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Growing nature’s bounty indoors

Helen Raine finds thatgrowing a small kitchen garden on your own windowsill is not too complicated.

Most herbs can cope with full sun, but make sure that they aren’t going to be scorched. Right: Trimming from the top is best, and never take more than a third of the leaves.

Most herbs can cope with full sun, but make sure that they aren’t going to be scorched. Right: Trimming from the top is best, and never take more than a third of the leaves.

So you’ve got the new kitchen with immaculate worktops, state-of-the-art cupboards and a stovetop extractor fan more powerful than the average family car engine. But there’s something missing. In all that shining stainless steel or mirror-like marble, you need a bit of life as a counterbalance. Enter the kitchen garden on your windowsill.

There’s something special about growing your own herbs; smelling a hint of rosemary in the air, seeing your coriander racing for the light before you chop it into salad, always having some thyme to throw in with a roast chicken. It’s particularly fun to do if you don’t have access to a garden space. And a windowsill garden can look amazing too if you do it right.

What herbs to choose

• It’s best to start with the virtually indestructible herbs that you’re most likely to use every day. Mint, dill, tarragon, thyme, coriander, oregano and chives are hardy options. Buying ‘starts’ (small versions of the plants) from the garden centre might be the best option for beginners as it offers instant herby gratification.

Once you get more confident, annual herbs (ones that you replant every year) can be easily grown from seed. Kids in particular love to see seedlings appear, so make it worth the wait with a family project; once the plants are up, let the children take charge of the watering and harvesting.

Where to locate them

• Most herbs can cope with full sun, but make sure that they aren’t going to be scorched in the window during the Maltese summer. Coriander can wilt if it gets too hot, so move it if it’s failing.

You don’t have to confine your planters to the windowsill. Herbs make great centerpieces on the dining table. Mint, tarragon and thyme do well in hanging baskets suspended from the ceiling. Try using one of those old-fashioned vegetable baskets in chain-link that your granny used to hang in the pantry. Lined with plastic wrapping paper, they make a great herb holder.

It’s worth thinking about incorporating a herb garden during the design phase of your kitchen so that you set aside some space or fit hooks which will work with hanging baskets.

Use novel pots

• Scour the second-hand stores for old pots and use mismatched antique plates as saucers to give them a bit of class. You can also raid the recycling bin and decorate old tin cans or coffee jars with bright paint or strips of coloured tape. Carrots will grow in two-litre water bottles with the tops cut off; or you can cut a hole out of the side of the bottle and plant herbs, then string a series of bottles up in a row. Jam jars also make great pots; cover them with fabric or paint them with blackboard paint and have the kids chalk on them.

It’s best to start with the virtually indestructible herbs

Grow a green thumb

• Even if you’ve never gardened before, herbs are really easy to look after. It’s best to put each different herb in its own container (around 12cm deep) so that you can tailor its care better (moving it towards the light or away from it, adding more or less water). The pots, ideally, will need a drainage hole and a waterproof saucer underneath. However, if you go very easy on the watering, you could get away with putting herbs in jars with no hole. Herbs can survive drought fairly well and they don’t like to be in saturated soil.

Herbs don’t need much fertiliser either, as it affects the flavour. A slow release plant food in the soil should work fine or you can add a little bit of compost from the compost bin.

You’ll need to prune back plants that branch, such as basil, otherwise they’ll grow into mini trees rather than shrubs (that shouldn’t be a problem if you’re using them in your cooking regularly).

And remember that many annual herbs like basil and dill will try to go to seed after a while; just replace them with new plants when that happens.

Harvesting

• Once the plant is reasonably well-established, with a good number of leaves, you can start harvesting. Never take more than a third of the plant’s leaves. Trimming from the top is best because if you take from the sides, you’ll end up with a tall, spindly plant whereas top trimming encourages the plant to bush out. If your plant starts producing more than you can eat, freeze the excess.

Social climbers

• Once you’ve got going, you can be more ambitious. Tomatoes do well indoors, in hanging baskets or planters. You can try putting a tepee over beans or growing them up fishing wire to a curtain pole to form a living curtain. Radishes, lettuce, spinach and cucumbers also do well in indoor planters. Include a few lavender plants for the aroma.

How to eat them

• The feathery leaves of dill are brilliant with salmon. Just chop, mix with olive oil and pour on top before baking. Thyme is tasty with stews or sprinkled on meat before roasting. Rosemary elevates roast chicken and potatoes to a gourmet level. Add basil to your Italian dishes at the last minute to preserve the flavour. Chives are good with omelette or potato salad and coriander tastes amazing in everything from salad to curry.

Mint is perhaps the most multi-purpose herb; grind it up in a mojito or use it to make mint sauce for the lamb. You can also dry it in the oven to make mint tea; heat oven to 65°C for twenty minutes, then put in the herbs and turn oven off again; leave until the oven has completely cooled then simply add water, allow to sit for a few minutes then strain.

The joy of herbs is really that you can throw them in any dish for an unexpected burst of flavour. So make your kitchen work for you even while you make it look beautiful; get planting.

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