Q&A with herb expert, Jekka McVicar

Tell us about your journey into horticulture? 

My love of herbs came from my mother, who was a wonderful cook and always cooked with fresh herbs and vegetables from her garden.  She was influenced by my grandmother, Ruth Lowinsky, who wrote cookery books in the 1950s and taught my mother how to use herbs in cooking.  I can remember sitting up at a kitchen table at our house in Chew Magna, Somerset, and chopping herbs when I was still very young.  I started growing herbs as a business when a neighbour in Bristol asked if I had any French Tarragon for an Elizabeth David Recipe. It wasn’t widely available and it made me realise there was a market for fresh culinary herbs.

What have you enjoyed about working with famous chefs?

It’s a natural relationship as I don’t believe there’s a chef in the country who wouldn’t enthuse about herbs.  I am delighted to have worked with great chefs such as Raymond Blanc, Jamie Oliver, Nathan Outlaw and most recently, Marcus Wareing for his BBC2 series.  I worked with both Jamie and Nathan to create their own herb gardens for their homes and restaurants.  They are the most lovely people, both full of energy, passion and enthusiasm.  I just find that it is wonderful to have a shared enthusiasm for herbs and introduce them all to herbs they’ve never tried.

Do you have any useful tips on growing your own herbs? 

The main thing is to grow herbs that you like to use. Rosemary, thyme, oregano are all good for roast veg and fish; you will need to prune them regularly - they like that.  These Mediterranean herbs need lots of sun and free draining soil so add plenty of coarse grit and organic matter if you have clay soil.  If you have moist, shady conditions, parsley, mint, lemon balm or chives will prefer it.  (Mint and lemon balm run so ideally grow them in a pot). There are a lot of tips on www.jekkas.com for how to grow herbs in different conditions.  My two top tips for growing herbs are to feed on Fridays during the growing season and to sharpen your secateurs for pruning or harvesting herbs.

It’s great that your family are all part of the business?  How does that work? 

My husband Mac joined over 20 years ago having been an engineer.  He’s great at the hands-on practical aspects.  My daughter Hannah is an illustrator and does the artwork including illustrating ‘Jekka Herbs’ which is beautiful, and my son Alistair came to do the cooking masterclasses and does the technical aspects such as the website, development of our mail order herb kits, and the recent rebranding.  I got them involved at an early age. I used to pay them 5p for each ladybird they found and 10p for every vine weevil they discovered and put into a matchbox.  It was introducing children to gardens by teaching them to use their eyes rather than having to resort to pesticides.

Do you have any easy ideas for using more unusual herbs in your cooking or for drinks?

As well as the usual suspects, how about using Anise Hyssop or Sweet Cicely in ice cream, Borage in soup, Bergamot in jelly, making a Basil cordial or a refreshing Lemon Verbena tisane?