Article: Rebecca Travers (Canberra Organic – Winter 2021)

“Fresh herbs, yo” by Shawn Allen is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I recently read in The Australian Women’s Weekly: the cook’s garden [p108] that there are two schools of thought about winter. There are those people who dread it and grizzle about the cold air, and there are those who relish the battle that nature thrusts their way and are energised to achieve by the cold.

I’m ashamed to admit I am the first of the two, rather than the latter. When I moved to Australia 14 years ago, my only knowledge of this beautiful country was through various soap operas that were the favourites of many Brits back in the UK. I expected year-round sunshine and warmth, so winter came as a surprise — even more so, when I moved to Canberra 10 years ago!

However this winter, I have decided I want to become the second type of person and I have set about researching the winter garden. Aside from the brassicas — broccoli and Brussel sprouts are my favourites — and Asian greens, I wanted to find something else to plant in my courtyard garden that could contribute to my winter soups and stews and I was excited to see the category of ‘winter herbs’ mentioned in ‘the cook’s garden’.

It states:

“these perennial herbs available in the winter enjoy an uncanny sympathy with the foods we crave when the nights turn cold and dark: roasts, and all those dishes that require long, slow cooking, drawing out the flavours and filling the house with rich scents and fireside warmth.”

The Australian Women’s Weekly: the cook’s garden (2010:108)

The thought of this warmed my soul and reminded me to make a batch of my winter soup, which I tend to turn to when I feel a cold coming on or a need for more veggies in my diet.

I am often hesitant to trust books that suggest plantings for winter, given the Canberra climate is very different to the rest of Australia, but it listed ‘cold zones with frost’ so I read on.

The book’s first suggestion was bay leaves, one of the few tree herbs and it thrives in most soils and climates. Reaching up to 11m high (and almost as wide), this didn’t seem like the most suitable for our courtyard. But then I remembered I had been eyeing off an area of unused garden bed outside our garage door on the common property of our complex — it would be perfect there and would be available for others to share.

The next suggestion was thyme, which I love and reminded me of the lemon thyme sugar I made to accompany my Christmas fruit mince pies. This was a definite for my list. I noted it grows well in borders, amongst rocks or in pots, but needs gritty, free-draining soil and full sun to thrive. This explains why my last batch died when the wicking bed it was growing in was flooded by the summer rains (and I forgot to pull out the stopper before going away for a week).

Copyright CanStock
Copyright CanStock

Marjoram was the third suggestion. This was not a herb I knew much about. A relative of oregano, it tends to grow about 30cm in height, and its spread is more of a mound. The line “Marjoram will sulk and disappear in shady spots and needs protection from cold winter winds” made me laugh, imagining it as the ‘teenager’ of the herbs — until I remembered I also have been known to sulk in the cold. This one seemed a bit more challenging and I thought of skipping over it until I saw that marjoram plus bay leaves, thyme and parsley are the traditional herbs of the bouquet garni. I often use these in my soups or casseroles, so I decided this might be best in a pot that could be brought inside when it got too cold.

The final winter herb listed was sage. This instantly took me back to Northern Hemisphere Christmases, with sage and onion stuffing accompanying the turkey roast. Sage grows about 30cm high but doesn’t like acidic soil or too much rain. Confinement to a pot will prevent ‘wet feet’ syndrome and I noted to be wary of caterpillars which will enjoy the leaves.

So now I had it — my shopping list for the next trip to the garden centre. Whilst I was aware that it was unlikely that they would produce enough for my winter soups and stews this year, I was excited to have something to nurture through the winter months that would encourage me to rug-up and get outside in the winter sunshine. Time will only tell how they will fare with the cold winter weather, but I felt one more step along in my journey to becoming the second type of person this winter.

(Additional reading: COGS Growing Guides – Winter-Hardy Herbs)