Like many businesses, small or large, over the last two years we have grown a lot in our online presence both on social media and our website. We thought it was a good time to have a Q&A with the founder Jekka McVicar to find more about the background of Jekka’s and her passion for herbs.
The background to Jekka’s
You have been a herb grower and horticulturist for a long time, how did this all start?
It started with my mother who was a wonderful cook and she was influenced by my grandmother who had written cookbooks called Food for Pleasure, Lovely Food and More Lovely Food back in the 40s and 50s. Therefore, food has always been a big part of my childhood and the food my mother cooked always contained fresh herbs and vegetables from her garden.
I started growing herbs as a business and not just for pleasure was when a neighbour came round to my semi-detached in Bristol and said “Jekka, have you got any French Tarragon? I'm doing an Elizabeth David Recipe”. It was the time before supermarkets started selling fresh herbs and French Tarragon was not widely available. This made me realise that this was something I could do and there was a market for fresh culinary herbs.
Want to know more? See the history of Jekka's.
The farm is a true family affair with your husband Mac, daughter Hannah and son Alistair all involved. What role does everyone take in the family?
My husband, joined me full time I guess about 20 years ago. Being very practical he does everything from building the Herbetum to wiring up the farm. My daughter does the artwork and illustration and Alistair came to do the cooking master classes but also does most of the technical aspects. As a family, we are very proud to have delivered our first ever Jekka’s HerbFest in 2021, which was a 3-day celebration of herbs with talks and demonstrations from leading chefs, garden designers and herbalists.
Life for the small business has been difficult over the last two years, how have you survived?
It's been a very long couple of years, especially as in January 2021 the government decided to close nurseries but keep garden centres open. This meant all nurseries lost another Easter, which is our busiest month as it is the time everyone starts gardening.
We were lucky as we had just revamped our website, re-branded the business and improved how we were seen on Google. This meant we were able to sell seeds, seed kits, herbal infusions and illustrated gifts online via mail order whilst the herb farm was closed to visitors.
Check out our online shop for gifts, seeds and gardening tools.
Jekka’s herb collection
Jekka you grow over 400 different culinary herbs how do you choose new herbs to join your collection?
All the herbs in my collection have to be grown sustainably and usually have a medicinal or culinary use. Therefore, the herbs in my collection can all be grown in the UK, however, some might need more care than others. Currently, I am adding new varieties to my collection that have been grown from my herb farm. These can be seen online in Jekkapedia and usually start with ‘Jekka’s’.
The way I develop the Jekka’s varieties is by looking at what naturally appears on the herb farm or in the Herbetum. If it reappears over a couple of years I will see if I can propagate it to ensure it runs true. From there they get potted up to see how the survive inside and outside. If it successfully passes all these stages I will then put it for sale. Therefore, it could take around 8-10 years to develop a Jekka’s variety. It is a long process, but at the end of it I have a product that I know will grow and survive in other people’s gardens. Most recently, I have added Jekka’s Buddleia Mint to the collection which popped up at the end of the mint beds. It gets covered in pollinators and literally hums when in flower.
Last year you started selling vegetable seeds, but these are not herbs?
The word vegetable is actually fairly modern and it was introduced into the vocabulary in the 16th or 17th century. Before then, vegetables were called pot herbs. This means that all your traditional vegetables are in fact pot herbs, which means herbs used in the one pot for cooking not a plant grown in a pot. In addition to vegetables, I also grow fruit, such as, Pomegranate. The juice of which is very good if you are poorly with a bad stomach.
Want to know more? Read Jekka's guide to growing vegetables from seed.
Compared to other nurseries you sell the majority of your plants in 2 Ltr pots, why is this?
Usually, if you buy a Myrtle or Rosemary in a small 8cm pot, its only 6 months to one season old. Therefore, it has not been hardened off and been exposed to the British climate. A shrub should be at least two to three years old before you plant it which means it is more likely to survive. Gardening is not as straightforward as just planting them out as you have to continually care for them. Therefore, having a good, strong plant to start with is very important. This is why I now sell the majority of my herbs in the larger 2 litre pots. This makes gardening both sustainable and enjoyable. We have written a blog on how to grow on your herbs, which is worth the read.
What are the greatest lengths or depths that you have been to in the name of growing herbs?
There are certain herbs that have been rather like solving crossword puzzles to work out how to propagate them. The latest one I have managed to crack is the Curry Leaf (Bergera koenigii), which is a small shrub tree from the subtropics. I tried everything from cuttings to seed sowing at different times of the year. Now I am able to share this triumph and sell it, although its already got quite a waiting list.
Want to know more? Read Jekka's Blog: All About Curry Leaf.
What is the reason you spend a lot of time talking in Latin rather than common names?
A passion of mine is the botanical names of plants, which I enjoy teaching. In the UK we call a lot of things different names but, to check what it is, just look at the botanical name. Have you ever wondered what the difference is between Oregano and Marjoram? It is a trick question as Marjoram is actually the same thing! For example, Oregano is Origanum vulgare, meaning common Oregano and, similarly, Golden Oregano or Golden Marjoram is Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’. The same plant.
Want to know more? Read Jekka's Guide to Oregano.
Advice on growing herbs
With over 400 culinary and medicinal herbs, for a beginner, which ones would you start with?
I always start with asking “what food do you cook?” as it is important to grow what you will use. For example, if you enjoy making the classic Sunday Roast, which consists of roast veg and meat or sometimes fish, then you need to grow herbs like Rosemary, Thyme, Oregano, Dill and Fennel.
The reason you should grow herbs you use is firstly, it will give you pleasure to eat something you have nurtured and secondly, by using your herbs, you are maintaining them. This is because, to keep them under control, you must pick or prune them.
For example, people make the mistake by planting exotic things in their garden. One example would be Hyssop, which is a wonderful underused plant, but often planted because people like the idea of it. However, if you never use it, you will never prune it, and as a result it will go straggly and woody, grow huge and eventually take over.
The really interesting thing about herbs, is that a lot of the ones you commonly use in your kitchen are from the same plant family. Typically, they are all the Lamiaceae family, which includes Oregano, Marjoram, Thyme, Lavender, Sage, Winter Savory, Hyssop, Basil, Nepeta and Rosemary. Therefore, once you have grown and mastered the herbs that you use, you can then branch out. For example, you can go from Rosemary to Hyssop and Winter Savory. Both these herbs I love to use in my cooking and are grown in a similar way.
Want to know more? Check out Jekka's Guide on How to Grow Herbs.
What is your biggest gardening tip?
I ask many people “How often do you sharpen your secateurs?” to which the usual reply is “Every so often when they look a bit blunt!”
This, in my opinion, is not the right answer. A chef, for instance, sharpens his knives every day before use and a gardener or horticulturist should do the same. I clean and sharpen my secateurs every day and being organic, one reason I do this to stop the spread of diseases. It means the cuts are clean and, if you don’t have strong hands, makes it easier. Also, if you prune in the winter with blunt blades, you will damage the plant.
Cleanliness is next to godliness when it comes to your garden, pots and your greenhouse.
The uses of herbs
Jekka how have you found working with many famous chefs?
Chefs have always been about cooking good food, but now actually teaching people is an integral part. I do not believe there is a chef on the planet who would not enthuse about herbs. That is a testament that herbs and, as they are herbs, good vegetables can make or break a dish in many ways. The skill of a chef is to add the right amount of the right herb at the right time.
I am absolutely delighted to have worked with many great chefs. I just find that it is wonderful to have a shared enthusiasm for herbs and to introduce them to herbs that they have never tried. I worked with Raymond Blanc at the Le Manoir and with young Jamie. More recently, I have worked with the wonderful Nathan Outlaw and he is just so inspiring because he really wants to grow his own vegetables and herbs for his restaurant.
We were approached couple of years ago by Noma, acclaimed to be the best restaurant in the world, and I found it amazing that they were using herbs I have on the herb farm, which the UK chefs are not using, which means there is still a lot to learn from using herbs with food.
Are you interested in the medicinal uses of herbs?
I often find the medicinal use of herbs as fascinating as the culinary uses. However, as I am not trained herbalists, I am restricted on teaching people about them. As there is an increased interest, research and awareness about the medicinal use of herbs a lot of information is becoming freely available online. For example, Rosemary is associated with remembrance and for hundreds of years it was used to improve the memory, but only recently has it been proven to do just that. We still advise people to see a trained herbalist and have partnered with the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (the Institute) who contributed the medicinal part to our online Jekkapedia.
Want to know more? Read Jekka's blog introducing the Institute
The future of herbs & Jekka’s
Do you think herbs and nature should be included in the curriculum for younger children?
When I went to school, I had my own allotment and therefore, learnt to maintain and grow plants as part of my school curriculum. We were also taken on nature walks so I could identify many trees and birds. From a young age, I knew what the birds were from sight but also their song. I do think that it is sad that many children are not taught this anymore as part of their education. Hopefully it will be soon be taught due to the increased awareness of how gardening and growing plants are important for people’s health and well-being as well as people like the RHS championing it.
Jekka what do you enjoy most besides growing herbs?
I absolutely love teaching. My propagation master class, called “how to grow herbs” is for twelve people and is a hands-on course. During the class I show people how to handle the herbs, hold the tools correctly and how to take successful cuttings. It is enjoyable to see people actually doing and thus understanding how to propagate herbs.
Want to know more? Check out Jekka's Master Classes.
Finally, what’s the future hold for you and Jekka’s?
We are finally getting a high-speed internet line fitted so I can do online courses. This means that the skills I have developed over the last 35+ years can be taught to a lot more people. We also have a number of exciting plans to enable us to do more teaching, learning and growing at the herb farm.
Want to know more?
For advice on growing and maintaining herbs, check out ‘Jekka’s Seasonal Tips’ blog series, which includes what to do in your herb garden in early spring, late spring, summer and autumn & winter. Together they form the basis of Jekka’s guide on how to grow herbs.