I have an awkward balcony space. Can I still grow herbs and salad vegetables?
If you grow anything this summer, make it herbs and salad vegetables — they are perfect in pots and small spaces. Don’t despair if you don’t have a sun trap, some plants like mint, parsley, coriander, chervil and chives can cope with just three or four hours of sun a day, and leafy salad leaves prefer a cooler spot.
Check out the Real Seed Catalogue (realseeds.co.uk) for unusual lettuces — I love Grandpa Admire’s Lettuce. Pick leaves from around the base rather than cropping whole head and you’ll have a supply for months. I always grow Little Gems, too, perfect grilled on the BBQ.
Try other punchy leaves like belleville sorrel, rocket and mizuna and add colour with orach (also known as mountain spinach). All these plants are happy pot dwellers. To get a head start on herbs, buy potted plants. I use Jekka’s Herb Farm (jekkasherbfarm.com) for organic plants and seeds and Norfolk Herbs (norfolkherbs.co.uk).
Which edible flowers should I grow to prettify my cakes?
Grow seasonal, edible flowers to make cakes truly special. Start with primroses, cowslips, violets and bellis daisy ‘pomponette’ in spring, all perfect for a window box or pot and all tolerating partial shade; in summer, grow pinks (dianthus) with beautiful clove-like scents.
Called gillyflowers in medieval Britain, varieties like sops-in-wine (still available from Beth Chatto’s online nursery, bethchatto.co.uk) were used to flavour drinks and wine. Rose petals, sweet cicely, borage and rosemary flowers look elegant on summer cakes. Go bright and bold in autumn with viola varieties like ‘heartsease’ — they look pretty around bigger herbs or vegetables in pots.
What sort of pots should I choose for growing herbs?
The little pots that supermarket herbs come in are far too small to establish good growth long term. Think ten times as big as that: five litres is a decent size that works in a small space or balcony and will be easier to look after.
More important than the pot is the compost — a good quality organic compost will ensure a healthy uptake of nutrients, for the plant and you! Make sure you go for ‘peat-free’, as the harvesting of peat for compost mixes has led to a huge loss of wetland wildlife habitat.
I want a vegetable patch — what are your basic rules?
It all starts with soil. Soil is alive, it’s a living ecosystem of micro-organisms that needs your nurture, so to grow healthy plants we must first grow healthy soil. Mulch with your own compost or get some well-rotted organic manure from a friendly farmer or online from Mr Muck (mrmuck.co.uk).
Which herbs are best for cocktails and herbal teas and tisanes?
If you want a really special cocktail, make your own herbal shrub, a cold-infused syrup that will spice up any cocktail. I use seasonal fruit, herbs, apple cider vinegar and raw honey for a healthy twist.
Match summer berries with herbs like mint, thyme or rosemary, or try the heavenly lemon verbena — it enjoys a sunny spot but isn’t hardy, so bring it indoors for the winter. You need a little patience to make a shrub. Otherwise add fresh, fragrant herbs as a garnish; try lavender, fennel, rosemary, bergamot and lemon thyme.
For tisanes, grow herbs to support your changing moods. Uplifting herbs with wonderful flavours include lemon balm, lemon verbena, Moroccan mint, black peppermint and good old rosemary. Try the leaves of scented geranium for a calming tisane, with a dash of herbal honey to sweeten.
Get yourself a glass teapot or tisaniere so you can see all the beautiful herbs you’re infusing.
■ Anna Greenland is head gardener at Soho Farmhouse and will be running demonstrations at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, July 2-8, annagreenland.co.uk