May is the ‘hungry month’ but there is a burst of growth in Co Armagh

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Friday, 5th May next week is the start of the three day Garden Show Ireland festival.

The event is held at the beautifully restored Antrim Castle Gardens, at the edge of the town.

The Skeffington family occupied this imposing setting on the banks of the Sixmilewater river from 1610.

A fire destroyed the actual castle in 1922 but the gardens have been lovingly restored and are the ideal location for this world class horticultural event. It’s landscaped in the Anglo-Dutch style in keeping with how a typical country house kitchen garden would have been in the 1700’s.

There’s an aromatic raised bed with oregano, angelica, chervil, rosemary, borage and sage among the varieties grown. Their medicinal bed includes feverfew, lovage, comfrey, lemon balm and wormwood. Herbs have been used to treat ailments for thousands of years.

The Greek doctor Hippocrates noted 400 herbs in general use in the 5th century. In 1597 John Gerard wrote of “Syrupp made of the floures of borrage comforteth the heart, purgeth melancholy and quieteth the phrenticke or lunaticke person” in his book “General Historie of Plantes”.

Nowadays we use borage to garnish a traditional Pimm’s Cocktail. Its cornflower blue hued flowers are a lovely aromatic garnish to salads and desserts too.

People who grow vegetables refer to May as the “hungry month”.

Roots and leafy winter greens are all but gone now and there’s a bit of a blank period as we wait for sprightly courgettes, zingy tomatoes and summer beans to appear. This is where pots of herbs come into their own – you don’t need an acre of kitchen garden for this!

My unruly rosemary bush, it’s fronds standing on end much the way my own hair does first thing in the morning, is now sporting beautifully fragrant blue flowers. They can be picked and used to add glamour and fragrance to salads and warm vegetable dishes.

Despite a good lashing of wind, rain and ice, my curly parsley is all the more robust and flavourful for it.

There’s also a burst of growth in the orchards of Armagh. Drive through the MI from Belfast on the way to the cathedral city now and you’ll slice through countryside that’s lined with the lacy, pinky white blossom of the native apple trees.

They offer the promise of lush, crisp fruit later in early autumn but this spectacle is one of most unique and stunning sights.

My first recipe this week takes rosemary and combines it in a traditional lemonade, the warm herb cutting through the piquancy of the lemons. Top with sparkling water or use it as a base for an early summer cocktail with gin and tonic.

There’s a whiff of spring in the air and I’m embracing it with both hands in my recipe using an abundance of herbs. Sage and lemon are natural partners but adding lemon balm herb instead of the lemon gives it even more punch.

I’ve combined these flavours in a butter to infuse roast chicken with. And because I’m full of hope for nice weather, I’m suggesting a zesty lemony rice salad packed with herbs, peas and crunchy cucumber.

Garden Show Ireland is on next weekend 5th-7th May – come and say hello!