Monty Don: A happy, herby Christmas to you

By Christmas time it can feel like the garden has closed for the winter. The horticulturist, Philip Miller, wrote in The Gardeners Kalendar that 'December is the darkest month of the whole year.

'Sometimes the ground is frozen up, so that little can be done in the garden; and at other times there are hard rains, and thick stinking fogs, which render it very uncomfortable when stirring abroad, and are very injurious to plants.'

He was writing in the 1730s, but there is not a gardener who has not shared this view of the coming weeks until the New Year. There is, though, a part of my garden that is still working hard - the herb garden. In fact, there are a few herbs that are, for me, as essential to Christmas dinner as turkey, sprouts and cranberry sauce.


Sage- Stuffing just isn't the same without it

Sage and onion, along with chestnuts, are, for me, the best stuffing ingredients for a turkey. Christmas is a time for traditional rituals, not experimentation. Onions are easy and I have mine stored in baskets in a cool shed.

Chestnuts (Castanea sativa) make a wonderful tree but need a soil more acidic than mine to grow and thrive. But sage (Salvia officinalis) should, and could, be grown in every garden. It is not a native herb - it was brought to this country by the Romans - but soon became a favourite.

However, it was not until the 16th century that it was regarded for its culinary properties, as until then it had been seen solely as a medicinal herb. Interestingly, this conversion from the pharmacy to the kitchen happened at around the same time as the introduction of turkeys to Britain in 1526; although the rich had eaten turkey for centuries, it has been at the centre of most people's Christmas dinner only for the past 100 years or so.

Sage is a Mediterranean herb, and so likes its native conditions replicated as closely as possible in your garden - which is, admittedly, tricky in a gloomy northern European December.

The key to growing it successfully is sunshine and drainage, so never plant it in shade and, especially if you garden on clay, add plenty of grit or sharp sand to the soil before planting. For once I would not advocate using compost or manure to improve the soil, as, like most Mediterranean herbs, it actually grows better in poor soil.


Horseradish is a must if you are serving beef

I grow three types of culinary sage, all variations of the ordinary Salvia officinalis. There is a purple-leafed version and a narrow-leafed one, S. officinalis 'Albiflora', which has, I think, the best flavour for cooking. Purple sage, S. officinalis 'Purpurascens', is more tender than the others and very reluctant to do anything other than cling onto life during winter. To get the best possible leaves in the middle of winter I recommend pruning it hard in spring - which will mean few, if any, flowers - so that the new growth has time to harden off before autumn.

Rain is as much a problem as cold weather, so, if you have a greenhouse, the best way to get a Christmas supply is to use your springtime prunings to take cuttings, which you then pot up and grow under cover for their first winter, before planting them outside the next spring. You can prune sage very hard and often get away with it, but purple sage needs gentler treatment, so take care not to cut into old wood.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) goes very well with turkey and is excellent mixed with butter and slid under the skin to moisten the f lesh as it cooks. This herb also likes Mediterranean conditions, but is even more fussy about drainage and shade than sage. It really must not have any shade at all - even from itself - so I always grow some in a pot so it can be moved out of the shade of any neighbouring plants.

It will also grow in almost pure sand, so be ruthless in the pursuit of drainage when you mix up your potting compost, using no less than 50 per cent grit or vermiculite. I also sometimes reuse seed compost, as it is low in nutrients.

Other than common thyme (Thymus officinalis), which I regard as essential for the kitchen, I strongly recommend lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus), which has a deliciously citrussy fragrance and grows very well. To have good-quality thyme at Christmas, you must bring the pot indoors around October, or cover the plants growing outside to protect them from cold and rain. But it is worth the trouble in order to enjoy that buttery, herby flavour with the turkey.

Long before turkey became the centrepiece of most people's Christmas dinner, the medieval festive dish of choice was a boar's head.

This was always served with another traditional Christmas herb, rosemary. Rosemary was considered a symbol of the Nativity and was used to decorate churches at Christmas. Rosemary is a tough shrub but has a nasty habit of suddenly turning brown and dying within months.

The main cause seems to be the combination of midwinter cold and damp. Cold on its own is not really a problem and, if there is sufficient drainage, neither is damp - although it does not like being sodden.

But what it hates most is sitting in cold, wet soil, and if you see a branch turning brown and dying back, this is likely to be the reason. If you want to grow rosemary in a pot, I recommend the very upright variety, 'Miss Jessup'. If you plant rosemary outside, it is one of the few plants that will relish the blazing dryness of a south-facing wall, though if you plant it by a path it will release its lovely, warm fragrance as you brush past.

Finally, for those of you who like to celebrate Christmas with a joint of beef (and a rib of beef is better than any turkey), the best accompaniment is fresh horseradish (Armoracia rusticana).

This has large and luxuriant leaves in summer, but as it's a herbaceous perennial, these will have completely disappeared by mid-December, although the long tap-roots are still there beneath the soil. If you dig them up in autumn they'll still be relatively mild, but by Christmas they will have some real bite and should be treated with the same care as chilli.

The best way to treat them is to dig up some roots, wash them carefully, peel them and then grate them into a bowl before mixing with cream, salt, pepper and perhaps a dash of lemon juice or white-wine vinegar. This can be heated (which will make it milder) or served cold. Add more cream if it's too fierce.

Horseradish grows best in heavy soil - where it can become a weed if not restricted to an odd corner - but is easier to dig up in lighter soil. New plants grow very easily from root cuttings.

Dig some good straight roots, cut into 2-3in lengths and pot them up. Then, when new growth appears, plant them outside. In truth, though, it is hard for them to stop growing in almost any circumstances. Stick a piece of root in the ground and you are assured a supply of horseradish for many Christmases to come.

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