For many of us fresh herbs have become regular purchases in our shopping baskets. Here in the UK cut fresh herbs in prepacks and pots of growing herbs are readily available in most supermarkets. However, you may be sure the one time you want a few leaves of fresh parsley or basil, or you fancy a fresh cup of mint tea will be the one occasion when there’s none in the fridge or in a pot on the windowsill. That’s when you really wonder why you don’t make the effort to grow your own from seed or from young plants from a garden centre or nursery.
Recently I came across a piece of kitchen equipment from Scandinavia. It was a sort of nutrient film growing system complete with overhead lighting built into something that looked like a trendy coffee maker. Its purpose: to enable you to grow fresh basil in your kitchen regardless of the light levels and your normal ability to keep a plant alive. With a fairly firm price tag I couldn’t imagine anyone buying it here in England; however the more I’ve thought about it the more I want one. I bet I’d use it more than some of the other pieces of kitchen equipment that fill up our cupboards.
My wife and I are lucky in that we have no shortage of growing space. However the outdoor herbs that grow close to the house are the ones we use throughout the year. Sage, Salvia officinalis and all its forms are remarkably hardy and I am always amazed how intensely aromatic those leaves are, even when frozen. This herb makes an excellent subject for a pot on the doorstep, especially the purple-leaved form with its mauve grey leaves throughout the year. Shredded sage leaves add wonderful flavour to simple grilled meat, especially pork.
The other hardy woody herb we keep in a pot on the doorstep is thyme. This is another herb I would buy as a plant, because there are so many different varieties, all with their own unique character. Lemon thyme, Thymus citriodorus is a favourite of mine, particularly the gold and green ‘Doone Valley’. As the name suggests the pungent leaves have a strong citrus quality. Try them on grilled vegetables or lamb cutlets with plenty of good olive oil.
One advantage of lemon thyme is that it doesn’t get as woody as the common thyme which can have needle-like stems if you are not careful. It also seems to retain more flavour if you have to grow it indoors on the windowsill. Generally the best herbs to grow indoors on the windowsill are those with soft leaves such as parsley, basil, chives and coriander. Mint is also successful, but you may have to cut it right down periodically and allow it to shoot again from the base. Generally the cooler and lighter the conditions, the stronger the flavour of the herbs when grown indoors; that is apart from basil, which really likes it warm and it will simply sulk in cold, damp growing conditions.
Personally I would buy a plant of mint from the garden centre, pot it up in multi-purpose growing medium and bring it indoors onto the windowsill, or better still into a cold conservatory. It will soon throw up fragrant new shoots which are perfect for mint tea, or to add to salads. Parsley, chives, coriander, chervil and basil are easily raised from seed indoors. Sow them in the pots they will grow in and use a good quality multi-purpose or seed growing medium. If you use the latter you will need to use a weak liquid fertiliser regularly from a couple of weeks after germination. One word of warning: some so called multi-purpose growing media now contain large proportions of composted green and wood waste. These can impede germination of some seeds.
Basil is easy to grow from seed: the seeds are black and shiny and just about large enough to sow individually. Fill a 13cm (5”) plastic or terracotta pot with growing medium. Level and firm the compost leaving the surface 1.5 cm (0.5 inch) below the rim of the pot. Sow about ten seeds, spaced evenly over the compost surface and cover with a thin layer of compost or perlite. Firm lightly and water thoroughly. Keep the soil just moist and the seedlings should be through in a couple of weeks. It’s worth sowing another pot in about four weeks to take over when the first has become exhausted. Keep going in this way and you will maintain a continuous supply. Fresh basil isn’t just for tomatoes. I love it on its own shredded and sprinkled over pasta with olive oil and parmesan.
Parsley is notoriously difficult to germinate: hence the saying: “sow even times for the devil and once for yourself”. You may well have more success growing it indoors on the windowsill than you do in the open ground. Sow as for basil but so around 30 seeds to the same size pot to allow for failures and be a bit patient. Germination can be erratic. When the seedlings are reasonably developed, with their first true leaves, thin them out leaving about ten seedlings to develop. Use the thinnings as a garnish or in a salad. Personally I would always choose flat leaved Italian Parsley; I think it is crisper and more flavoursome. The curly type always reminds me of the green bits used to decorate plates of nasty paste sandwiches when I was a boy.
Coriander and chervil are grown in the same way as parsley. I think coriander is especially worth growing on your windowsill as it can be harder to find when you need it. Rocket grows quickly but never has much taste when grown in the warm. This is one for a pot on the doorstep or in a cold porch or conservatory; even if it’s not the tastiest it will be better than those packets of ready washed salad you buy at the supermarket.