If the covid-19 pandemic has taught us something other than the precious fragility of human life and society, it is that as individuals and communities we need to become a little more self-reliant, a little bit more self-sufficient. A simple step in that direction is to look at our food security and think about growing our own food.
That does not have to be as daunting as you might think, it can be something as simple as starting a herb garden. You won’t need acres or even a garden for that – just a windowsill, inside or outside or a few containers on a patio or balcony or even a hanging basket or two. It is possible to grow many culinary and medicinal herbs year-round – often started on a windowsill, summered on a balcony/patio and then overwintered again inside.
You won’t even need green fingers, a herb garden is one of the most doable of all garden projects. Most herbs prefer a lower fertility growing media so you are not going to have to be amending soil and remembering to feed every few weeks. Most come from drier zones and even Mediterranean regions, so once they are facing the sun and you supply a little water every now and then they are no fuss at all.
A herb garden is perfect as a fun learning project to introduce children to a new life skill, to knowing where their food comes from, to playing a part in personally contributing to less food miles and a cleaner environment. School strikes are great but this is hands on. This is personal responsibility in action, this is how to make a real difference.
And for the adults, it is not just the ease of having some basil to hand for a homemade pizza or pesto during supply chain issues or helping you to avoid long shop queues amid this and the next crisis, it is that what you are growing has a lower carbon foot print and that growing your five day guarantees you will eat your five a day with more regularity and less waste. Your contribution to a more ecological life. Plus it’s a bit cool to just snip your own mint for an evening mojito or brew a calming cup of fresh chamomile for a good night’s sleep.
So all you need is a sunny spot, some containers to grow in and that can be anything from upcycled yoghurt cartons or bean tins to larger options of breadbins, wine crates or store bought containers, and a soil mix that is free draining; that’s usually 1-part loam (garden soil), 1-part compost (store bought or homemade) and 1-part grit or pea gravel – all well stirred up together.
If you are growing inside you might want to plug any drainage holes in store bought containers unless you have a sitting tray to avoid leaks and stains. Its ok to not puncture your upcycled containers but fill the base with a few inches of gravel to act as a reservoir. Water sinks to the bottom but also evaporates up. Outside containers can be allowed drainage holes as we have less control over how often they get watered by rain.
It’s that simple, you water once a week unless they are still damp from the last watering – always allow to dry between each watering – and if you like you can feed with a weak solution of organic liquid feed twice a year; Start of spring, mid-way through summer. The only other thing is to harvest, regularly pinching off a few leaves makes for busier plants, don’t strip all in one go, let the plant replenish.
Sourcing. Even if your local garden centre is not yet reopened, many supermarkets stock culinary herbs in pots, the likes of thyme, parsley, sage, chives, mint, rosemary, coriander, basil and dill. And you can start a very respectable herb garden from several of these tasty stables.
The starting list. How I approach my growing, is to only grow what I will use. No point in growing anise if you only use it once a year for mulled wine. I also like to grow a plant with several uses, so yes thyme is great as a flavouring herb, but it’s also a great immune boosting tea and a natural antiseptic if I nick my thumb gardening. Here as some of the more easily sourced culinary herbs with some added benefits, to get you started.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum). A windowsill trough of basil keeps me in homemade pesto and helps flavour any tomato or roast pepper sauces I get to make through the year. It is a good source of vitamin c and has a history of use in fighting viral infections and supporting respiratory health – a feature of cough syrups, cold and flu remedies and as gargle for sore throats. It has ethnobotanical usage to lessen the mucus build-up and discomfort associated with bronchitis and asthma. So perhaps a timely one to cultivate when we all trying to bolster our respiratory health.
If you cannot get the seed or a potted plant, you can start a slip from a store bought bunch of fresh; simply strip the lower leaves from a couple of stems, leave the top three leaves on, and place the stems in a glass of water, change the water every other day and roots will from with 2-3 weeks, 4 at the max. Then pot on into compost.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a lovely flavoring herb for soups, sauces and stews and also popular as a garnish and as an herbal tea. Thyme is another with reputation in treating fungal, bacterial and viral infections. Its phytochemistry helps activate a more efficient immune response in particular to boosts the effectiveness of macrophages to track and kill foreign organisms. Externally a cooled thyme tea is a wound healer and a skin tonic for acne, eczema and psoriasis. It also makes a great oral health gargle. I use thyme tea to clean my seed trays.
Thyme is easily propagated from softwood cuttings; simply take a few stems and with a sharp knife cut each to 5-10cm lengths, make the cut just below a node – that’s where a leaf emerges from the stem. Strip the foliage off the bottom half of each cutting and pot up with the other leafy half above surface. Keep moist but not soggy. When new leaves start to form there are roots below and you can pot on.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is a component of fines herbes, bouquet garni and sauce béarnaise, a must have for home cooks but also a real boon for female health. Parsley in dietary quantities has history in treating anaemia; it is packed with iron – a single tablespoon providing approximately 10% RDA. Parsley also contains vitamin C in large quantities which helps improve iron absorption. The combo of C and iron and its phytoestrogens are also useful to remedy menopausal restless leg syndrome and hot flushes.
If you cannot get a potted plant then next best is by seed, but patience required as germination is slow – often several weeks. Quicker if you have a heated propagator set to 18°C (64°F) and sink the seed 0.5cm deep.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) is another prevalent flavouring ingredient and popular herbal tea with a reputation as a female health herb too. Its content of oestrogenic phytosterols help hasten a period, take the edge off PMS and exert a cooling action upon the body to dial back incidences of heat flushes and profuse sweating in menopause. Sage also has traditional usage to stop lactation post-weaning. Externally, cooled sage tea can be used as an antibacterial mouthwash and as gargle for sore throat and tonsillitis and as a rinse in scalp care. Sage is a slow starter from seed and can take a few weeks as a soft cutting too but once up and established it will do well. Best with propagator in the range of 15-20°C or placed under a homemade cloche from a mineral water bottle.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) supply a wonderful oniony flavour, snipped fresh, washed and folded into cream cheese or added at the last moment to a soup or sandwich. Chives share many medicinal properties with their cousins – garlic and onions – due to the presence of organosulfur compounds known to boost the human immune system and which have an intrinsic capacity to attack fungal, bacterial and viral infections. I use chive leaves in the garden to clean my secateurs and sheers. Chives are easily propagated from division of clumps or sown seed. Quick enough to germinate in a propagator at 18°C but good too sown direct into container.
Mint (Mentha spp) is invaluable for dressing new potatoes to making homemade ice-cream. There are many varieties with 25 distinct species yielding hundreds of crosses and cultivars. Peppermint and spearmint are the most often employed in culinary terms, but pineapple, orange and apple mint are a joy to grow too. All mint plants contain potently anti-spasmodic phytochemicals beneficial as airway dilators for asthma and bronchial complaints.
Sipping mint tea is known to relieves tension and migraine headaches by opening up constricted blood vessels in the brain. Topically the herb has been used to ease pain and agitation in muscles and is effective in alleviating sunburn, prickly heat, rashes and allergy reactions. Mint can be propagated by seed, by a soft wood cutting, layering of runners, a slip of root and by division of clumps. No excuse here. Do grow it in a pot on its own as it is invasive and will crowd out any mix planting quickly.