderful as salad ingredient or part of a dressing. The seeds can also be added to home baked breads and biscuits much as with poppy seeds.

It is the Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) that produces the tiny black seeds used in baking but in the garden as with all poppies, they are a boon in drawing in pollinators. Bees love them. I love the look of them so I grow them as much for their aesthetic as I do for any ingredient or benefit. When I was a young child my dad was disqualified from a community tidy garden competition because he grew opium poppies, this was in the days before you could get heroin deliverer to your door quicker than a pizza, so if you are worried about what the neighbours will think then go for Californian or Iceland poppies which apart from exceptional beauty and colour will gift you Hoverflies whose hoverfly larvae are voracious eaters of aphids. If you are fearless and will grow opium poppy for its edible seeds not its latex, then let me say toasting them intensifies their flavour and crushing them in a mortar before using really does release much more flavour. The seeds are great companions to walnuts, raisins, cinnamon and honey in baking but why not try a poppy seed cream sauce for potatoes, green beans or chicken.

I have myself not so much hungry now but eager to cook. in the next instalment I will look at companions to popular veg.

About The Holistic Gardener

author of wellness books, columnist, keynote speaker.
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