Jekka McVicar's brand new herb garden
The queen of herbs Jekka McVicar has a new endeavour at her farm in south Gloucestershire, and it will help us all to get herbs into our gardens
By 2024, Jekka McVicar will have been growing herbs commercially for forty years. It's no mean feat. Beginning in the '80s, when you couldn't even buy herbs on supermarket shelves, her pioneering work to get us enthusiastic about herbs of all kinds has taken her to write books, sell seeds to the nation (our local garden centre has a stand of Jekka's seeds), design private and public gardens and taken her to Chelsea, where she encountered the late Queen Elizabeth II.
Listen to our podcast with Jekka on her dream garden
Her family-run organic farm in south Gloucestershire has evolved over the years, but the latest incarnation of the farm includes a brand new, and rather exciting offering: the new Herb Garden. While the Herbetum was created in 2013 to display medicinal and culinary herbs, Jekka's Herb Garden will take that one step further and allow visitors a chance to see just how herbs can work in their own gardens. The cumulation of a year of work, the Herb Garden will undoubtedly be a visitor attraction when it officially opens later in the year.
There's a chance to catch it in full bloom at Jekka's HerbFest which runs from Friday 30 June to Sunday 2 July this year. We'll be there, but in the meantime, here's a little more about this remarkable project.
Could you explain the idea behind the Herb Garden?
The Herb Garden is an accumulation of everything I have learnt over the last 40 years. We’re changing the way the farm is run: we started off wholesale, then we did wholesale and shows, then we just did shows, then we did mail order and shows, then just mail order, then we had open days. Over the years we’ve evolved how the farm has run and now we have reached another moment where people really want information about how to plant their garden at home. We want to give them a visual plan, so they can take that away and go: 'I could do that in my space'. So the main principle of the garden is teaching about how herbs can be used. I want to make sure I can pass on the knowledge that I’ve gained over the last 40 years.
And it's being laid out with quite a specific design, could you talk through that?
It’s designed on the figure 8, which is the figure of infinity. When you are in a low mood, walking in a circle can help, because you don't have to make a decision, you just look at your feet and go. So that's why we chose that shape. Within the circles we have oval beds which are the petals of a flower, and each petal is a different planting group, so culinary, medicinal and evergreen herbs, a bed for herbal infusions and a UK native herb bed, too. I am very aware how our flora and fauna have changed over the time I've been running the farm, the same with our birds and bees. In between the petals we have a gravel garden. With climate change, a lot of my Mediterranean herbs don’t like the deluge of rain we get, so by growing them in gravel you are protecting them. I wanted to show how gravel can be incorporated into a design.
Has it been a lot of planning and thought?
It will have taken us just over a year to actually pull it all together. We had to change the nursery so we could accommodate it.
How many herbs will be in the garden?
Not sure – we will be able to tell you when we've done it. There will be things like thymes and oreganos going in the gravel gardens, but I also have a row of pomegranates I have raised myself and some big specimen plants I got when I was doing shows. It will show you herbs that you don’t normally see as well.
So the Herb Garden will mainly be for education?
Yes, but it will also be a place where people can come and sit. I wanted a water feature, because there’s something about water in a garden and being able to see it. So there's a big bowl in the middle where water trickles down the sides, so you have the sound and you can look at the clouds mirrored in the water.
Do you think everyone should have a herb garden?
I think everyone should have a pot of herbs – obviously not everyone can have a herb garden. But if you are short of salads in the supermarkets, which has happened recently, you can quickly and easily grow leaf herbs, mustard and wild rocket, which are cut-and-come-again, so you can create your own salad. You can buy seeds that are already pre-mixed, and you have a cut-and-come-again salad bowl. Certain simple herbs are quite easy and quick to grow.
What made you want to grow herbs?
It was food. Forty years ago you couldn’t buy fresh herbs. So I started when my children were one and two in my back garden in Filton. You could only buy parsley, if you were lucky, in the garden centre. There were no herbs in supermarkets. I have been peat free since 1985 – I read Lady Eve Balfour's book about organic growing and decided to go down that road back in the '80s. It seemed common sense, you begin to think of things differently when you have kids and I didn’t want any chemicals around because I had two toddlers.
What are your favourite herbs?
I am going to reply with an awkward answer! I love the Lamiaceae family, so that is mint, rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, basil. All those are related and have the same kind of flavours. They are fantastic for pollinators, and they are fantastic in the garden and they transform a simple meal into a feast.
Looking to plant a herb garden? Download Jekka's plan
Don't miss Jekka's HerbFest 2023. Buy tickets here
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