Just about every dish tastes better with fresh herbs and there’s no better way to get fresh herbs than to grow them yourself at home. Here’s how you can grow and get the most out of your herb garden.
The fresh aroma of a sprinkle of chopped coriander over soup, the robust earthy flavor of curry leaves in curry, and the refreshing taste of just-picked mint in your tea are just a few of the reasons it’s easy to fall in love with cooking with herbs picked from your own garden.
Whether you’ve got a roomy garden, a small kitchen balcony or even a tiny window sill, growing your own fresh herbs is extremely easy.
Flavouring your food with fresh herbs from your kitchen garden can beat using prepackaged dry herbs hands down. Also, there is something very simple, satisfying and organic about snipping off just what you need from your garden instead of having to fork out a few bucks per bunch at the market.
Here’s everything you need to know to grow your very own herb garden.
1. Preparing and Potting your Herb Garden
Herbs are among the easiest plants to grow. Most herbs love the sun, so all you need to get started is a nice, sunny place in your house for them to call home. Growing them at home ensures that they are organic and do not contain all the pesticides and herbicides used in commercially grown herbs.
Choose a container that has ample drainage holes and is large enough to accommodate the of the plants. You can also happily grow herbs in empty milk cartons, juice cartons, plastic bottle cutouts etc.
Make sure to buy a tray to place underneath your pot that will collect and drain off excess water.
Next, make your own potting soil by mixing 50% ordinary garden soil with 50% homemade compost. Wet waste from your kitchen (like tea leaves, egg shells, vegetable peels, stalks), when composted, makes great mulch for your herbs.
Not only do your herbs thrive in this compost, it also gives you the satisfaction of keeping your waste off the roads and putting it to good use.
Start potting by filling the container with the compost-soil mix about three quarters of the way up. Moisten the soil lightly with water until moist but not wet. Taking care not to damage the roots, evenly space the herbs in the container and sprinkle enough potting soil to cover to the roots completely. After this, pat the soil down lightly and water the soil.
Tip: If you are growing mint, plant it in its own container rather than a common one as mint grows like a weed and can easily overtake and crowd out other herbs.
2. Caring For Your Herb Garden
Light: Most herbs grow best in a bright sunlit location. Regularly rotate the orientation of your pots with respect to the source of sunlight so that the herbs don’t bend in one direction. If you find your herbs have long stems but few leaves, then they are probably not getting enough light.
Water: Water each herb according to its individual needs. To make this easier, plant herbs with similar watering requirements together. Test the soil before you water your herbs to prevent overwatering. To do this, insert one finger up to the knuckle into the soil to test for dryness. Water your herbs depending on how dry the soil is.
Also, as soggy soil quickly leads to root rot, don’t let water accumulate at the bottom of the pot. One of the first signs of over watering is leaves turning yellow.
Air Circulation: Air movement is necessary for herbs as herbs grown in stuffy conditions often become weak and attract pests.
Clipping/Pruning: Fortunately for your cooking, even young herb plants require frequent clipping to encourage them to branch out and become fuller. So make sure to prune often but don’t cut more than a third off. If your herbs are flowering, they are not being pruned regularly enough. The more you prune, the more they will grow.
3. Harvesting your Herbs
The best part about using fresh herbs is that a little goes a long way. Depending on how mature your plants were when they were planted, you can usually start harvesting herbs right away. Use sharp clean scissors to snip the fragrant leaves off the plants. Remember to snip the leaves around the base first, so the plant will continue to grow and fill out. Also, some plants such as parsley grow new leaves from the center, which means you will need to remove the old plants entirely.
Herbs You can Easily Grow at Home
Each herb has a different aroma and taste. Choose ones you use the most often in your cooking. Also, learn about the growth habits of the plants before you buy them. Here are a few popular herbs you can grow in your garden to enjoy their fresh-from-the-earth taste at your dinner table.
1. Coriander /Dhania
All you need is to sow a row of whole coriander seeds from your kitchen in a pot on a sunny window sill in early spring. Don’t over-water the plant at any point. Soon you’ll see little shoots of coriander that can be plucked and used as this everyday herb as a garnish for your food. Refreshing and light, coriander, dhania or cilantro partners brilliantly with all Indian food
2. Spear Mint/Pudina
3. Holy Basil/Tulsi
A sacred herb that grows in many Indian homes, tulsi requires plenty of sunlight and water. It should be planted right before the monsoon, under intense heat and allowed to grow through the rain and cooler climate. The leaves have warm, spicy flavor. Add a few leaves of tulsi to flavour your tea and to heal throat infections, cold and cough. Also try a crushed leaf of this home grown herb on a stinging insect bite for natural relief.
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You can grow lemongrass by rooting a market-bought stalk. First keep it in a jar of water. Change the water every day till the lemongrass grows about 2 inch tall and then transfer it to a sunny pot and keep it hydrated. Most people use lemongrass to infuse flavour into their teas, but it can be also be used to make flavoured pasta sauce, Thai curries and marinades.
5. Curry Leaves/ Kadi Patta
The fragrant curry leaf plant needs abundant sunlight. So keep it under direct sunlight for most part of the year except in hot summers. While seeds work well, stem cuttings (about 3 inch long) are the easiest way to plant it. Leftover curd or buttermilk serve as excellent home produced fertilizers that promote the growth of this plant that is known for its distinct flavour.
6. Carom/ Ajwain
Growing the ajwain plant is easy. It does not require too much sunlight or water. The beautiful ridged leaves of the ajwain plant are edible and an easy home remedy for tummy upsets. Add it to raita, sprinkle on to salads for a fresh taste or chew a few leaves for an instant natural mouth freshener! Interestingly, according to Feng Shui, this plant is a lucky for your house
7. Dill/ Sowa Bhaji
The Dill plant likes well-drained, sunny spots and shelter from wind. Use stalks to lend support to the plant that dislikes being transplanted, and is best sown directly in spring. Both, the seeds and the leaves of this herb have a sharp, slightly bitter taste. Extensively in South Indian cooking, Dill can also be used to flavor fish, soups, salads, meat, poultry, omelets and potatoes.
8. Chilli Pepper/ Mirchi
A signature herb of Indian cuisine, Indian chillies are an ideal candidate for herb gardening at home. Just grab a dried red chilli from your spice jar, break the chilli and gather the seeds for sowing. Allow them to germinate in a seed tray before transplanting the delicate saplings into a bigger pot when they reach a 4 or 6 leaf stage. Chilli plants love heat and water in equal measure, and they will do best in a spot that gets loads of sunshine.
Sow the Thyme seeds in early March, with the spacing of six inches between two seeds. Thyme needs light sunshine, grows slowly from seed and should be allowed a few months of growth to become well established, before cutting. You can use the intensely aromatic thyme leaves in a marinade for meat and fish or add it to flavour rice and stir-fried veggies. The blossoms are also edible flowers.
Sow Parsley seeds in mid-spring for a summer harvest of parsley, and mid-summer for a winter harvest. To enhance germination, soak seeds overnight and plant them fairly close together as they thrive on competition. It has a long germination period, around three to four weeks, so be patient. Picking parsley often helps it grow. Parsley is popularly used as garnish in salads, pastas and sauces.
Rosemary is usually propagated by cuttings as seeds can be difficult to germinate. Once it has taken root, this perennial, woody shrub will thrive for years. It grows well in well-drained alkaline soil and hot sunny climates. Prune it regularly so that the plant doesn’t get spindly. Rosemary has a strong aroma and flavor and is generally used in Mediterranean cuisine.
12. Indian Sorrel/ Chaangeri
A well documented ayurvedic herb useful in vitamin C deficiency, rheumatoid arthritis, indigestion and diarrhea, Chaangeri or Indian Sorrel has a delicious sweet-sour taste. It grows best in sunlight but doesn’t mind a shady patch under the shrubs. The flowers, fruit and leaves are completely edible and can be blended with coriander, mint and raw mango to make a great green chutney.
Now that you know it’s this easy, just pull on your gardening gloves and get started on you very own herb patch. You’ll never have to send out for a bunch of coriander or curry leaves again! After all, there really is nothing like food with a sprinkle of herbs freshly picked from your own kitchen garden!