If you are a keen cook, you will no doubt be familiar with the main Mediterranean Spices that are commonly used in Mediterranean cooking and that are part of the Mediterranean diet. These Mediterranean spices are not only great additions to a store cupboard, they are also fantastic additions to your garden. While your climate may not be akin to that found around the shores of the Mediterranean, you may still be able to grow these Mediterranean Spices in your garden or home and incorporate them in your Mediterranean diet regime– as long as you take care to provide the conditions that they need to grow.
Which Herbs Are Mediterranean Herbs?
Spices generally referred to as Mediterranean spices in the Mediterranean diet generally fall into one of two categories. The first category is those perennial herbs which grow well in the drier, sunnier climes of that region. Mediterranean spices that enjoy fun sun, low amounts of water and free-draining soil include:
- Winter Savory
But there is a second category of Mediterranean spices that are sometimes also included in lists of Mediterranean herbs and spices. These herbs also grow in the region, and are commonly used in the cuisines of the region. But these herbs require more water, and more fertile and water-retaining soil than the herbs on the above list. Common Mediterranean spices in this category include:
This is by no means an exhaustive list. But the 15 spices mentioned above are common ingredients in many spice recipes of the region. It is important to remember that while there is something commonly referred to as ‘Mediterranean cuisine’ – the area actually includes a number of different countries and regions, each of which have their own distinctive culinary traditions, as well as certain similarities.
If you are looking to start growing Mediterranean spices in your garden, then the 15 spices listed above are a good place to start.
Why Grow Mediterranean Spices?
Of course, one of the primary reasons to grow Mediterranean herbs in your garden is for Mediterranean diet culinary use. But growing herbs to eat them is just one option. There are also a range of other benefits to growing these spice mixes in your garden to incorporate in your food.
In addition to providing an edible yield for seasoning a range of recipes, Mediterranean spices can also provide other yields. For example:
- Several of the herbs mentioned on the list above are also an ingredient for herbal remedies. Lavender, for example, is calming, antiseptic and antibacterial, and thyme is a strong antiseptic and expectorant and boosts immunity. Rosemary is also strongly antiseptic and anti-inflammatory and has a wide range of uses in herbal medicine. These are just a few examples.
- Herbs can also be used to make essential or infused oils that can be used in a range of household applications – for cleaning, cosmetics and balms.
In addition to providing direct yields, Mediterranean spices on the list above can also be useful while in the garden. These spices can help gardeners by:
- Attracting beneficial wildlife such as pollinators and predatory insects to the garden.
- Repelling or distracting pest species, helping to keep other crops and precious plants in your garden pest free.
- Making fruits grown nearby taste better. For example, basil is often said to improve the taste of tomatoes when grown close by.
Where To Grow Mediterranean Spices
There are a number of different choices when it comes to where you grow Mediterranean herbs. Spices on the list above can be grown:
- In a dedicated herb area, such as a herb spiral or perennial growing area.
- In a polyculture with perennial flowers, perennial vegetables and other perennial plants. (For example, on the sunny edges of a forest garden.)
- In and amongst annual vegetable beds, as companion plants. (Where they can aid in pest control and in the growth of fruit and vegetable crops.)
- In a greenhouse or polytunnel or other undercover growing area. (Where suitable conditions can be delivered even in much cooler climates.)
- In pots or containers, either outside on a patio or in your garden, or on windowsills or elsewhere inside your home.
Providing the Right Conditions in Your Growing Areas
When choosing where to place your Mediterranean herbs it is important to consider the conditions required by each of the herbs you have chosen. As mentioned above, the first seven Mediterranean herbs in the list above require full sun and good drainage, and have rather low water needs. Since these spices have very similar growing conditions, they can be good companions for one another.
Rosemary and lavender have deeper roots than other types of spice, and so will require a good depth of soil, or a deep enough pot or container. While sage and oregano do like relatively dry conditions, and plenty of sunshine, in warmer climes they may benefit from partial shade during the heat of the day.
Coriander, dill and basil all also like the sun. But they require more water than the first seven types of spice on the spice list above, and fennel will also prefer somewhat more moist conditions. Parsley, mint and chives all do well in partial shade and enjoy more moist and cooler conditions than the other herbs on the list.
Sowing Mediterranean Spices
You can sow oregano seeds in a pot indoors, or straight into the soil around late April. Seeds should be spaced at 15cm intervals at a depth of around 2cm. After two or three weeks the seedlings can be thinned to around 30cm intervals to allow them to grow to their full size.
If sowing seeds outside, seeds are best sown in spring in a well-prepared seed bed. Plant seeds around 15cm apart at a depth of around 2cm in April. After around 2-3 weeks you can thin seedlings to around 30cm apart to give them space to grow to their full size. Alternatively, sow seeds into small pots in March and pot up to 30cm pots in May.
It can be very difficult to get rosemary seeds to germinate so rosemary plants are usually purchased as plants or propagated by cuttings. Cut stems from the parent plant that are around two inches long and remove leaves from the bottom two-thirds of the cutting. Place cuttings in a well-draining planting medium and water lightly but consistently until the roots begin to grow. Once the roots have developed you can plant these cuttings as you would do any rosemary plant.
Sage can be grown from seed although is is easier to get more reliable and high quality plants by growing sage from cuttings or plants bought from a garden centre or plant nursery and this is what most people will do. If you do want to grow sage from seed then you should plant them in late spring about 1/8 of an inch deep and 24 to 30 inches apart. Seeds should take between 10-21 days to germinate.
Tarragon is usually grown from small plants. These should be purchased in around March or April and planted in a container or in a polytunnel bed between April and August. When choosing plants bear in mind that there are two varieties, French tarragon and Russian tarragon and French tarragon is said to be far superior in terms of the flavour.
It is best to plant lavender in the spring, in April and May. At this time of year, the soil is naturally warmer, and the new plants can thrive. If you plant younger plants in the winter, they can be vulnerable to rotting.
You can sow seeds of winter savory indoors as early as 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost. Seeds can take 14 days or longer to germinate. Germination of winter savory can be erratic, however, and so you may prefer, as with other perennials, to purchase plants instead.
Basil seeds should be sown indoors in March or April. As a general rule of thumb, it is best to sow around 4-6 weeks before the last frost date in your area. Sow seeds shallowly and make sure that the young seedlings get plenty of light.
Sow parsley between March and May and, if required, you can also sow a second batch for fresh, young leaves over winter in the early autumn. Sow shallowly and make sure to keep well watered, especially when the weather is warm and dry in the spring and summer.
It is best to direct sow chervil where it is to grow. Sow in March or early April for a summer crop and autumn-winter for a spring crop. Provide some protection from heat in summer and cold in winter for best results.
You can either sow in containers inside from April or direct in the soil between June and September. Sow coriander shallowly at a spacing of around 30cm. It is important to keep the soil around your plants moist but you should also be careful not to overwater.
Mint is usually grown from young plants, purchased in the spring. Plant your mint some time between March and May and you can be harvesting mint all summer long and perhaps even right through into October.
Dill does not like its roots to be disturbed and so it is usually best to direct sow it in April where the plants are to grow. Dill should be sown some time between April and July. Sow thinly and just cover the seeds. The seeds are fairly easy to grow and do not take too long to germinate.
Seed can be planted around the time of the last frost and it will be easy to collect more seed from the plant for use the following year. When sowing fennel, scatter seeds on the soil and cover lightly with a little compost. Bear in mind when choosing where to grow it that fennel is that it will take over if you let it and form a monoculture, refusing to let other plants grow nearby. It will stunt almost anything else planted next to it, and in ideal conditions, fennel can grow to immense size. It is usually an annual in cooler climes but will self-seed rather readily.
Chives can be grown from seed or propagated by division, which is when you pull away a small section from an established clump. This small section can then be planted elsewhere in your garden. Division is best done in early spring or mid autumn. Growing from seed is also easy. Chives can be sown indoors or out. Plant chive seeds just below a thin layer of soil and water them well.
Caring For Your Mediterranean Spices
If you have taken care when choosing the growing location for each of the Mediterranean herbs and spices that you have chosen, then caring for them should be relatively easy and stress free. In an arid climate, or areas of relatively low rainfall, or where plants are grown undercover, watering will be the main job. It is important not to overwater Mediterranean herbs and spices, but it is also not a good idea to let them dry out entirely. Remember to taper off any watering as cooler weather arrives. Harvest rainwater for this purpose wherever possible.
Pruning Your Mediterranean Spices
Perennial herbs and spices on the list above will benefit from pruning. Sometimes, pruning will simply be undertaken as you harvest your herbs and spices. However, for shrubby herbs like rosemary and lavender, for example, pruning them is essential in order to keep them healthy and producing well. These plants have a tendency to get woody if not pruned yearly to maintain a bushy shape and form.
If you want to prune lavender, this is a job to get on with in August, or early September, once the flowers are finished for the season. If the flowers on your lavender plants have lost their colour, then it is a good time to prune. The bees will no longer be visiting the flowers, and they will be gray and dry. This is also a good time to prune other mature, shrubby Mediterranean herbs and spices.
Secateurs should be used to remove the flower heads and cut back this years growth, making sure that some new green growth remains. Generally speaking, generally speaking, you should aim to remove any flowering stems and around 2.5cm of the length of the leafy growth, which will encourage your plants to grow back bushy and full.
Harvesting Your Mediterranean Spices
Aromatic herbs and spices are best harvested early in the day, soon after dew has dried. Simply pluck leaves from your plants as and when they are required, or snip off lengths of growth with a pair of garden scissors or secateurs.
Propagating Your Mediterranean Spices
If you would like to expand your herb garden, you can consider doing so by taking cuttings from your existing plants. You can expand your herb garden for next to nothing using cuttings. You can take cuttings from a range of shrubby herbs and spices, such as sage, rosemary, thyme, marjoram and oregano.
You can choose to take hardwood cuttings later in the year but many find that they have more success with softwood cuttings which are best taken in May or June. This is a remarkably easy way to propagate shrubby herbs and spices, though you should be aware that a 100% success rate is unlikely and that all your cuttings are unlikely to take root. Don’t worry about it, just take a number of cuttings and if you get it right, some of them should work out.
To take a softwood cuttings, simply cut off a short stem less than ten centimetres long – look for healthy side shoots and cut off the stem just below a leaf node (where a leaf joins the stem). Cut at an angle to increase the surface area for rooting. You should ideally take softwood herb cuttings early in the morning as this is when the herbs will be at their firmest and freshest. It is best to take cuttings from a plant that has been watered just the day before. Remember to take more cuttings than you need to account for failures and get them to your potting area as quickly as possible.
Caring for Cuttings
Place your herb cutting in a warm and humid environment. Since the cuttings have no roots, they cannot replace the water they lose as they usually would do. Keeping the air around the cuttings humid will reduce the amount of water lost through the leaves before roots begin to form.
You can keep a humid atmosphere for your herbs and spices by covering the pots in which you sow them with cloches, which you can make by cutting the bottom off a drinks bottle and placing the remainder over the cuttings container. If all is well, herb cuttings should begin to grow roots in around three weeks to a month, though it can take longer. Keep the potting medium moist but not waterlogged throughout that time and remove the cover daily to reduce the risk of mould developing under your cloches.
Storing and Preserving Fresh Mediterranean Herbs
There is nothing quite like picking fresh spices and using them straight from the garden. But there will sometimes be times when you would like to store and preserve your Mediterranean herbs for later use.
Some spices fare better than others when dried. Amongst the spices that are perfect for drying are thyme, rosemary, marjoram, oregano, tarragon, sage, chervil and dill. Other spices, such as basil, parsley, mint and chives can be dried but will lose some of their potency and flavour in the process and so are better frozen.
The spices for drying mentioned above can be air dried. The easiest way to dry herbs at home is simply to hang them in bunches upside down, securing them with twine or bands as they dry. The best location for your herbs is somewhere warm and dry – the kitchen is not always ideal as the humidity can be high and there are likely to be many temperature fluctuations. Ideally, the bunches of herbs should be hung out of direct sunlight as the sun can cause them to bleach when they are exposed to too much of it.
To speed up the process of drying, however, you could also consider using a solar dehydrator, an electric dehydrator, or your oven on a very low temperature.
To eat well all year round and have a healthy, biodiverse and healthy garden, growing Mediterranean spices is a great idea. Spice mixes go well with meat and salt to create delicious Mediterranean dishes. So wherever you live, consider growing some of these herbs next year for your Mediterranean diet.
Elizabeth Waddington is a smallholder, permaculture designer and environmental consultant. When not designing food producing systems or advising growers around the world, she is to be found in her own garden. On her 1/3 of an acre patch of land she has a walled forest garden orchard (home to rescue chickens), a polyculture vegetable plot, a polytunnel, wildlife pond, wild woodland garden and more and is working every day towards greater self-sufficiency. She is passionate about sustainability and loves to inspire others about the wonderful things home gardeners can do for people and planet.