Fresh herbs can make all the difference even in simple dishes, and the best way to have a constant fresh supply of them is to grow them yourself.
Here in Singapore, space and lighting for plants can become an issue for HDB dwellers. However, growing an indoor herb garden can be simpler than you think.
The first thing you need to do is pick a suitable location for your indoor garden. You do not need a lot of space for this. The main concern is getting the right amount of lighting, so placing your garden near a window is best. Windowsills, sun-lit countertops and desks all make great locations for receiving natural light. However, be sure to avoid windows that are in the sun all day as this can cause herbs to dry out and wither.
Gardening blogger and eco-activist Olivia Choong says, “If your balcony or windowsill gets too hot for your plants, use shade cloth to block excessive sun.”
- Pick the right containers. Since herbs are usually small compared to common decorative plants, you don’t need large pots. Select pots of about 15cm in diameter instead. Alternatively, any container of a similar size will do. For the true eco-friendly person, half of a recycled plastic bottle will also suffice, but ensure your containers have proper drainage as well. Herbs generally don’t like to sit in water as they might rot!
- To prepare the pots for planting, you will first need to line the base of your container with light gravel or perlite which you can get off most gardening stores or nurseries. This will help with drainage.
- Then, we can fill the pot properly. It’s always tempting to use soil dug up from near your void deck to fill your containers, but this can be bad for your new herbs. Sandy or grainy soil can become compacted in pots, making drainage difficult. It’s better to pick up some potting mix from your local DIY or gardening supplier as this can ensure proper drainage of water and provide enough nutrients to get your herbs started. Packets of potting mix are also relatively inexpensive.
- Now it’s time to pick out the herbs you want to grow. Picking the right herbs for your kitchen all depends on what you like cook at home and your own gardening skills.
Olivia helped us pick the right herbs that would suit any Singaporean kitchen for the complete beginner.
This is a simple herb that loves sunlight and moist soil; sprinkle on beef broth noodles or toss them with beef salad for an extra dash of flavour. Thai basil requires about six hours of sunlight a day so place the pot near a windowsill where it will get sun throughout the day. While the plant is sprouting, add a small amount of fertiliser spread over a few days to help it along. Water once a week at the base while taking care to avoid the leaves; the soil should be moist, but not flooded. You’ll know you’ve been overwatering when the leaves turn yellow.
Harvest when flowers appear; nip off the flowers or buds as they appear and let the plant grow over the next few days before cutting any leaves off. The best time to harvest is in the morning, just after watering. Be gentle to avoid bruising the leaves and cut them from the top first to encourage growth.
You can pick up Thai basil seeds for $2.50 per pack at Eco City Hydroponics (http://www.ecocityhydroponics.com/)
Also known as scallions, spring onions are also easy to grow and an essential in almost any Asian kitchen. Slice thinly to use as garnish over your stir-fried vegetables, congees or soups.
Spring onions grow from little red onions called shallots which are also used in cooking. Look for shallots that have sprouted at your local wet market. You might need a slightly larger container to plant a few in at a time, at least 15cm across the brim should suffice. Otherwise, smaller containers with single bulbs or two at most, work just fine. If you’re growing from sprouted bulbs, they should be ready to harvest after just 20 days, after which you can choose to plant new bulbs or continue growing your original ones. The latter option will take longer since your bulbs will need time to sprout again.
Wet market stalls and even supermarkets usually discard any spring onions that have sprouted so you might be able to get a bunch cheap, or even free.
The timeless “laksa” leaf, also known as “daun kesum”, is a fragrant and a common addition to many dishes in Singapore, especially the quintessential “laksa”!
It’s a sun-loving plant that likes to sit in damp soil and doesn’t require much maintenance. Take a fresh stalk that still has leaves on it and place it in a tall container with about one to two centimetres of water in it, until roots start to form. Then, plant the stalk about two and a half centimetres deep into a pot and fertilise it every two weeks. This is a fast-growing plant so you should see progress after just one week. You can grow the “laksa” leaf from fresh cuttings found at wet markets all over Singapore.
Olivia reminds us to fertilise our herbs, “Chicken manure is a good source of nitrogen, and an occasional application of seaweed emulsion will feed trace minerals to your herbs and do it good.”
Lemongrass can also be grown in ways similar to the “laksa” leaf. You can boil water with lemongrass and rock sugar for a refreshing lemongrass infusion; it’s also an essential in “rendang” pastes and “tom yam” soups.
Like the “laksa leaf, it also enjoys sunlight and prefers damp soil. However, the lemongrass is a much larger plant than the “laksa” leaf so you will need a bigger container, otherwise, frequent trimming and even splitting and transplanting may be needed. Lemongrass should be tall with long leaves when it’s ready to harvest, not unlike the other Singaporean perennial, the lalang. You can buy lemongrass stalks at your nearest grocery or wet market.
Curries require a handful of curry leaves for aroma and flavour. Deep-fried curry leaves also make pretty and tasty garnishes for dishes as varied as pasta and oatmeal prawns. Curry leaf plants are fairly resilient and love being in the sunlight and well-drained soil. This is not a fast growing plant if grown from seeds, so it’s better to get a plant or cutting instead. Just make sure to get curry leaves or “murraya koenigii” and not curry plants “helichrysum italicum” as they are not the same and it’s easy to get the two confused; check with your local garden supplier before you buy.
Or you can get a potted curry leaf plant for just $10.90 at FarEastFlora Garden Centre. Visit http://www.fareastfloragarden.com/
Says Olivia of storing harvested herbs, “Harvested herbs can be dried in a dark and dry place, and stored in jars for use at a later date.”
A high-rise indoor herb garden will not only provide the freshest possible herbs at your own convenience but it’s easy and will save you money in the long run. Make sure to research on the herbs that you would like to try growing and practise trial and error to get the best results; with time and dedication, you should have a healthy herb garden for many years to come.
All photos by Shutterstock.com except for Olivia Choong’s profile photo which is her own.