Herbs form an important part of my cooking and I can’t think of a dish where I don’t use a herb as a garnish or as a main ingredient. Perhaps it is because of my affinity with Vietnamese cooking which, at its heart, is all about fresh flavours and fresh ingredients, that I like to use fresh herbs wherever possible to enhance the flavours of a dish.
So often, I have planned a meal and embarked on the task of grocery shopping, only to find that the specific herb I was looking for was either not available or was sold out. Some might still proceed to make the dish, but not I; for me, a missing herb is like doing without the main ingredient. If coriander (cilantro) is unavailable, I simply will not make my mother’s Vietnamese chicken noodle soup; this addictive herb is, in my mind, an essential ingredient in most Vietnamese dishes. The same applies to the rice paddy herb, a citrusy, cumin-flavoured herb which, as the name suggests, grows in rice fields and imparts the most wonderful flavour to Vietnamese soups like Canh Chua (tamarind broth).
The same can be said, too, for more commonly available herbs, such as the flat-leaf parsley. My local supermarket is a very small one, which means that it is rather unpredictable as to what they might have on offer. Sometimes, they will have a wide selection of herbs on display. Quite often, it’s just limited to basil and curly parsley, the latter being something I seem to associate most with garnish in the 1990s, best pushed aside on the plate. So faced with curly parsley, I prefer to change tracks and make a different dish.
So given the limitations that I often face at the supermarket, it made sense to me to have a herb garden on my balcony. Moreover, it is a rare occasion when I can finish a packet of herbs bought from the supermarket, something which makes me frequently think of the cost of herbs on my weekly grocery bill.
So here are the selection of herbs which I like to have on my balcony. Given the climate in Switzerland (and most of Europe), growing plants in containers require some attention and planning. I’m still relatively new to container gardening so if you have any tips for any of the following herbs, I would love to hear from you!
This is a new addition to my herb garden. I was so excited when I saw it at the nursery, never before imagining that this plant could actually be sold in Zurich! I frequently buy this herb from the Asian grocer for a small fortune, though it often goes off before I can use it all, a common problem which I have whenever buying herbs in packets from the supermarket. I am particularly excited about growing Thai basil at home since it is something which I use quite often in cooking.
As well as a being a staple herb in a lot of Thai dishes, it is also a commonly used herb in Vietnamese cooking. I love it in a tamarind soup (Canh Chua), and also in vermicelli noodle salads or fresh spring rolls (sometimes called Vietnamese colds rolls).
From what I have read, growing Thai basil is similar to growing your “normal” Italian basil. It prefers full sun and a little watering each day to just moisten the soil. Once it starts to flower, you should pinch off the first cluster of leaves, right above the next growth, to encourage new leaves to shoot.
I’m hoping that my Thai basil will also survive indoors once the weather starts to cool down. If it can be kept alive similar to my Italian basil, here’s hoping for a continued supply of one of my favourite herbs throughout the year. Already, I am finding that I am giving it the same attention as a newborn baby.
I was rather excited to see this plant at my nursery and, like the Thai basil, I was pleasantly surprised to find this in Switzerland. Either there is a Thai lady on their staff or I should give them credit for being adventurous with their offerings.
Kaffir lime leaves are an essential ingredient in Thai cooking and impart the most wonderfully intense citrus flavour. They could almost be described as the bay leaf of south-east Asian cooking. A few leaves added to your Thai curry will make the dish sing, complementing the tang provided by any lime juice or lemongrass.
Although the kaffir lime plant also produces fruit, it is really the leaves which are the useful resource from this plant, which is a somewhat comforting thought if your plant does not have the right conditions to fruit. My plant recently flowered and it looks like it will fruit soon – fingers crossed! The leaves can be harvested just before cooking, but the better advice is to prune the branches and to freeze any leaves which you do not need right away. Indeed, before I bought this plant, I often bought little packets of kaffir lime leaves from the Asian grocer and would keep them in the freezer, their flavour generally not compromised from being frozen.
As this is my first year with my kaffir lime tree, I have yet to find out how it will fare indoors over winter. But we recently went on holidays for nearly a week, during which time overnight frost was forecast (in May!), so I brought the plant inside and left it beside a sunny window. Upon coming home, I was pleasantly surprised to find that, not only was the kaffir lime plant sitting pretty with all of its leaves intact, but the leaves actually looked greener and healthier!
My kaffir lime plant is the only one amongst my herbs which I fertilise weekly with an organic product specifically for citrus plants.
Some helpful tips on growing kaffir lime trees can be found at Thai Food & Travel.
This is, without any hesitation, my favourite herb. It is a staple in most Asian cuisine, not least in Vietnamese cooking where this herb is an integral component of the Vietnamese flavour base. It is also a popular herb used in Mexican dishes, which is perhaps partly why I love Mexican food so much.
Coriander is called “cilantro” in the US, the former name instead referring to the dried counterpart.
What I find somewhat unusual is that the coriander sold at my local supermarket tastes nothing like the coriander which I can buy from my Asian grocer. The latter is much more pungent and herby while the other sort (I call it Swiss coriander) tastes like grassy parsley. Actually, I think it might be parsley or at least a variety which is very mild and perhaps more suitable to the Swiss palate.
Which was why I was somewhat hesitant to buy coriander in a pot when I saw it at the nursery. A gentle rub of the leaves revealed none of the aroma which I was used to, nor did a quick whiff of the roots which probably startled a few of the other customers. Yet, I was still curious to bring it home and see how it would turn out.
My motivation was purely financial. A 100 g packet of coriander from the Asian grocer costs me CHF 6 (US $6) and I regularly buy 3 packets a week, either because I do actually use that much coriander or because I don’t want to make another special trip, not to mention that my Asian grocer regularly sells out after a few days and only receives his delivery once a week.
So far, I have found that my coriander plant has been quite useful in instances when I have wanted to make an Asian dish at the last minute and didn’t have shop-bought coriander in the fridge. The flavour is not as pungent as I would like, but at least it doesn’t taste like parsley. I have a friend who detests coriander and I wonder if she might be ok with this milder variety?
I have also noticed, not just with the coriander but with all of my planted herbs, that I use much less than if I were to use them straight from a packet. Perhaps it is because supermarket packets happen to be too generous for what people need and there is a tendency to use more before they wilt and turn yellow, or perhaps it is because harvesting fresh herbs requires a bit of time to carefully select the stems that I tend to only use as much as is necessary.
So far, I have succeeded in saving money on coriander. I might only buy a packet when I feel the authentic flavour is essential to the dish I am making, but otherwise make do with my potted coriander. I wonder if the milder taste is due to the variety, the soil, the amount of sunlight, or a combination of all three? If I could grow the “authentic” coriander at home, I think it would be my star herb. It nevertheless remains a welcome addition to my little garden.
I love my bay laurel plant. Fresh bay leaves are nowhere to be found in Swiss supermarkets, though they can easily be found dried. But I love using fresh bay leaves in cooking because the flavour is just so much more superior.
Bay leaves provide a mild, herby note to dishes and generally require long, slow cooking to release their gentle savoury flavour, a virtue which makes them quite useful in vegetarian dishes.
Bay leaves are commonly used in French and Italian cooking, but I am surprised by how often other cuisines call for this herb, such as in Indian curries. I rarely make a stew without adding one or two bay leaves, and they are a staple ingredient whenever I make a béchamel sauce (white sauce).
The bay laurel plant is a somewhat hardy plant, living quite happily outside during the winter, unless there is the threat of extreme cold or frost, in which case you should bring it inside until the harsh conditions have passed.
A small plant is usually sufficient for most households, providing fresh bay leaves all year round which you can harvest by simply plucking off the leaves. Having said that, I recently bought a second plant after noticing that my existing bay plant was looking quite naked. I find that I use about 4 to 6 leaves a week, sometimes 10 if I am making Thomas Keller’s Roast Chicken.
I have seen them shaped as topiaries, both in a lollipop and pyramid shapes, which I would dearly love to have on our balcony. How wonderful it would be to have ornamental plants in your home and which also serve a purpose in the kitchen! But the shaped bay laurel plants are rather expensive and I’m not so confident with my gardening skills just yet. I will see how I go with the little plants first before making a bigger investment.
A website with useful information on growing and caring for bay plants can be found at Veggie Gardening Tips.
The first photo shows the early green shoots from my marjoram plant. I had bought it last spring but wasn’t sure what to do with it over the winter, and I cruelly ended up neglecting it outside on the balcony. The leaves started to brown and die and so I gave it a haircut to make it look a bit better. After that, I pretty much ignored the poor thing, not even bothering to water it over the winter. Thankfully, it seems that the rain took care of any minimal watering that it needed over the cold season.
And then the unexpected frost came in February this year when we had about two weeks where the maximum temperatures were about -10°C. I thought about rescuing my poor marjoram but I believed I had already killed it, so I continued to leave it outside on the balcony with thoughts of discarding it once it was warm enough to venture outside again.
Did I mention that it was also in a cheap plastic pot this whole time? I’m so mean.
Alas, when I was organising the balcony upon the early arrival of spring, I saw little green shoots coming out of the plant. I couldn’t believe it! This badly neglected plant was actually still alive! In return for surviving my neglect, I have now planted it into my window box, alongside the rosemary and thyme. It is now thriving, growing quite rapidly in an area where it gets a lot of sunlight for most of the day. The photos above show the growth over a 2 month period from the beginning of April to the end of May.
Knowing that it is an extremely hardy plant is quite comforting, and given that it is a true surviver, I feel it deserves VIP treatment from hereon.
Why marjoram? Marjoram is closely related to oregano, but slightly sweeter in flavour. You could use it wherever you would use oregano – I like to use it in pasta sauces or added to the bread crumb mixture for chicken or pork schnitzels. Marjoram is also much more hardy than oregano; my marjoram lived next to my oregano last year and clearly the oregano didn’t make it. Another reason to choose marjoram over oregano.
Rosemary is a very fragrant herb which I love to use to stuff my roast chickens, or sprinkled over a pan of chopped potatoes before popping them into the oven to roast.
It is a very aromatic and pungent herb – a slight brush against a rosemary plant will immediately release a waft of its herby scent. And the aroma it releases upon cooking will stimulate anyone’s appetite.
It apparently does well in very cold conditions, but my poor rosemary didn’t survive the rare frost earlier this year. Otherwise, it tends to grow without much care and maintenance, aside from the usual watering and placing it in a sunny spot in your garden.
Thyme makes a frequent appearance in French dishes which I cook at home, it being a key component of a bouquet garni. Thyme is also a lovely herb to sprinkle over a roast chicken, or added to marinades for beef or lamb, or simply sautéed with mushrooms in some butter for a quick side dish.
I particularly love using thyme in stews or braises, where I will throw in a whole twig or two to add some fragrance to the dish, and remove the stringy stems at the end of cooking when all of the leaves have dropped off and made their way into the sauce. I find this to be much easier than stripping the leaves from the stems beforehand. One of the loveliest beef stews I have made is Nigella Lawson’s Beef, Anchovy and Thyme Stew, where I double or triple the amount of thyme for maximum flavour.
Regardless of how often you might use thyme, it’s a very pretty herb to have in your garden, especially when it starts to flower in spring and attracts bees to your garden, something to keep in mind if you are growing fruits and vegetables which need pollinating.
Basil hardly needs any introduction and instructions on when to use it – almost any Italian dish will benefit from some roughly torn basil leaves. I find I use very little basil in my cooking, which happens to be a good reason to have a little plant where I can simply pluck a few leaves at a time.
I find basil to be a rather needy plant. Too much sun and it will wilt. Too much water and it will drown. Too little water and the leaves will go droopy. I find that my basil plant actually likes it best on my kitchen counter, next to a sunny window, but I like to put it outside every few days to give it a good dose of sunshine which will improve the flavour in the leaves.
Basil is definitely not a winter-hardy plant, so when the temperatures drop to about below 12°C (54°F), it’s time to bring your basil indoors and let it grow on a sunny windowsill. But be careful about open windows – during the cold snap earlier this year, I left the windows slightly open to air the kitchen for about 1 hour and my poor basil plant froze and never recovered.
It doesn’t seem obvious to me, but parsley is one of my most-used herbs. I regularly use parsley stalks in my cooking to infuse flavour and the leaves for garnishing.
To that end, I have two types of parsley – the taller variety with big leaves whose stems are suitable for slow-cooking or where you are using this herb as a main ingredient, and the smaller and more fragile variety which really are better for garnishing. That said, it is not necessary to grow both types – much depends on how you tend to use parsley in your cooking.
Parsley can grow really tall and out of control, so it’s a good idea to regularly take cuttings from this plant. And if you have parsley in abundance, a batch of Rachel Allen’s Parsley Pesto is a good idea. I absolutely love it drizzled into vegetable soups or served alongside some grilled meat.
Moroccan mint is heavily perfumed with a bright, fresh taste, making it wonderful in salads and also in a homemade mint tea.
It is a particularly hardy plant which requires quite little attention, aside from the usual watering. When mint is grown in a happy space, it can grow quite rapidly and abundantly so you might have to cut the plant back if it is going crazy. It follows that mint is best planted in its own pot, given its tendency to take over whatever space it can find.
Once the weather turns cold, the leaves will start to brown and die and you are advised to prune the plant right back down. You can leave the plant outside over the winter where it will start to develop new growth quite prolifically. But if extreme cold weather and frost is forecast, bring the plant indoors until the extreme conditions have passed, otherwise it won’t survive the harsh cold.
A useful website with some gardening tips for mint can be found here at Apartment Therapy.
Some helpful gardening tips
Actually, I probably am not the best person to offer gardening tips as most of my efforts to date have been trial and error! Plants should generally be watered daily in warmer weather or every other day in cooler temperatures, either in the early morning or early evening. You should generally check the soil before watering to see if it is dry (which means you should definitely give it a drink), or if it is still slightly damp, meaning that you can perhaps wait until the next day before watering.
A good, sunny spot is also preferred by most herbs, some being more tolerant of shade than others. I currently have my thyme, rosemary and marjoram planted together in a window box which sits on the balcony railing. The other herbs are planted in individual pots and are placed in an area where they get sunlight for most of the day. Why individual pots? With winter in mind, I thought I would have more flexibility with trying to overwinter the plants indoors if they were in individual pots, especially the basil, Thai basil and parsley. Thyme, rosemary, marjoram and bay laurel are quite winter-hardy plants which I will try to leave on the balcony, though covered with fleece this time in case of frost.
As for fertilising, many books recommend a weekly application of organic fertiliser to give the plants nutrients and I happily did so with the arrival of spring. But when I mentioned fertilising to my friends and neighbours, they all looked at me in shock, querying why I would want to add chemicals to my plants which I would inevitably eat. So I’m not sure what to do on this point. Can anyone offer any advice in this regard?
In setting up my edible balcony, I resorted frequently to a wonderful book called The Edible Balcony by Alex Mitchell. It is full of tips and information on how to grow an assortment of fruit, vegetables and herbs on your balcony, together with clever design ideas for small, narrow balconies to large rooftop terraces. It is a wonderful guide for any apartment-bound city slicker who wishes to grow farm fresh produce at home.
Stephanie Alexander’s The Kitchen Garden Companion has also been a wonderful resource for me. Her book is filled with insightful tips on how to grow and harvest a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, together with excellent recipe ideas for each. Whilst the book is aimed primarily at those who can grow their produce in the ground, there is a helpful section in each chapter for container gardening, as well as getting kids involved.
My next gardening instalment will feature some fruits and vegetables which I am growing for the first time. Stay tuned!