Gardening with Dave Allan: Careful with the clippers, extend life of your herb garden

The herb garden is becoming a bit tatty and less productive now. We want to tidy up while continuing to harvest and also to make it wildlife-friendly for as long as we can.

My herb garden is frankly not looking at its best at the moment, thanks to all the wind and torrential rain we’ve been having and I’ve either been away or too busy over the last few weeks to give it the attention it deserves.

That time has now arrived. The last thing I or anyone should want to do is bring on winter too soon by felling the lot and making the garden ‘nice and tidy’ now. This old-fashioned approach to gardening is thankfully long past.

So think before wielding the secateurs. Some tidying is undoubtedly needed. Although I’ve liked using young Sweet Cicely leaves and the intensely aniseed flavour of green seeds, the plant must be cut back once the seeds start ripening or this beautifully statuesque herb will take over the garden.

You’ll probably get a brief flush of fresh leaves. Chervil, dill, borage and coriander can also self seed prolifically.

I find it easy to thin the resulting seedlings next year and remove those in inappropriate places.

And I’ll snip off the faded flowers of sages and thymes as the soggy dead bits will rot evergreen foliage when they collapse on it.

Like me, you may have found it’s been a bad year for rusts, the chives have been pretty bad so need to be completely cut back or removed.

I’ll not try the old-fashioned method of covering the plant with straw and having a wee conflagration. The roots are supposed to recover.

Much more positively, I like keeping as many herbs going as long as possible, either for the kitchen or wildlife.

We still want the leaves of sorrel, perennial rocket, salad burnet and Parcel or leaf celery, so remove any flowering stems over the next few weeks to allow leaves to grow more strongly.

And we can keep sowing annual rocket in any bare corners for a while yet.

Perhaps more importantly, a lot of herbs still provide food and shelter for many birds and insects, so a scorched earth policy is utterly taboo for responsible gardeners.

We’ve got a fine stand of lovage reaching a crazy 7-8ft, and it’s becoming one of the busiest parts of the garden just now, with tits and migrating warblers picking over and round the tall stems for aphids and small insects.

I’m always watching young chiffchaffs and willow warblers feeding on them. The richest pickings seem to be underneath the old seedheads. The tall, hollow stems will gradually rot and have to be

carted away, but not yet. Fennel is another foraging source where

the birds can refuel before continuing their journeys south.

The fine broad seedheads of lovage and fennel are often shown in glossy mags as dream winter plants rimmed by frost or coated with a dusting of snow. These kind of photos certainly weren’t taken here in Scotland. Autumn gales or a heavy dump of snow usually shatter the fantasy before it could be enacted.

As I wrote here recently, bumblebee queens and other insects like hoverflies rely on a nectar top up in September and herbs such as marjoram, oregano, winter savory and mint provide the service.

Just have a look: you’ll see lots of hungry insects clustering round the last remaining autumn flowers.

In late autumn they’ll flop over and become untidy, so then need cutting back.

But do leave around 10cm of the woody stems as they’ll provide welcome hibernation shelter for beetles and spiders.

Plant of the week

Physalis ‘Little Lanterns’ produces an abundance of tangily sweet, golden fruits in papery husks from late summer well into autumn. The plant grows to at least a metre in all directions and needs some warmth and protection.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992