Archive | August 2012

A Garden in Africa

My book, A Garden in Africa has proved particularly, though not surprisingly, popular with those who still remember Kenya when it was a British colony.  I’ve decided to publish excerpts from it on my blog from time to time, especially for those who don’t yet possess Kindle e-readers.  It tells the story of an extraordinary garden – and the extraordinary woman who created it.  I wrote it for the pleasure of those anywhere in the world who love gardens – and who love Africa.  The following excerpt might be of interest to gardeners who complain about their struggles with slug  Here goes:

One of the things Flora had learned from her trip to Europe was that the sort of garden she wanted could only be achieved with a proper design.  The plan was drawn up by Alex who was obviously skilled at draftsmanship because he had made a similar, very detailed and beautifully drawn design for the farm.  I remember seeing this up on the wall in my grandmother’s office, back in the sixties but I can’t find either plan among her possessions now.  However Flora’s sketches on which the finished garden plan was based do still exist and, though rough, they tell the story well enough.  At this stage Flora was strongly influenced by the English landscape style and wanted what Edward Hyams called a “paradise” garden, where art imitates nature – but artfully.  Her first move was to alter the perfect circles of the rose beds to a more natural, free-flowing shape and this was extended to a new herbaceous border running from the eastern end of the house in a southwards direction to the edge of the drop.  Now she turned her attention to the drop itself, and to the gully at one side.  There was a reason for this; gardens are usually developed outwards from the house but Flora had decided to rebuild, in a position close to the existing house but slightly higher up and further back, to allow a greater expanse of garden at the front.

A new house was long overdue; the old one was only ever intended to be a temporary shelter and she had lived in it for fourteen years.  The roof leaked, the beams were rotting, the outside walls were full of cracks, the interior walls so dilapidated that animal hides were hung everywhere to cover the holes.  The divorce settlement had given her sole ownership and possession of the farm; she had been prepared to fight for this but my grandfather apparently had shown no interest in keeping it anyway.  His new wife, American by birth, had acres to spare, in various parts of the world. So no doubt he was happy to be rid of what he had come to see as a lost cause, consuming all and returning little.  Beyond the farm Flora had little money and a considerable debt.  My grandfather made no effort to support his children, nor did he keep in touch with them.  “I expect he wanted to,” my mother said to me once, “But she would have stopped it.”

There is no doubt that Flora was very bitter against her husband and could never in later years bear to talk about him, or have him talked about in front of her.  It’s even possible she would have discouraged contact, if the need had arisen. But my grandfather had never shown much interest in his children and had left them apparently without a backward look, going from England to America without even, according to Aunt Betta, bothering to tell his parents what he was doing.  My Uncle Claudio now wrote and said that under the new regime in Italy my grandfather’s ancestral holding had been ordered sold for unpaid taxes. The family had decided that his rights to further inheritance would be passed over to his children, and that in the meantime a sum would be sent to my grandmother, sufficient for her to build a house and pay for the children’s schooling.

The house that Flora built with part of this money was not large by Kenya standards but she planned it from the start to be expanded as necessary, or when she could afford it. She preferred to bank the rest of the money as a nest egg for herself and the children; “cut your coat according to your cloth” was one of her favourite sayings in later life and she now put it into practice. “A few rooms but with lots of space,” she wrote in her diary and accordingly built a single storey home of grey stone, with a sitting room forty feet long, a dining room half that size, a large kitchen, pantry and scullery, two bathrooms and indoor lavatories (though “Beverley Nichols” was kept in use), four bedrooms and a small office or study.  The two rondavels used as living quarters by Alex were renovated and a new rondavel was built as temporary accommodation for visitors, until the house could be expanded.  The house’s best feature was the verandah which ran round three sides of the house; it was ten feet wide and supported on thick, square stone pillars. The verandah made the rooms inside rather dark but as most of the living was done within its spacious embrace, this didn’t matter.  And in those days before air conditioning cool, dark rooms were a welcome retreat from the African sun.  From the verandah,  sprawled in a hammock or on one of the vast, overstuffed sofas, you could look across the expanse of the garden to the plains that ran south to the Tanganyika border, with Kilimanjaro, which we called “Kili” and the Africans called simply “Njaro” gracing the horizon on a good day.

Most of the furniture for the new house came from the second hand sale rooms in Nairobi and these fitted in agreeably with good pieces that Flora had bought from England in her trousseau.  There was also a pair of exquisitely inlaid cabinets which had come from Italy and a carved Lamu chest that Lady J had given her.  Though a good housekeeper and clean to a fault, Flora was not much interested in interior decoration or the amassing of costly bric a brac nor were the meals served at her table notable for style or imagination.  She had a good cook in Mumbule who knew how to serve up simple dishes well prepared, such as soups, roasts and curries.  Beyond that he never ventured and Flora didn’t expect him to; she was never very interested in food herself and tended to snack between meals and then pick at the table.  Visitors seemed to enjoy the house’s unpretentious comforts and feel at home there; the only person I ever knew to dislike it was my mother.

Once the house was finished, Flora was able to concentrate on the garden. Directly in front of the verandah, and at a slightly lower level, was the area where the old house had stood. This was now turned into an herb garden so that the fragrance of it, changing subtly throughout the year, would flow into the house.  It made lying about on the verandah doubly delightful, and I spent a lot of time there as a child.  Today, when I smell basil or oregano or sage it takes me straight back there and I find myself sniffing for the dust-dry smoky dung scent of Africa behind it.

Flora’s interpretation of an herb garden was rather loose and the plantings included foxgloves, gerberas, stocks, snapdragons, a few roses grown for scent rather than appearance, a few bulbs in season and odd plants that she considered too delicate or otherwise unsuitable for the main garden.  The design was traditional, with small stone paths (the same stone that had been used for the house) radiating out from a central circle, complete with sundial.  The sundial was in alignment with the main verandah steps, so that you walked off the verandah and through the herb garden to the main garden beyond.  Though it worked well aesthetically, and the low-growing nature of the plants meant they didn’t block the view, there was a practical reason for placing the herb garden right at the front of the house.  Its contents were so tempting to such an array of creatures that Flora wanted it as close as possible, where the dogs could guard it and human presence deter marauders.  Nonetheless, it had to be enclosed.  A stone wall three feet high was built on either side, out from the verandah, and these were joined in the front by a picket fence with pointed palings.  The palings actually served as stakes and were quite sharp.  As an extra precaution, a hedge of thorny, bright-berried pyracantha was planted outside the walls and in front of the fence, on the outward side, where it was clipped short so that it didn’t block the view.  A gate was set into the fence with an archway over it, covered in a white banksia rose which most things found unpalatable and the duiker and dik dik couldn’t reach.

The herb garden was not completely unassailable behind its barricades.  The dogs could not be left out at night because of leopard, and duiker sometimes managed to scramble over the wall.  They are dainty feeders and mightn’t have done much damage, but once detected by dogs or humans they would panic and dash about seeking escape, their sharp little hooves scything through tender stems.  Once a whole herd of impala, on its way from the higher country behind the farm down to the plain, leapt with casual grace over fence and wall and within a short time reduced the herb garden to mulch.

As Flora was to say years later, when being interviewed by an English gardening writer: “Gardeners in Africa become philosophical about such set-backs and take them in their stride.  After all, a herd of impala is a beautiful sight and what gardener would not be thankful for it, even though it comes at a high price.”

Beyond the herb garden the main garden remained much as before, with lawn bounded on two sides by herbaceous borders.  This section was protected on the outside by plantings of the fast-growing bamboo Bambusa oldhamii which had formed an impenetrable screen and windbreak, with a wire fence behind it as a further deterrent.  Elephant would have easily smashed through this barrier but they very rarely strayed on to the farm and were found only in the low country at the further end of it.  Rhino, which ten years before had been a considerable nuisance even close to the house, and had devastated the early attempts at vegetable growing, were now much less numerous and stayed further back in the bush, away from habitation.  Once, though, a more venturesome rhino did come crashing through the bamboo screen and galloped around the garden, pursued by the hysterical dogs. It dug up the lawn and sent great gouts of turf flying, and what it did to the herbaceous borders came near to breaking Flora’s heart.  It must have been quite a scene; a maddened rhino charging everything in sight, the dogs dodging around it, the servants trying to scare it away by banging on kettles and trays, shouting their heads off but keeping a safe distance.  At one stage it came right through the herb garden fence and up to the steps of the house, but Flora threw a stool at it, startling it enough to turn and gallop back to the main garden where it stood at the top of the bank, huffing and lowering its head.    By this time Flora thought it might have to be shot, before it did serious damage and perhaps charge round to the back of the house, to the yards, where there were horses and chickens and children. But she was neither strong enough nor expert enough to handle the heavy rifle, none of the house servants could shoot at all and Alex was somewhere out on the farm.  Instead she called the dogs and the servants into the house and there they stayed, hoping that the rhino might calm down and go away.

Author in farm garden with a honey badger – another garden pest!

When Alex came back at dusk, four hours later, it was still there, but lying down.  They left it there overnight and in the morning it was dead, vultures already circling overhead.  When Alex and them men cut it open they found its intestines riddles with parasites as well as a festering wound in one groin.

“A. says that’s probably why it was eating the bamboo,”Flora noted in her diary.  “It’s a funny thing but I felt quite sad to see it lying there, even though it did so much damage.  It must have been suffering terribly.”  At least the dying rhino had left a bonus; great piles of manure which could be used on the roses.

Rhinos on the rampage weren’t the only wildlife problem Flora had to deal with.  Lion had always been very plentiful at Matu Maini, with at least two large prides claiming it as their territory.  Flora had always been rather proud of her lion but now that so much of the farm was under cultivation and cattle, much of the grazing game – the zebra and the antelope, the wildebeest and the kongoni – had been driven away.  This meant the lion had to go further afield to hunt, so they turned their attention to the cattle.  No thorn fence, however high or thick, can keep out a determined lion, which meant that the herdsman had to be particularly vigilant – and courageous.  In the early 1930s one of the herd boys was killed and another badly mauled.  There were also a few instances of lions turning man-eater and killing people in the nearby Kamba reserve. Several times Flora had to call John Hunter to come and shoot troublesome lion, but she hated doing so and would take no part in the hunts herself.  Killing is part of life in Africa and she had been there long enough to accept it, but she could never take pleasure in doing it for sport.  This feeling was shared by Alex who, unusually for a farm manager and a man of his background, refused to kill anything unless it was to protect people or the livestock in his charge.  Even then, like Flora, he prepared to get the game department to do it, or friends like Harold Hill, Phillip Percival or John Hunter who could be relied on to do a professional job, without causing unnecessary suffering.  This was not a common view in Kenya at the time, when the big game safari had become a status symbol for the rich.  Flora was often invited to join these safaris, but she never did.

“I like live animals, not dead ones!” was her stock reply and some people were affronted when she said it to Ernest Hemingway.  Hemingway came briefly to the farm with Phillip Percival who was taking the Great Writer on safari.  He showed no interest in the garden, which by then had becoming something she liked to show off, though his then wife Pauline enthused over the view.  When they met again, Flora found that Hemingway’s voice and opinions grated on her nerves and she disliked the way he propounded blood sports as an exaltation of manhood.  “There’s no heart in what he wrote,” she told me, when speaking of their meeting.  “You can tell he really hated women and didn’t understand them at all.” She classed his work with that of her other literary bete noir Karen Blixen – insubstantial and too self-consciously clever by half.  Theodore Dreiser and Arnold Bennett were, to her, far better writers than Hemingway, though her literary affections still lay in the past century, with Dickens and Trollope.  Mind you, when I read Hemingway today I can see she was right about one thing, he did hate women.

Hyena were another common problem on the farm and no night went by that you couldn’t hear them whooping around the sheds and yards, hoping to find a stray animal that had been overlooked when the herdsmen locked them in for the night.  They took to hanging around the dairy when the evening milking was taking place, ready to snatch a calf or rip the udders from a cow.  Though they could have ripped us to pieces just as easily, we didn’t treat them with much respect, convinced by the common belief that they were cowards.  It depends how you judge courage; one of my childhood tasks was to go out at night and chase the hyena away from the bins where the household rubbish was stored.  I would rush at them, waving a stick, and they always ran, with that ugly lope that reminds me of Charles Laughton’s hunchback.  Yet I have seen a hyena bite off its own leg to escape a trap, as foxes are said to do.  Hyena were not as much of a problem with the chickens as jackals were, because of their size which prevented them squeezing through the wire mesh, but they would attack just about everything else and once killed a bloodstock foal, out in the paddock not far from the house. Flora’s reluctance to kill wildlife didn’t extend to hyena; like most people she disliked them and put down poison bait without a qualm.

Leopard and baboon lived in the rocky heights of the hill behind the house.  This hill was typical of the country, rising like a pimple from the skin of the plain, its gentle grade suddenly steepening towards the top.  The lower slopes of the hill were cultivated but beyond the halfway line it was just grass, quite long after the wet season but otherwise grazed short.  Small, sparse-leaved bushes grew there, and whistling thorn.  Hyrax lived among the lower rocks and if you walked or rode up there you could sit in the sun and watch them.  I thought they would make good pets, but was never fast enough to catch one, nor able to persuade anyone else to catch one for me.  We kept an eye out for leopard and sometimes saw one sitting on a rock, looking half-asleep but ready to move if we got too close.  The hill was also home to a troop of baboons whose sleeping cave was tucked away at the end of a crumbling ledge.  In the evenings the adults would herd the families along the ledge, on all fours or swinging dangerously above the chasm on the branches of fragile shrubs growing horizontally out of the rock.  The big dog baboons would go last, looking back frequently over their shoulders to check on any possible pursuit. From time to time they would make forays into the orchard and vegetable garden, and a few of them would be shot to frighten the rest away.  Eventually there were just too many people around for them to venture close to the farm, though old men with older guns had to be employed to guard the maize crop when it began to ripen, even when I was a girl.  One of the thrills of my childhood was to lie in bed at my grandmother’s and listen for a leopard to come down the hill.  You always knew when it was on the move because the baboon sentries would begin to bark, and you could follow the leopard’s progress by the continuous barking that did not stop until the baboons considered themselves out of danger.

Flora loved lion and developed a great rapport with them but she was never so keen on leopard.  She thought them beautiful but sly and could never forgive their appetite for dogs; almost every dog she ever owned was taken by leopard in the end.  In the diary for 1934 Flora wrote about her feeling for lion vis a vis leopard.  During these years she wrote many such fragments, which read as if she might have been thinking of putting them into a book, or an article.  Or perhaps a letter to somebody.  I particularly liked this one:

“Africans greatly fear and respect Leopards.  Far more so than Lions, though Leopards never go hunting men (unless being hunted themselves) as lions sometimes do.  But Lions are everyday creatures, often seen in full daylight, appearing lounging and lazy unless actually hunting.  Whereas Leopards are creatures of the night, secretive and rarely seen, even their call no more than a discreet cough that seems to warn, “I am passing, perhaps it is best we don’t meet’.  Quite unlike the Lion’s bold, self-advertising roar.”  

The seven secrets of writing an e-book


Many e-book writers make the mistake of trying to cram too many photos into their books. The secret is to use few photos and only those that are strictly relevant to the content. This is a typical example of an utterly irrelevant photo because I’m a garden writer, not a beach babe! But it got your attention, didn’t it!

For those who write e-books it’s not so much about thinking outside the square but visualizing inside the rectangle!  The significant difference in conformation and appearance between a printed book and an e-reader screen means authors must drastically change the way they organize material and compose pages.

This is quite easy for fiction which usually comprises a chapter heading and text, with perhaps a quotation or two at the beginning of the book or at the head of chapters.  It’s quite a different challenge with non-fiction which usually features far more fussy stuff – sub-headings, section headings, lists and tables, diagrams and – of course – photographs.

Even with non-fiction I’ve learned to keep it clean and simple – no long dedications or quotations, no foot-noting at the end of chapters, nothing to fuss up the page and confuse the reader.  Even brackets should be used sparingly because none of these things translate well from your written page to the e-reader.  For example, if you put a long sentence into brackets it’s likely to run over to the next e-reader ”page” and possibly the one after that, and the reader loses the whole purpose of this sub-text.  It’s better to use other punctuation or re-write to express your meaning in some way that doesn’t require brackets to get it across.

In my one and only work of fiction I used several typefaces to indicate both different tenses and the different voices telling the story.  This worked well on the printed page but became too confusing when read on an e-reader, and the real sense of it was lost.  I would not make such a mistake again.


My only non-fiction book – though still with a gardening theme. Even with fiction, it’s important to keep the e-reader screen as uncluttered and easy-flowing as possible.

With non-fiction it’s even more important to do away as much as possible with anything that isn’t plain, onwardly-flowing text,  using short paragraphs, indentation, bold-face type, italics  and a few simple sub-headings to break it into the visual equivalent of the quick sound byte.

The problem is, we are so accustomed to the “look” of printed books that we find it difficult to move beyond this when writing our own e-books.  Thus it’s essential that an e-writer be an e-reader; we need to see how our own books and those of others appear on the small rectangle of the e-reader screen; we need to forget all we have learned, or done, in the past and design our books to suit this new medium.

My first e-book was a re-vamping of a book I’d already had published in print form.  I laid it out in the same way, with the same chapter headings and typefaces; the same sectionalisation and emphatic break-outs.  And several photographs on each page because what’s a gardening book without lots of colorful plant pix.  The result was a nightmare when it came to putting it all in to e-book format to upload to Amazon.  The color emphasis used in the chapter headings; the shading effects used in the break-outs, the numerous bulleted lists and other stuff that I (and my publishers) had always used to make a printed page look busy and interesting and engaging just did not work on the e-reader screen – it came across as cluttered and confusing.  As for the photographs, while newer e-readers do reproduce color on the screen and this will soon become the standard, still too many photos tend to clutter the e-reader screen and distract from the text, plus it’s a hell of a lot of work to get them all in there!


Look closely at the middle paragraph and you’ll see it’s actually a footnote. On a printed page it would come at the end but on an e-reader screen it blunders into the middle of the story, confusing and distracting the reader.

Basically, we have to accept that with e-books it’s not about creating a work that is a thing of visual beauty, it’s about getting information across.  This was a hard lesson for a gardening writer such as myself to understand because in the past the printed books I’ve written WERE things of beauty.  And if that’s the kind of work we want to create then we have to stick to the printed medium.

I expect many other writers share my experience and, like me, have had to decide just what our objective is, when we write an e-book.  Mine is to communicate my expertise to readers who require it – nothing more.  If I’m to do this successfully, I must conform to the exigencies of the e-reader format.  And so must you. So here are my seven secrets of writing a good and readable non-fiction e-book:

  • Learn to think of how your work will appear on the page of an e-reader, which may be read in two or three different type sizes, depending on the reader’s eyesight.
  • Stick as much as possible to plain text and avoid “fussy” matter such as lists, tables, over-use of sub-headings,  color and shading effects, borders, break-out boxes and bullet points.  Instead, use commas, semi-colons, colons, indents, paragraph breaks, bold-face, capitals and italics to provide necessary emphasis.
  • Use as few photographs as possible and only in small sizes.  A photograph MUST fit easily on to the e-reader page and should not be so large as to take up the whole page; it should have text above and below it or it will look lost and out of context.  Color is wasted on most e-readers so bear that in mind – a color photo with too much content, such as a mixed flower bed, will not re-produce as well as one of a single flower.  With my gardening e-books I now have a color title page (used mainly to show the book on Amazon and my website),  and at most one picture to introduce each chapter.  Plus one of myself on the end title page.  Other photos are used very sparingly ONLY if they are needed to illustrate an important process.  If I am writing a book on, say, azaleas, I POST LOTS OF PICS ON MY WEBSITE AND REFER THE E-BOOK READERS TO THAT SITE.  That way, they can see the photos in glorious Technicolor!
  • Don’t put footnotes at the end of chapters.  Use endnotes instead, and put any acknowledgments at the end of the book.  Acknowledgments can also be put on the title page.  On an e-reader screen, footnotes don’t appear nicely at the bottom of the “page” but turn up confusingly and annoyingly in the middle of the text.
  • Try to avoid using bracketed sub-text.  Think of another way of expressing yourself or use other forms of punctuation.  If you must use brackets, do so only with short sentences.
  • Be very careful when formatting your e-book that you use the page-break function – and use it in the right places.  Many an e-book author had been caught out this way, only to preview his or her book and find chapters or sections running into one another in a breathless jumble.. However, don’t OVER-format or have too many unnecessary gaps between the text – you’ll run the risk of losing your reader.
  • Keep it short and sweet.  Novel readers may stay to the end of the e-book but non-fiction readers are looking for quick, punchy information.  Don’t create a book that comes across like one of those wearyingly huge manuals put out by manufacturers of cameras and electrical goods.  Make sure, too – and this is very important – that readers can easily navigate from one section to another, without a long and tedious scroll.  A short and snappy e-book can be downloaded to a computer as well as an e-reader, which means you can access all those readers who don’t have e-readers but do have personal computers, tablets, ipads – and cell phones.  In my case, I developed a formula for my gardening books that was divided into five short and easy steps.  Every book follows the same formula.  It works for me and would probably work for you, too.

I had published several books before I switched from print medium to e-writing.  It has involved a steep and sometimes slippery learning curve and the number of people (especially gardeners!) who use e-readers is still comparatively small.  However, the potential is huge and I find e-writing gives me more control over my product, earns me more money per book sold, and frees me from the tyranny of publishers.  If you haven’t tried it yet, do so – just follow my seven secrets and you’ll soon get the hang of it.  And feel free to contact me for further discussion.


A colorful cover is important for promoting your e-book, on your website, on sales sites such as Amazon, and elsewhere.  You should keep it simple and uncluttered – the one on the left was my second book cover and as you can see I still had a lot to learn. Compare it with the latest book-cover, right

Growing herbs – Ten Top Tips

A selection of healthy herbs

Now that I’ve reached the age of wisdom I’ve concluded that there are two things everybody should do – grow herbs and practice Yoga.  Take up these hobbies and you’ll have a healthier, happier life.  Rich or poor, these two practices are readily available to everyone and they are flexible enough to suit any age, personal, cultural or spiritual inclination.  And how many things can you say that about?

I’ve been growing herbs now for 40 years – about as long as I’ve been practicing Yoga. I’ve grown them in large herb gardens and  small window boxes.  I’ve grown them for sale and I’ve grown them just for my own use.  Looking back, I can think of few interests that have given me more all-round pleasure and satisfaction.

There is something essentially satisfying about growing herbs. Humans have an ancient association with those plants we have chosen to designate as having culinary and/or medicinal value and I think those who still get pleasure from planting and harvesting our crops of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme like to feel a continuing part of this tradition. Also, growing herbs is easy. Vegetables and fruit demand a lot from the gardener whereas herbs are cheap to buy, either from seed or in pots, and need very little attention.

Recently, I put all my knowledge into a book entitled Grow Herbs – Make Money. I did this because growing herbs is one of the few hobbies where you really can make a profit, without too much expenditure of time and capital investment.  Writing the book, which is the latest in my GardenEzi series, was a lot of fun.  It also made me think hard about what are the REAL essentials of successful herb-growing for ordinary people – by which I mean those who are not mad keen growers or New Agers dropping out of the mainstream.

So, for those who have never grown herbs before, here are ten simple but essential points:

1. Keep it simple and grow just a few herbs really well.  The Top Ten culinary herbs are parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, basil, oregano, dill, coriander (cilantro), mint and chives.  Other herbs worth growing are tarragon, fennel and chervil.

2. Grow those that suit your climate.  You can grow SOME herbs just about anywhere except Antarctica or the North Pole (yes, even the desert!)  though unless you live in the tropics you will be limited to summer.  A few traditional culinary herbs don’t do well in the tropics so grow warm climate substitutes.  If you live in a cold climate don’t bother with hot climate herbs that need a long growing season.

3. If you don’t have a large garden, grow your herbs  in pots and tubs.  Most of our common culinary  herbs do better in pots anyway because they can be moved around as needed, to take advantage of sun and shade.

4. Make sure you have the right soil.  Herbs do best in sandy loams that are on the light side – they don’t like heavy clay or very acid soils. Soil acidity and alkalinity is measured on a scale (called the pH scale) of 1 – 14 with acidity at the lower end and alkalinity at the higher end of the scale.  Most herbs will thrive in a neutral soil of around 5.5 – 6.5.  Chives, oregano and mint like a slightly more alkaline soil whereas basil does well in a slightly acid to neutral (5 – 6.5) soil.  Parsley and thyme tolerate a wider range of soil pH.  It’s worth testing your soil with a kit from a garden center.  One of the advantages of growing herbs in pots is that a good potting mix is balanced for a range of herbs.  And it’s easy to add a bit of lime to the mix for those that need a more alkaline soil.

5. Good drainage is essential for successful herb-growing.  Don’t plant your herbs in low-lying swampy areas where they will become water-logged and succumb to root-rot.  Rockeries are the ideal herb environment because their soil drains freely.

6. Common culinary herbs need at least six hours sun a day for good growth.  Mint, parsley and coriander will take some light shade but basil and rosemary need full sun and plenty of it.  In cold climates, a bed or pot position against a sun-facing wall will give additional warmth.  In very hot climates some protection may be required for young leafy herbs during the middle of the day.

7. Don’t over-water herbs.  Most herbs do very well with only small amounts of water, especially dry-zone herbs such as thyme and rosemary.  Mint, chives and parsley need more watering, especially in hot weather.  Fine out the watering needs of each herb you grow and establish a regime so that your plants get enough water but are never water-logged. Don’t over-feed your herbs, either.  I only feed my herbs in pots, and then sparingly.  As a general rule, those that need the most water need the most feeding too – so basil, parsley and chives benefit from regular dosages of liquid fertilisers.  Slow-release fertilisers are mostly a waste of money for herbs, especially annuals.   What you want is quick action feeding to bring them on for the growing season.  In-ground, I don’t fertilize any of my herbs except basil – I just make sure I have good soil which is regularly composted and mulched.

8. Don’t ever spray herbs against insects – remember, you are going to eat them!  (The herbs, not the insects!). Plant-munching insects rarely attack the common culinary herbs which have their own biological defence systems.  Basil can suffer from grasshopper or caterpillar attack; pick them off or use an organic spray that doesn’t harm humans.

9. Seed bought in packets from garden centers is the easiest and cheapest way of growing herbs.  You can of course buy them in pots and almost ready to eat but this costs more.  Harvesting your own seed is fun and cost-effective but it requires hard work to do this, and to store it safely and for the correct period so it retains viability.

10. Herbs are best picked between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on a warm, sunny day.  At this time the flavoursome oils are rich and well-developed, drawn out by the warmth of the sun.

Of course, there are more things to know about growing herbs if you plan to use your hobby to earn some  extra income – but for that information you’ll have to read the book!  This is available from Amazon as a Kindle e-book or it can be downloaded to a computer – details and preview are on my website and gardening blog at

But if, like most of us, what interests you is growing herbs  for your own pleasure then please do give it a try because you’ll find this hobby just so rewarding.  I only grow culinary herbs nowadays and limit these to my top ten favorites, which are parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, dill, mint, coriander (cilantro) and chives – plus fennel, chervil and so-called Vietnamese mint as seasonal changes.

Not only are these herbs essential for flavouring the meals I love to cook, they also contain lots of vitamins and minerals as well as the free-radicals and anti-oxidants that so many of today’s health gurus tell us are essential for our wellbeing.  I just love to go out on a sunny morning and pick a handful of basil to put into a rich Italian sauce, or some rosemary to rub into a joint of lamb .  I adore the taste of dill and use it at the slightest excuse – lavishly with eggs and fish for example – while coriander (cilantro), used sparingly, makes an Indian curry or Mexican dish into a taste of heaven.

Follow my simple ten points for good herb-growing and you’ll find you’ve got an absorbing hobby which will enchant your life in all sorts of ways.  And if you have any questions, please feel free to contact me via my website – I’m always happy to help fellow herb-lovers!

New herb book

My new book in the GardenEzi series

At last, my new herb book is available for sale as a Kindle e-reader download from Amazon Cost is only $4.95 and it may well be the best five bucks you’ve spent in a long time!

The book is called Grow Herbs – Make Money and shows you how to turn herb-growing from a hobby to a small backyard business, following the GardenEzi Five Step program.

Those interested can find more information about this book on my website and gardening blog at

Growing herbs has been a major part of my life for 40 years or so now  and yes, for some of those years I’ve made a dollar or two out of them but mostly I’ve grown them just for my own pleasure.

There is something essentially satisfying about growing herbs.  Humans and those plants we have chosen to designate as having culinary and/or medicinal value have an ancient association and I think those  who still get pleasure from planting and harvesting our crops of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme like to feel a continuing part of this tradition.  Also, growing herbs is easy.  Vegetables and fruit demand a lot  from the gardener whereas herbs are cheap to buy, either from seed or in pots, and need very little attention.

I have refined my herb-growing practices over the years so that today I grow only the chosen few.  When I first started I tried growing just about anything that could be classified as a “herb” so that at one point my herb garden boasted about 45 different types of plant.  I was an avid collector; joining a herb society, sending away for new and exotic species or varieties, and raiding the gardens of others with my knife and scissors.   I read madly, built up a herb book library, concocted exciting new recipes, tried my hand at drying and otherwise preserving leaves and flowers, harvested seed in season, dosed my family with hideous concoctions.  Indeed, my medicinal compounds rivalled those of Lily the Pink and though we all survived I soon lost interest – and faith – in the efficacy of such potions when compared with modern drugs manufactured by those with better knowledge, methods and equipment than I possessed! (Though I still think a cup of chamomile tea is soothing to the nerves and that mint tea aids digestion).

My interest in culinary herbs, however, has endured.  After all, I love to cook and so a source of fresh herbs is essential to me.  And though I no longer believe in herbal remedies to cure disease I do (as a horticulturist and scientist) believe in the benefits of herbs in promoting good health.  Like most plants, they contain their share of vitamins and minerals as well as the free-radicals  and anti-oxidants that so many of today’s health gurus tell us are essential for our wellbeing.  For me, though, it’s their taste that really matters.  What are Italian tomato-based recipes without basil?  Or salmon without dill? Or lamb without rosemary? Or just about anything without parsley?

During the many years in which I’ve grown herbs I’ve had a variety of gardens, from large acreage to a courtyard.  Today I have a very small area of garden around the house under cultivation and this gives me just enough room to grow the dozen herbs I consider essential for my kitchen.  This include the Top Ten mentioned in my book – parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, dill, mint, coriander (cilantro) and chives – plus fennel and so-called Vietnamese mint.  Where I live, fennel is a substitute for dill in the hot season, while Vietnamese mint is a suitable taste substitute for coriander.  I also, some years, grow chervil as a cool season extra.

While some of my larger or mat-forming herbs (fennel, oregano) are grown in-ground most are kept in pots.  This enables me to move them around as necessary to take advantage (depending on time of year) of sun or shade.  These days I grow from seed rather than from cuttings, using mostly commercial seed because it is easy and has good, reliable variability.  Harvesting and storing your own seed is quite hard work and the viability rate is a lot lower – I’ve been there and done that and now I have other interests that consume my time so my herb-growing can’t be allowed to take up more than, say, one hour a week.  Yup, that’s all it takes me nowadays to keep my kitchen well-supplied and help out a few friends as well.

I do think that one of the handy things about learning to be a good herb-grower is that it IS one of those hobbies that can make a profit.  It’s not difficult at all to expand your own growing program to produce pots and fresh herbs for sale.  And from that small step it’s possible to build up that program to a small backyard business that won’t make a fortune but WILL bring in some extra income for relatively little effort after the setting-up process.  That’s why I wrote Grow Herbs – Make Money, to show how this could be done.  It’s not for everyone, but for those looking for some extra money growing herbs is not a bad way of getting it.

I love my herbs!  Indeed, they have been one of the enduring loves of my life and have never let me down.  If I lived in a tiny flat with a window box I’d still grow a small selection of them.  The smell, the feel and the taste of them enchants my daily life – if you’ve never tried growing them yourself, please give it a go.  You’ll find herb-growing good therapy as well as good fun!

Photo of the Week Challenge: Growth


This tiny, ephemeral helmet orchid is rarely seen – it depends on just the right amount of warm and rainfall to make any growth at all, otherwise it remains hidden for long periods beneath the thick leaf litter on the forest floor.  Just another of Nature’s little-known miracles!