Autumn herbs to sow from seed

There's plenty of autumn herbs to sow from seed once the summer heat fades.  I love dill which is perfect for the cooler months and delicious in so many foods.

In autumn I always sow flat-leaved parsley and the English, curly-leaved form, chervil, coriander, and I’m adding another new hardy herb to me that people keep raving about - par-cel - with a hint of celery mixed with the characteristic parsley taste. It’s a bit late, but I’m going for winter savory this year too. It has a thymey taste and is productive and easy right through the winter.

If you have a greenhouse, experiment with sowing half-hardy, sweet Genovese basil and the punchier, Greek bush basil which is said to be better for lower light levels and so easier for winter growth.

I use one technique for the hardy annuals and another for the softer basils which need more warmth and mollycoddling. In autumn it’s getting late to sow even the hardies straight into the ground outside, so I going to germinate them under cover, and then put most of them out as seedlings in about a months time. If it suddenly turns very cold, I’ll leave the dill and coriander growing inside.

Each herb is sown into a length of plastic guttering using a system I first discovered for peas. Fill the pipe with compost – any cheap old stuff will do – and sow a generous amount, probably two packets of seed into each one. Cover the seeds with a thin layer of compost and water and then put them onto the propagator bench, or somewhere warm and cozy inside.

Dark is fine at this germinating stage, but they need to go into bright light as soon as they show. With a bit of warmth, the herbs germinate quickly – in about a fortnight - and will be ready for planting out in three to four weeks time. Wait until they’re about an inch tall and then get them in the ground outside. You don’t need to do any thinning. Just keep picking them so they never get to a size to compete.

To prevent the whole lot ending up on the floor, planting needs two people, one at either end of the pipe. Out in the garden, make a trench to mirror the depth and length of the gutter, scooping out the soil with a trowel or draw hoe. Water the seedlings to glue the compost together and then slide them from the gutter pipe into the U trench, pushing lengths about eighteen inches long at a time. Slide one section in and then push the next forward to the mouth of the pipe. Then slide that one in and so on. With each slice, firm them in well and water again.

If it’s cold, with frost likely at night, protect the seedlings under a mini plastic tunnel or a cloche and then you’ll have herbs to pick right through the winter. Dill and coriander will fade out after eight to ten weeks, but chervil, winter savoury and parsley will keep you going until May next year.

Now for the half-hardies. For these – the basils - I use a system introduced to me by hotelier Jane Dunn. She cooks for all her guests at Stone House in East Sussex and wants to have fistfuls of herbs available on her doorstep right through the year and has developed a brilliant system to enable her to do just that.

Jane uses empty wooden wine cases and fills them with multi-purpose compost and, once a fortnight, whatever the time of year, sows a whole packet of seed into each new case. If she runs out of wooden boxes, polystyrene fish boxes do just as well, with holes in the bottom banged through with a hammer and nail.

Once sown, the crates are covered in cling film to enclose the moisture and they’re put in the greenhouse or cold frame on a heated base. Your airing cupboard is fine, but grown in the dark, you’ll need to check every twenty-four hours for signs of germination. Move the seedlings into the light as soon as there are any signs of green. Once the seedlings are through, take the cling film off. To grow basil in the winter you’ll need a place to keep them warm, humid and well-watered. Grow them in a cool, frost-free place that has bright all around light. Don’t put them in a too hot kitchen or they’ll get instant white fly.