Low maintenance, high flavor. How irresistible is that? Two perennial herbs that I wouldn't be without are lovage and sorrel. They come up every year, survive on little attention, and are among the first plants to provide fresh green leaves in spring.
They also pack powerful flavors. Lovage is tangy and pungent, like celery but richer and stronger. Sorrel – well, to me it tastes lemony, but some describe it more as an acid zing. Despite the difference, their uses are very similar: both are great in egg, fish or potato dishes, and both make a distinctive soup.
Even more happily, if you know about one, you pretty much know about the other. Both are very hardy, enjoy moist, fertile soil, and will grow in partial shade. Being hot and dry encourages them to run to seed, so they're happiest if their roots are kept damp by watering in dry weather and mulching with compost every spring.
Both form a clump up to two feet wide over several years, but rather than giving over precious ground to them in the veg patch, I've put mine at the back of flower beds, where their tall, but not very showy flower spikes give height, reaching up to six feet, during the summer.
How to Grow Sorrel
Although I like to grow sorrel as a perennial, you might not feel the same. It can grow to a couple of feet in diameter and develops a heavy root system, which makes it hard to dig up or divide. Leaves of established clumps also tend to be slightly coarser and pack more of an acidic punch. You wouldn't be alone if you preferred to grow it as an annual when the leaves are softer and more suitable for salads. Sow seed from March to May, and thin seedlings to around 4 inches (10 cms) apart, using the baby leaves for salad.
Cooking sorrel for the first time can result in a bit of a shock. I remember staring at the bottom of the pan and wondering how so much greenery had reduced itself to a mere green-brown smear. Like spinach, it cooks down to virtually nothing, so if you'd rather grow it annually, and not just for salad, you'll need quite a few plants.
If you want sorrel as a perennial, then it's a good idea to sow a number of seeds, either where you'd like them to grow or in pots, and then thin them out or transplant them to 12 inches (30cms) apart. In following years, as it spreads, you can remove middle clumps in order to arrive at 2-foot (60 cms) spacings. That way, you'll get plenty of leaves while the plants bulk up.
I'd recommend a couple of established clumps in order to ensure you have enough leaves to cook. Sorrel is generally pest-free but can fall prey to leaf miner which makes the leaves papery (pick these leaves off and burn or dispose of in the rubbish to prevent the pest spreading).
From about June, sorrel will begin to want to produce flower spikes. You can prolong leaf production by cutting off any shoots that start growing tall in their run up to seed, but as mine are grown as a perennial, I don't bother. You can't stop flower production forever. By July you'll have tall, rather stately spikes topped with insignificant red flowers. Once these are seeded, you'll find fresh leaves begin again from the base.
How to Grow Lovage
The powerful, distinctive flavor of lovage means that one plant is generally enough. Either buy a plant or sow seed from around March where you want it to grow, or in a 3-inch (7 cms) pot and transplant it once it's around 4 inches (10 cms) high.
Like sorrel, lovage can fall prey to a leaf miner. This one makes the leaves look brown and if this happens pick them off and put them in the fire or rubbish, rather than giving the pest a possible life-extension in the compost.
Leaves get a bit sparse and ragged once the plant runs to seed, but cutting the stalks down at any time during the summer will encourage new leaves to grow from the base.
Both sorrel and lovage can be divided in autumn or spring if they get too big (it's a good idea to divide sorrel every four or five years as it does tend to get a bit tatty and less productive) but one final similarity between them is that they self-seed, which means you get to replenish your stock with minimal effort. Just transplant seedlings to the spot you'd prefer them to grow.
By Helen Gazeley