If you’ve only got a small outdoor space, it needs to work twice as hard! Growing your own fruit and vegetables probably isn’t an option (although cherry tomatoes in growbags or pots doesn’t take up much room), but there are lots of plants that can be useful as well as decorative.
Herbs are intrinsically ‘useful plants’, as the word refers to any plant with leaves, seeds, or flowers used for flavouring, food, medicine, or perfume. Here are a few of our favourites, plus a few suggested uses.
Mint – incredibly easy to grow. If you’ve only got a small space available, plant it in a pot or it will take over the whole garden! It’s delicious chopped and sprinkled over new potatoes, but you can try it in courgette soup, mixed with mayonnaise as a sauce for fish or served with spring vegetables. Freeze mint sprigs into ice cubes for decorative drinks, or chew a few leaves to freshen your breath after meals. Fresh mint tea is great for the digestion – just pick a few handfuls of leaves and brew them with boiling water.
Thyme – another versatile culinary herb, it also smells delicious when growing and attracts bees and butterflies. Use it for cooking with Mediterranean flavours – just throw a whole sprig in with tomato sauces and retrieve and discard before serving. It also makes sweet little bunches of cut flowers for decorating napkins at a dinner party or putting a jamjar for the breakfast table. Any leftover thyme will dry well for use later in the year.
Rosemary – easy to grow, and likes life in pots! As well as a multitude of culinary uses, it will also add shine to dark hair. Pour boiling water over rosemary sprigs, and leave it to cool. Wash your hair as normal, then use the rosemary water as a final rinse.
Caraway has feathery green leaves and clusters of pink or white flowers. It produces seed in its second year after planting, and the seed is useful in a number of ways. After flowering, cut the flower heads and allow them to dry before shaking the seeds out onto kitchen paper. The seeds are a good aid to the digestion (you can steep them in boiling water and drink the tea, or eat a few raw). You can also use the seeds for baking, and flavouring both sweet and savoury dishes (the flavour is similar to aniseed). You can even eat the roots, which are similar to parsnips!
Sweet violets – these tiny purple flowers look very pretty, and they’re edible too! They have a delicate flavour which goes well with sweet foods – remember the taste of parma violets when you were little?! You can chop them and add them to food, or crystallise them and use as decoration. To crystallise (which helps prevent the flowers wilting), brush each flower carefully with egg white then sprinkle it with sugar. You can also use the flowers to make tea. Other edible flowers include rose petals and nasturtiums.
Lavender – probably the most versatile of all. In addition to a wide range of culinary, decorative and aromatic uses, did you know that it can also be used to keep cats away from certain areas of the garden? Cats dislike the smell, so planting a lavender hedge or positioning your pots carefully can help keep Felix away from your turf. Dried and made into sachets, lavender flowers also help to scent drawers.