Thursday, 6 February 2014

My Lemnian Herb Garden

 My Lemnian Herb Garden

Early days 

Elizabeth David wrote in French Country Cooking that dried herbs should be bought in very small quantities and stored in air-tight jars as they quickly loose their flavour.  She goes on,

‘People who seriously intend to have good cooking grow as many kitchen herbs as they can, so as to have them always fresh’.

Fresh vegetables hold centre stage in the Greek kitchen. These are then transformed by olive oil and spices into wonderful dishes.

My Lemnian Herb Garden is close to the kitchen so I can easily go out to gather the herbs I’ll need for a meal. The paving around the herb garden, though basically made with too much cement, does add to the heat and dryness that most Mediterranean herbs love.

Anestis, our garden and house helper, does a tidy up before we arrive on the island each spring but after my arrival I also need to do some pretty serious chopping back. I clip the bay tree to the lolly-pop shape I want, and rip out the spreading mint. I often still have jet lag, and find our Lemian tools less than sharp – in fact the handles of our sheers have to be regularly thumped to get them back on! However, a day or two later, with more help from Anestis the herb garden begins again to look cared for and full of potential.

A Mix of Flowers and Herbs

My herb garden is more than just beds for herbs as I also use the beds for flowers. There are marigolds and nasturtiums there early in the year – both edible. In July the zinnias begin to bloom, and much later chrysanthemums will be giving autumn colour. These last two are pretty but not edible. This is also the area where I plant Lavender bushes.

Lavender (Levanda)

Old English song.

Lavender blue dilly dilly, lavender green
When I am king dilly dilly, you shall be queen.
Some to the plough dilly dilly, some to the ?
While you and I dilly dilly, keep ourselves warm.

Lavender has a long history and has always been extensively used as a perfume. The Greeks and Romans used it for their baths and in later times it was placed in the folds of linen to repel moths before the linen was put away. Beside bags of lavender the dried seeds can also be used in a pot pourri. The harvesting of blooms should be carried out in dry weather. It is so warm in Greece you can do this in June rather than in August as recommended for Britain. I tie the stems in small bundles and suspend head downwards to dry in our garden shed. The flowers also make useful cut flowers.

In Lemnos I buy small net bags from a Wedding Shop for the lavender.

There are many types of lavender. What I’ve know as the ‘Spanish’ has deep purple bracts, and as the ‘English’ has long pointed leaves and flowers born on long elegant stems, and the ‘French’ has toothed fern-like leaves and smaller dense spiked flowers. I’ve found the ‘English’ best for drying and making up into bags and pot pourri. The only ‘English’ plant I had grew large and I used in to make many scented bags, but it only lasted a couple of years. I think the winter snows killed it off, and I’ve never found another in the island nurseries. However the toothed, fern-leafed lavender has proved hardy. It tolerates coastal conditions and even short periods of dryness once established and I’ve found the toothed lavender leaves are almost as scented as its flowers. 


 In Australia I make my lavender 'bags' from a collection of old print handkerchiefs

Some Essential Herbs for Cooking

Many herbs grow wild in the Greek hills. Thyme and Oregano are graze-resistant and are also able to survive up on the dry hot hillsides of the island. The plants from the hills have a more intense flavour as the heat and poor soil intensifies the concentration of their natural oils. In early autumn Anestis goes up to the hills and picks some Oregano, Rigani, and after we have hung it for week (in the garden shed) I strip off the dried leaves and flowers which I then put in bottles to save for the next year.


But I also have thyme (regular and lemon scented), and oregano in my herb beds, plus a clipped bay tree and rosemary bushes.


Rosemary (Dendrolivano)

Rosemary is a small Mediterranean shrub, quick and easy to grow from cuttings, and easy to care for. It has needle-shaped leaves and mauve-blue flowers. It has also survived in the wild as it is another graze-resistant herb. 

Rosemary has a slight taste of camphor and its sharpness is valued as a seasoning for lamb and kid, while dried Rosemary is used to flavour sausages. I like to push it into flaps on a leg of lamb, together with cloves of garlic. It gives a wonderful rich taste to the lamb and to the gravy made with the juices. You can easily remove the sprigs before serving. 

Wherever Rosemary is grown it benefits from regular pruning, to prevent it becoming woody and it looks great as neatly shaped low hedge. There is also a prostrate variety which looks wonderful growing over the edge of a stone wall.   

 Mint (Yosmos)

I’ve found out that ‘mint’ is the name given to a quite different plant on the island. What I know as mint in Greek is called Yosmos. It is included in quite a number of dishes. Vetta, my neighbour, often comes in the morning to gather a bunch of fresh mint from our garden for the meatballs she is about to prepare. Mint has a fresh clean taste that enhances delicate fresh flavours.

This herb is also used a lot in the Middle East. It is put in salads and traditionally in purees of dried legumes and vegetables. It is also used in a sweet tea served at the end of a meal. In Greece I add mint to befteki (meat balls) and to dolmades (stuffed vine leaves). Though I still sometimes use mint to make an‘English’ mint sauce with vinegar. I also use a spring of mint with our new potatoes, remembering meals I had in my youth.

I keep this plant in a separate bed as it quickly spreads, and also needs more water than the other herbs.

 Parsley (Mydinos)

Parsley, mydinos in Greek, is a plant much used in Greek cooking. It also needs plenty of water to get it through the summer, and like the patch of mint it is watched over not only by us but also by Vetta who often comes in to get a sprig or two for one of her recipes. She adds it to a white bean dish, and to her meat sauces.

Bay (Daphni)

The Greek name for Bay is Daphni, which is a word that offers a quite different picture in the minds of those who expect ‘daphne’ to be a low scented bush. In Greece the name of this plant comes from the story of a nymph pursued by Apollo who, desperate to escape, asked Gaia for help. The Earth Goddess then turned her into this shrub. In remembrance the saddened Apollo picked some leaves and formed them into a crown for his head, and ever after Greek athletes have been adorned with a ceremonial crown of bay leaves.

As a vegetarian for much of my life I found that most vegetarian recipes began, ‘take an onion’, but after that I found that bay was the herb that gave the most ‘meaty’ flavour to vegetarian stews and soups. It can be used fresh or dried. Nowadays when I sure I add two or three bay leaves to long-cooked meat dishes - making sure I remove them at the end of the cooking. Bay is also one of the classic herbs used in a bouquet garni. A leaf can even be added to a milk pudding.

Caper (Kapari)

When we first arrived at the house there was a large capparis plant growing out of the old wall along the front of the house. I’d like to say this survived however it just could not cope with all the human interference that occurred when we rebuilt the wall. I would have loved to have kept this plant, as it evidently was known in the neighbourhood – Vetta informed me that its flowers were beautiful in springtime. I did try to save some roots and grow it again in a crack in the new wall but I knew I was being optimistic and it was unlikely to take.

It appears that this is one of those wild plants that do not take well to cultivation though it is often found in Greece on old rocky sites. It is an old plant, appreciated by both Romans and Greeks, who used the preserved flower buds in their cooking. The flowers buds were gathered and preserved in vinegar or salt. Today I tend to gather nasturtium seeds as an alternative and preserve them first in salt, and then in vinegar.


This is a herb that does not survive the winter and needs to be replanted each year. I always have a couple of pots of it on the terrace. If I don’t Vetta will soon bring me seedlings. We use basil to make pesto, a more Italian than Greek dish. Though we tend to use almonds instead of pine nuts as we’ve usually got a lot of stored shelled almonds. We like this pesto over a mix of bowtie-pasta and chickpeas rather than all pasta.

Basil is much used in church ceremonials in Greece; bunches of basil are used by the priest to sprinkle holy water on the congregation. And it has a number of mythological stories that connect to this plant. One I was told by my sister in law was that it was unlucky to have a basil plant in your home. At least it is unlucky for your husband and ‘basil’ means ‘the lord’, and there should only be one lord of the household, thus to have a pot of it is a threat to your husband!


Originating in Southern Europe and Western Asia this is an erect perennial herb that can grow to 2.5 metres. The Greek name marainome (to grow thinner) comes from the time when the ancients used Fennel to suppress hunger pangs. Its fern-like leave smell of aniseed as does its seeds. It has small flat umbels of yellow flowers in late spring. I’ve read that is not a good idea to plant Fennel near to Dill or Coriander as it may cross-pollinate and alter the flavour of the other two.

I saw so many wild fennel plants on the roadsides in the island that I dearly wanted one or two in my garden, to be able to use their leaves like dill in potato or fish dishes. Like many other herbs Fennel too can be an invader growing in disturbed roadside soils, along waterways and drainage lines. The variety known as Florence Fennel has a swollen stem base and it is frequently used in Italian cooking.

          The Herb Garden in Autumn

Two of my favourite cook books

One of my favourite food writers is Elizabeth David.  I took several of her books with me to Greece. One was Summer Cooking, and another was French Country Cooking, both old penguin handbooks, quaintly illustrated by Adrian Daintry.

Elizabeth David introduced post war Britain to Mediterranean cooking. She wrote so skillfully that the delights of what she had seen and tasted on her travels came into the kitchen with her books.  I have feasted on most of her books and chose this one to take to the island as it is all about summer holiday cooking,

‘Food cooked in an unfamiliar kitchen... a temporary Paradise... situated close to a Mediterranean shore’. She describes shopping for ‘sweet ripe tomatoes, mild onions, olives and cheese’. And after describing her purchases for a ‘car-borne summer picnic’ she concludes, ‘You are on holiday. You are in the company of your own choosing. The air is clean. You can smell the wild fennel, thyme, dry resinous pine needles and the sea. For my part, I ask no greater luxury. Indeed I can think of none.’

Some garden web-sites I've enjoyed

fruit and vegetables

cut flowers

Greek garden ideas

1 comment:

  1. Seems like you don’t have to go shopping for spices, Julia, as they’re all in your garden! That’s so nice! What type of fertilizer do you use? Anyway, I hope your garden is thriving! Cheers!

    Debby Grinde