The Kitchen Window Epicurean
Citizens against bar codes unite! Not everything in your kitchen has to come from the supermarket. Isn’t it nice to think that some things in the kitchen are under your control — not bar-coded? Well, there’s a whole range of things that can actually sit together on the windowsill and add a plethora of flavours to the food you cook, and are exempt from those infernal little lines and numbers.
And that’s not the principal benefit! Even though we live in the Northern Hemisphere, we can have the pleasure of growing, maintaining and using a range of herbs — yes, your own indoor herb garden. And with a bit of common sense and a few hints, it’s something anyone can do with ease. If you’ve not yet had the pleasure of snipping at your own thyme, parsley or basil, it’s a simple task that can make you look just like those fancy chefs you see on the Food Network. The investment of a little bit of work brings tripled benefits: good scents, great flavours and it even looks good. Just a few indoor pots can supply you with herbal gifts through the whole year.
Most of the charms from fresh rosemary, thyme and oregano bring the Mediterranean flavour to your kitchen, and the marvellous magic of chopped chives sprinkled over a soup or an omelette is its own romantic reward.
In the last few years, many new varieties of herbs have been introduced, some of which actually do better inside the house than outside in the garden. Some of these include chives (grolau) and English mint, a hardier variety of basil (spicy globe) and Greek oregano. Perhaps the most attractive from an easy-growth point of view is broadleaf thyme, which has such a myriad of uses in so many recipes.
If there are a few rules — none difficult — number one is to provide light. Herbs, like all things Mediterranean, worship the sun. So find a south- or east-facing window (even if it’s not in the kitchen) and provide at least four hours of sunlight per day. It’s worth remembering that the light through your window may seem very clear and bright to your eyes, but the intensity of this light in winter is only about 10 per cent of what it is during the summer months. Where light is concerned, the exception is the rule, because more is better than less. Herbs do not like north-facing light.
If you are very keen or a serious herb grower, you can add fluorescent light or even dedicated high-intensity discharge lights. For the very keen, high-pressure sodium lights are the most efficient. There are several manufacturers of these specific fluorescent tubes that produce light specifically designed for plants and herbs. But for our purposes, a sunny window will do the trick.
Watering and drainage are easier to master than most of us believe and simple to understand, at least before we actually take out our watering can. After light, providing the right soil and adequate drainage are the next most important factors in guaranteeing healthy herb plants. Remember that consistent drainage is very important, especially during the winter months. Soil in the pot should remain moist, but that doesn’t mean you have to water each day.
Feel the soil just below the surface: if it’s dry, water liberally but not so much that the plant will rot. Since the pots should have holes in the bottom and sit on a dish, you’ll know when enough water has been added when you see the moisture run into the dish. If no water appears through the bottom, then the holes are blocked. This is easily remedied with a small sharp knife or a pointed stick, or by re-potting the plant with soil that has better drainage. As a general rule, once every two or three days is sufficient to keep your mini herb garden moist.
Of course, the plants need less water during the winter months. In fact you can help raise the humidity level by placing a bowl or two of water near the herbs. As it evaporates, the water will increase the humidity around the plants. If in doubt, a simple way to check humidity levels is to buy an inexpensive small hygrometer, usually available at your garden centre and certainly at the local hardware store.
The temperatures that please you are generally equally comfortable for plants. A home around 21°C is fine, although these herbal treasures also do well at temperatures from 15° to 18°C. Two exceptions are French tarragon and chives, which both do particularly well in very cool temps even when the thermometer moves towards the freezing point.
Remember too that fresh circulating air is very important for indoor herbs. So if the plant’s home is next to a window, you can leave it open a little bit for an hour or two each day (arctic environments excepted). Any room that’s not stale and stuffy will do very well. Just be sure not to expose the plants to any direct draft, especially during the cold winter months.
When you buy your potted herbs and bring them to the place of honour in their new home, give them a chance to acclimatize gradually. You’ll note that the plants indeed produce two kinds of leaves, this is in response to strong or weak light. You can judge a plant’s happiness by its leaves; those that are thick, strong and narrow are the result of abundant light. These leaves, accustomed to a lot of light, do not have to be as efficient to produce “food.”
Another small trick for happy plants is to rotate the containers fairly often. Naturally turning everything in the same direction will give all sides an equal chance for the best exposure to both sunlight and fresh air. It’s easy to measure if this technique is effective. If one side of the plant grows slowly or withers, the rotation is inadequate.
Many people believe, incorrectly, that herbs grow best in poor soil. That’s sometimes true where flavours are stronger when your culinary herbs grow outdoors in a garden. But in the confines of a pot, even periodic feeding with liquid fertilizer or, best and easy, sprinkling crushed eggshells, not only look sprightly but also help the active growing process. If you choose this supplemental route, a feeding once every couple of weeks should suffice. There are some slow release feed pellets that you can buy at garden centres, but this is not a necessity.
For ease of growth and guaranteed satisfaction, it’s important to buy your herbs from reputable suppliers, often a garden supply rather than the supermarket. In all cases, choose plants that looked healthy and robust and avoid the straggly ones. And save yourself some aggravation and never buy seed packets that are out of date. (Starting with potted plants is infinitely easier than from seeds.)
As to containers, these are easy to select either from empty pots at home or the invariably wide range at garden centres and nurseries. Prefer to choose things from around the house? For that matter, you can use just about anything from an old bucket to that old teapot with the broken handle or no top. At the other end of the spectrum, and if you have adequate window space, you can get great results by bringing window boxes inside. The trick is to place your herb pots in the box with soil right up to the rim. While this seems odd, herbs enjoy the surrounding earth and tend to breed lusher growth than when in stand-alone pots. The extra soil prevents pots from becoming plant-bound, and the moisture remains more even. There is no doubt that it looks impressive.
Whatever herbs you choose, use them regularly. It’s essential to keep them trimmed and to avoid allowing them to flower (which inhibits the plant’s longevity).
And if you are keen to try seeds-to-food, it’s a joy to see cress and mustard seed grow magically, in just a few days, on top of wetted blotting paper.
Children get a kick out of participating in the kitchen garden, and they get an early grounding in growing herbs, too. Since the watering process takes place more than once a week, it’s a way for them to participate and see the results.
Conventional wisdom says that the oil in the leaves of herbs makes them resistant to insect pests and disease. Like other plants, herbs are also somewhat susceptible to various common pests, including spider mites, aphids, scale insects and even mealy bugs. Fortunately there are two easy solutions to this yucky problem. Since your herbs are likely to be in portable containers you can dip all of the above-ground part of the plant into a pail of mild soapy water. Just swish them around for a minute or two to make sure all surfaces are wet. An alternative is to use an empty plastic spray bottle, thoroughly moistening all the leaves with the soapy water solution — always remembering to rinse your herbs before you use them.
There are always exceptions, and when growing anything there are always “the problem children.” For example, a plant that must suddenly adapt to new and abundant light may turn brown and drop its leaves. Rosemary sometimes does not adapt well. It’s a slow-growing evergreen and sometimes does not have the opportunity to adjust to changes in light. The plant actually starves itself from lack of this life-giving energy.
And as to the “safe seven,” your best chances for success are chives, thyme, basil, parsley, sage, oregano and mint. Any one of them successfully grown brings the wonderful combination of the fresh taste in food and a much-deserved ego boost.