My Kitchen Garden (Part 1)

1 June 2012

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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!

Thai Basil

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.

Kaffir Lime

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.

Coriander

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.

Bay Laurel

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.

Marjoram

{From left to right: my marjoram plant recovering from the frost in February, and thriving with the arrival of spring. These photos show the growth from early April to late May 2012.}

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

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

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

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.

Parsley

{Left: small parsley with tender stems. Right: large parsley with strong stems and larger leaves.}

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.

Mint

Mint is another staple in my cooking, and I particularly love Moroccan mint because it smells and tastes like the mint used in the Vietnamese kitchen.

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!

{ 51 comments… read them below or add one }

Jean 1 June 2012 at 6:32 pm

Oh my, Thanh, how very beautiful! A lovely long detailed post with gorgeous photos… I love the pots but most of all I adore the little name spoons – WHERE did you get them so I can try and track them down too?
I laughed at your marjoram story… it’s one herb I’ve never used, though my mother always keeps it. If it’s tougher than oregano then I must seek it out.
I too find that I use less of a herb when I’ve grown it myself. Two reasons, as you suggest… I don’t feel any pressure to use an over-generous packet up before it wilts, and I don’t want to devastate my valiant little pots with over-harvesting.

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eat, little bird 1 June 2012 at 7:02 pm

Ah yes, I should have given a warning that it would be a long post!! In the past year, I had been trawling the internet for websites on little summaries on different herbs and couldn’t find a lot of information in one place, so I thought I would put one together myself, albeit with my limited gardening experience!

Aren’t the herb markers adorable?? I ordered them from JLynnCreations on Etsy. They are all made to order and the seller was kind enough to make some in French for me. I wanted some herb markers and thought these vintage spoons were just perfect. I think I have to order some more!

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Saffron 1 June 2012 at 9:06 pm

Lovely, lovely post Thanh, What a detailed explanation!! This is going to be my new ‘herb guide’ from now on. You do have green fingers, really .The marjoram’s survival and all your bushy herbs are the proof.
Jean is right, the spoon name tags are adorable. You must be enjoying sitting in your balcony surrounded by these little babies!!

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eat, little bird 2 June 2012 at 11:07 am

Oh I hope this will be a helpful herb guide for you :-)

I’m not sure about having green fingers … I will let you know by next spring! The fact that the marjoram survived is more a testament to its own ability to survive than my gardening skills ;-) But I do hope the majority of plants will survive for the next year. Fingers crossed!

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Julia Levy 1 June 2012 at 10:02 pm

lovely post as always :o) I’ve got a lot of herbs growing too and a few thoughts that might help…

Thyme – this never survived the winter in a pot for me no matter whether i brought it in, wrapped it up, sheltered it etc. It’s now survived two full years and a heavy snow but only because it’s planted in the ground. This may just be me!

My bay started like your baby and then in a short time and vigorous use became as tall as me. They really do grow! It completely died off in the vicious snow two years ago so I put it to one side, sad at the loss of a 30th bday gift, and was bought another. Within in no time the original bay had sprouted hundreds of new leaves from it’s dead lifeless trunk and is wonderful again.

Rosemary over time will suck nutrients out of the earth in a pot, i mean after a few years, and the leaves will tend to be yellower. If repotting is too difficult due to size as they really do grow and grown then an occasional feed too. The flowers are edible and are great sprinkled on cakes like in Apples for Jam.

I love mint and have made my own breed bu crossing moroccon with an english garden one and get big lush green leaves and it’s a wonderful easy friend to grow.

Do you like Chives? They’re wonderfully easy to grow and come back year after year.

I’m loving all your others and am really chuffed about your basil which i cannot grow to save my life.

I can get supermarket pouches to last up to 4 weeks. When i get then home i wrap their stalks in damp/wettish kitchen paper towel and pop in a tupperware and it lasts ages. I’ve had sage in my fridge well over a month now and it’s still fresh and pungent.

Happy garden and thanks so much for sharing. Enjoy xxx

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eat, little bird 2 June 2012 at 11:30 am

Julia, thank you so much for your input!! I love hearing about other people’s tips and gardening experiences!

I think herbs like rosemary, thyme and bay, generally survive cold conditions but we had extreme frost in February (average -10°C, down to -20°C on some nights) which meant there was no chance for most plants. As an experiment (somewhat cruel in retrospect), I left a bay plant outside and took the other one indoors. The one outside looked ok for about a month, until the leaves started to go brown and drop off. I gave it a good prune in the hope that it might recover by spring, but it was still looking pretty sad after a few months, and so I figured that its time had come. I had heard about some bay plants miraculously coming back to life and was hoping mine would be one of them. Perhaps I should have waited a bit longer?

I do like chives but I don’t use them very often. Thankfully, our neighbours grow chives and have offered that we can take cuttings when the need arises :-) I use spring onions a lot and wish I could find those at the nursery!

And how wonderful that you can get supermarket herbs to last so long! I used to do something similar to you when I lived in Australia – the FridgeSmart Tupperware is fantastic for keeping fruit, veges and herbs fresher for longer. Sadly, they don’t fit in our fridge in Switzerland :-( But I used to keep thyme and rosemary in a small jar of water, which worked quite well. The main problem I have with store-bought herbs is that there is often more than I need for one dish.

While container gardening is fun, I would love to have a proper garden one day where I can simply grow things in the ground and not have to worry about re-potting plants. We talked about getting a garden allotment but I think that would require almost daily visits and lots of maintenance. I’ll see how I go first with the balcony!

Thank you so much again for sharing your thoughts :-) xxx

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Monsterscircus 1 June 2012 at 11:43 pm

What a Nice and big selection of herbs, I have never heard of the Keffir lime tree, sounds lovely. Have a wonderful weekend!

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eat, little bird 2 June 2012 at 11:33 am

Thank you! The kaffir lime tree is more well known in south-east Asian cooking. If you have eaten Thai food, especially Thai curries, chances are that kaffir lime leaves were used in the dish :-) Wishing you a nice weekend also!

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Prits 2 June 2012 at 7:10 am

I am just so impressed that all these herbs can survive in Switzerland!!! Congratulations and great post!

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eat, little bird 2 June 2012 at 11:35 am

I know!!! I was over the moon when I saw the Thai basil and kaffir lime tree – here’s hoping I don’t kill them! Are you going to set up another herb garden on your balcony? I would highly recommend a kaffir lime tree for where you live, provided that you have a lot of sun on your balcony. xx

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Anita Menon 2 June 2012 at 7:58 am

A gorgeous, heart warming post. I want such a garden. I do!! But I realize it is a lot of work. YOu do put in a lot of work and it shows. Beautiful post.

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eat, little bird 2 June 2012 at 11:39 am

Thank you, Anita! I feel like an old lady when I say this, but I do really enjoy going to the nursery, picking out the plants, potting them, arranging them on the balcony, looking out for new growth. There’s something so calming about it all! But they do require a lot of care and attention, especially with daily watering and misting, and all the rest. And then I worry about them when we are away on holidays, even though our neighbours water our plants during this time, LOL! But it’s all worth it :-)

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Paula 2 June 2012 at 9:29 am

Wow!!!

My mother also has her own little garden, but at home I can’t!! Not the best contidions!! I only have light, lots of light, but I think anymore for them.

You have a lot of herbs, how nice!! It must be a pleasure to have at home your own basil and mint everyday!! Going to cut a twig, pass over the nose to appreciate the aroma any time of day… Wow!!!
I have fallen in love with the kaffir lime!

Each week, I bouth a pot of some herb in the supermarket (this week it was mint, and I made a pannacotta with it), but I have to use it soon always, before it goes dry, or get ugly, or something like that.

And, you know, perhaps I must grow rhubarb in my kitchen :P

Cute post!! And too long comment, I’m sorry!!

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eat, little bird 2 June 2012 at 12:07 pm

Hi Paula!

I think it takes trial and error to grow most plants. After a while, you learn when there is too much light, too much water, too little water, etc. Unfortunately, this means that a few plants must be sacrificed in the process (I have sacrificed quite a few!).

As I use a lot of herbs in cooking, it is indeed really nice to be able to step outside and cut a few herbs here and there :-)

I am currently besotted with my kaffir lime plant and can’t wait to see what the fruit looks like, although I know already that they’re not very pretty, LOL! But I love, love using the leaves in cooking.

I asked about growing rhubarb on the balcony, and I was told that you essentially need quite a big pot in order to grow enough rhubarb to eat now and for later. So I think rhubarb is definitely something better for the ground. But I think you just need to find rhubarb first, given that you have been unable to find it in Spain! Maybe buy an actual rhubarb plant the next time you are in France? ;-)

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Jean 2 June 2012 at 1:47 pm

A nice little extract – okay, maybe not so little! – from a site I like called How StuffWorks. It explains the need for fertiliser.
“In order for a plant to grow and thrive, it needs a number of different chemical elements. The most important are:
carbon, hydrogen and oxygen – available from air and water and therefore in plentiful supply
nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium (a.k.a. potash) – the three macronutrients and the three elements you find in most packaged fertilizers
sulphur, calcium, and magnesium – secondary nutrients
boron, cobalt, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum and zinc – micronutrients
The most important of these (the ones that are needed in the largest quantity by a plant) are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. If you have read the articles How Cells Work and How Food Works, you have heard about things like amino acids, cell membranes and ATP. Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are important because they are necessary for these basic building blocks. For example:
Every amino acid contains nitrogen.
Every molecule making up every cell’s membrane contains phosphorous (the membrane molecules are called phospholipids), and so does every molecule of ATP (the main energy source of all cells).
Potassium makes up 1 percent to 2 percent of the weight of any plant and, as an ion in cells, is essential to metabolism.
Without nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, the plant simply cannot grow because it cannot make the pieces it needs. It’s like a car factory running out of steel or a road crew running out of asphalt.
If any of the macronutrients are missing or hard to obtain from the soil, this will limit the growth rate for the plant. In nature, the nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium often come from the decay of plants that have died. In the case of nitrogen, the recycling of nitrogen from dead to living plants is often the only source of nitrogen in the soil.
To make plants grow faster, what you need to do is supply the elements that the plants need in readily available forms. That is the goal of fertilizer. Most fertilizers supply just nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium because the other chemicals are needed in much lower quantities and are generally available in most soils. Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium availability is the big limit to growth.
The numbers on a bag of fertilizer tell you the percentages of available nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium found in the bag. So 12-8-10 fertilizer has 12-percent nitrogen, 8-percent phosphorous and 10-percent potassium. In a 100-pound bag, therefore, 12 pounds is nitrogen, 8 pounds is phosphorous and 10 pounds is potassium. The other 70 pounds is known as ballast and has no value to the plants.
So why don’t people need fertilizer to grow? Because we get everything we need from the plants we eat or from the meat of animals that ate plants. Plants are factories that do all of the work to process the basic elements of life and make them available to us.”

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eat, little bird 2 June 2012 at 3:33 pm

That’s very helpful, Jean :-) I also read (and believed) that fertiliser was essentially food for the plants because it can’t live on just soil, air and water. Hence, I felt it was fine to fertilise my plants, although I don’t use pesticides or insectides, etc. I don’t want my plants to wither away so I might go back to fertilising, especially since it is growing season …

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manu 2 June 2012 at 2:44 pm

It’s a great balcony!!
Have a nice Saturday

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eat, little bird 2 June 2012 at 3:33 pm

Thanks, Manu! I wish you a nice weekend also :-)

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Caroline 2 June 2012 at 10:55 pm

Great post, beautiful pictures! I too love your little name tags in French, very cute.
The timing of this post is perfect as I just bought some of my herbs today: basil, rosemary, thyme, mint (they had tons of different types of mint plants at the nursery and I didn’t know which one to pick..I went for the English mint one, hopefully it will work well in my teas which is how I love to use it). They were out of coriander unfortunately but I will definitely get some next week because it’s one of my favorite herbs too.
And thanks for reminding me about the lovely Thai basil which I had somehow forgotten but need to get too (I usually buy it from the Saturday market in Oerlikon). Great to hear about the kaffir lime plant! I will hunt for one..definitely sounds like sth I would use too!
I love love love my fresh herbs too but I am a bit clueless about how to take care of them unfortunately. I probably should get that book you mention…
So far I also have lemongrass, hot peppers, cherry tomatoes and a cute little physallis plant on my balcony..I hope they will all survive my rather poor care…(I try my best, I am just clueless :)
Looking forward to part2 of your post!
Have a nice Sunday!

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eat, little bird 2 June 2012 at 11:25 pm

Sounds like you are all set! What a wonderful selection you have. I saw lemongrass the other day and was tempted to buy it, but wasn’t sure if it needed a large pot, how quickly it would grow, etc. I would love to hear about your experience with growing lemongrass!

I found my kaffir lime tree at Bacher Gartencenter in Langnau am Albis, so if you are ever out that way, it’s a great place to check out. The Bürkiplatz markets are also great for fresh herbs – I saw a good selection of coriander and Thai basil on display this week.

Your herbs should be ok if you keep an eye on them and give them enough sunlight. Feel free to ask any questions here and hopefully I or someone else can help :-)

I’m also growing cherry tomatoes for the first time and my plants have grown from about 20cm high to little trees!! They’re over half a metre now! No fruit as yet but I love how fragrant the plants are. I will report on them in my next gardening post :-)

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Caroline 3 June 2012 at 12:01 pm

I wish I could give you some tips about growing lemongrass but unfortunately I have no experience about that. I received the lemongrass and a stevia plant just before leaving on a 10-day trip..when I returned, I could see right away that the stevia had missed me such much during my absence that it had died, the lemongrass suffered quite a bit but I am still hopeful that it will recover. It’s my first time growing lemongrass and I use lots of it in my Vietnamese recipes so I really hope it will do well. Fresh lemongrass tea is my absolute favorite and it would be great to be able to pluck some straight from my balcony…
I really wish I had a small garden..My mom has a nice-sized one and I asked her if she could grow some Chinese chives for me. She tried but nothing came out of it unfortunately. I would love to grow some tomatillos too.
I guess I am getting old..I use to hate all this gardening stuff :)
Thanks for recommending your Gartencenter..I will take a trip down there if I can’t find what I am looking for at my local market.

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eat, little bird 3 June 2012 at 2:37 pm

Oh shame about the stevia plant. We luckily have neighbours who are happy to water our plants whenever we go away, and vice versa. Hopefully your lemongrass will recover so you can let us know later of any tips to grow it :-) My mum used to grow lemongrass in the garden and, from what I recall, it is a rather hardy plant, requiring very little attention.

And I know what you mean about feeling old, LOL!! Never before did I think I would enjoy gardening so much and I noticed the other day that I was the youngest person at the Gartencenter – everyone else had various shades of grey hair! But they’re all so lovely, coming up to me to comment on my selection in my trolley, testing my Swiss German skills. But it’s fun :-)

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Manisha 4 June 2012 at 1:52 am

I’m growing lemongrass in my yard and based on what the local horticulturist told me, I need to cut it back and bring it in before the first frost. In a container, of course. She said it will look sad and dry through the winter but to keep watering it. It will bounce back in spring when I plant it in the ground again. Since yours will be in a pot the entire time, I don’t think you should have any problems as long as you ensure enough sunlight and warmth. It might be a good idea to keep trimming it.

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eat, little bird 4 June 2012 at 7:59 am

Thanks, Manisha! That’s really good to know that it can keep over the winter. Hopefully this information will help Carol :-) I’m tempted to buy and grow some now … the difficulty is finding room indoors over winter. Our neighbours also have lots of plants which are kept on the stairwell over the winter, where there is a bit of light and the temperatures are cooler than inside our apartments. I might have to squeeze my plants in somewhere amongst theirs!

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Caroline 10 June 2012 at 6:47 pm

Indeed it’s good to know! Not sure if mine will survive until the winter though..it’s still looking quite pitiful despite all the love!
I went to the garten center you mentioned and bought their last kaffir lime plant!!! I am so excited because it’s really pretty but I am scared too because I am not sure I will know how to take care of it…I just cut a few leaves and they smell heavenly. I can’t wait to use some in my recipes. I also bought a lovely bay laurel plant and some more herbs (marjoram, Thai basil and Moroccan mint because you wrote that it is similar to the Vietnamese one and I mostly want to use it in my Vietnamese recipes..)
I am making banh mi sandwiches tonight for the first time..my husband is preparing the grill for the lemongrass pork and I made the pickled veggies…Can’t wait to try them! :)

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eat, little bird 10 June 2012 at 10:33 pm

I’m so happy to hear that you went to Bacher! Isn’t it fabulous there? It’s where I bought most of my plants, so we can compare tips with each other because we most likely have the same kaffir lime and bay tree from the same crop :-)

Make sure you plant your Moroccan mint in a pot of its own. It grows really quickly and can get out of control! I, sadly, had to trim a lot of it back the other day, much more than I could use in cooking. I should have made mojitos!

And I’m so impressed that you made banh mi tonight! Dinner would have been fabulous at your place tonight. You’ve just given me a good idea for our next BBQ.

Enjoy your new plants!

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Liz Headon 3 June 2012 at 1:32 pm

Thanh, you’re an inspiration ! I shall only have a patio, rather than a garden, at the new house, but I am determined to have it “beautiful AND useful”…

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eat, little bird 3 June 2012 at 2:44 pm

That was my motivation, too! Which is why most of my plants are edible and I tried to only buy herbs which I use frequently in cooking. I do have a bit of the gardening bug at the moment and have to try and refrain from overwhelming the balcony with pots, but so far I think it is looking good :-) I hope the exchange happens soon for you and I can’t wait to see photos as you settle in and decorate your new home!

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Manisha 4 June 2012 at 1:56 am

Whoops! I should have mentioned this in my previous comment but bay laurel leaves aren’t really used in Indian cuisine. It’s a misnomer. The leaves are tejpatta and unfortunately, since there isn’t any English name for it, packets are labeled Indian bay leaves or just bay leaves in ethnic stores. Also, recipes mention Indian bay leaves or just bay leaves for the same reason. If you are interested in knowing the difference, I have a post with a picture of tejpatta and Turkish bay leaves here: http://www.indianfoodrocks.com/2012/02/to-bay-or-not-to-bay.html

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eat, little bird 4 June 2012 at 8:57 am

Oh! Thank you for this information! It’s so wonderful to learn things from the foodie community :-) I had been cooking lots of Indian dishes in recent months and always marvelled at their use of bay leaves, never realising that it was merely a substitute for something else.

For purists, I wonder if using bay leaves instead of tejpatta is like using parsley instead of coriander? I always frown when I see suggestions like the latter. You mentioned at that link that cinnamon and cloves would be a better substitute for tejpatta than bay leaves, which makes me very curious about these leaves – they sound beautiful! I must try to track some down.

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NYinRome 4 June 2012 at 10:22 am

Oh, I confess this is a little dream of mine too. I have only balconies, and have been secretly dreaming of getting some vases of herbs for at least the one accessed from my kitchen! Thanks for the encouragement, and the books you refenced have been jotted down for when I eventually manage to move on with the plan.

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eat, little bird 4 June 2012 at 12:19 pm

Hopefully you will set up your balcony garden soon … spring (i.e. now) is a perhaps the best time ;-) This is not just because it’s the growing season for herbs, but they will last until about September/October before the cold starts to set in, by which time you will need to decide what to do with those plants which can’t be kept outside over winter. Once you start picking your own herbs on your balcony, you will never look back. The balcony where I keep my herbs is also accessed from the kitchen, which is not only really handy, but a nice sight to have :-)

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NYinRome 4 June 2012 at 12:58 pm

Lol, thanks. I was thinking not only the view is lovely but I would immagine the smells are also wonderful too! :)

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eat, little bird 4 June 2012 at 1:01 pm

Oh of course! The kaffir lime tree is particularly fragrant – I’m in love with it!

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Anna @The Littlest Anchovy 4 June 2012 at 12:26 pm

Kitchen garden LOVE!
My sad little garden is in the middle of a small crisis due to the abnormal amount of rain Sydney had during Summer. I am tending to it with good compost and some natural pesticides. I hope it revives to be as beautiful as yours!

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eat, little bird 4 June 2012 at 12:48 pm

Oh dear! We had a lot of rain not long ago which prompted my coriander and parsley to grow like crazy – they were a tangled mess! I hope your garden will recover soon.

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Reem | Simply Reem 4 June 2012 at 2:35 pm

How beautiful Thanh!!!
What a wonder detail post… You know I will be asking you a lot of questions as I want this so badly…
Beautiful!!

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eat, little bird 4 June 2012 at 10:58 pm

Feel free to ask as many questions as you like! Just hopefully I or someone else can help :-)

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SarahKate (Mi Casa-Su Casa) 6 June 2012 at 7:08 am

How beautiful! Your photos and the descriptions of all the wonderful food you cook with your herbs made me want to run right out and buy pots of herbs for my own balcony. Sadly, it’s winter here in Australia and we’re literally having gale force winds this week, so it’s not the ideal time to start a herb garden. I’ll book mark this page and start my garden once the weather is a bit kinder!

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eat, little bird 6 June 2012 at 5:30 pm

I was itching for spring to come around so I could start organising my balcony again, but the winter period is a good time to start planning :-) And wind is definitely not great for plants … we had pretty strong winds a few weeks back and a lot of my herbs were left looking a bit tattered. I ended up bringing quite a few of them inside which made me realise how much work it is to look after plants!

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Jennifer (Delicieux) 7 June 2012 at 11:51 am

Oh Thanh, what a wonderful post! I started my own kitchen garden last year and I am so glad I did. Not only is it a great way to save money on buying fresh herbs for cooking, it’s also the satisfaction of growing something of your own. Sadly though my parsley recently died. Actually, I should say drowned, due to all the rain we had. I’m missing it already though and plan on picking up another plant this weekend. Hopefully I have better luck with it.

By the way, do you have any tips on growing coriander? I never seem to have much luck with it.

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eat, little bird 7 June 2012 at 12:23 pm

Oh no! Your poor parsley. We had quite a lot of rain lately and my parsley was growing extremely long and becoming tangled in itself, so I patiently snipped off all of the straggly stems and it looks better now.

My coriander was doing the same after the rain – it was growing very high and looked like a tangled mess. Quite a few stems were also beginning to yellow. As I have two coriander plants, I set about hacking one plant down to about 5cm above the root. Not sure if this was a good move but some new shoots are now coming through, so I guess it is still alive.

I think both coriander and parsley need to be harvested regularly so that it doesn’t become straggly. I cut off individual stems (usually the tallest) a few centimetres above the root, but you need to be patient with this method. My neighbours also grow coriander and simply cut off mid-stem, but I find that new shoots start to form from where you have cut, thus encouraging really tall plants.

It’s my first year growing coriander and that’s about as much info as I can offer so far! I’ll let you know how they progress.

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Ira Rodrigues 9 June 2012 at 4:30 pm

oh my God…they are so beautiful and fresh, your passion such inspiration. They’re absolutely well grown at your kitchen garden. the color of every herbs are really intriguing, gorgeous!

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eat, little bird 9 June 2012 at 10:37 pm

Thanks, Ira! My kitchen garden has been a great source of joy so far. It requires a bit of time and patience but I love pottering about in the garden. My neighbour today gave me a paprika plant which she brought back with her on a recent trip to Bulgaria. I’m very curious to see what this plant will produce!

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unsorsoallavolta 12 June 2012 at 1:30 pm

what a lovely (and scented!) garden you have! :-)

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Caroline 15 June 2012 at 6:07 pm

One word…ok a few…absolute, pure, thorough, deep rooted Envy. This is the balcony of a foodie’s most exalted dreams! If I could, I would like you a little bit less, but cannot help but be chuffed for you and I know of all the work and fussing and worry that came with it!

As for the coriander, you are absolutely right, the asian variety is harvested when its pretty young, around 5 inches in height, at its highest concentration of flavour. The ones you get in European supermarkets are just not the same. As you say, they could be a different variety. I generally buy bunches using my nose. Coriander should hit you, good and strong!

All the best for the continued success of your balcony garden Thanh. Wonderful work and such a pretty post :-D

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eat, little bird 20 June 2012 at 10:55 pm

Thanks, Carrie! Ah, if coriander is meant to be harvested when it is quite young, perhaps there is no point in growing it in pots and maintaining its growth? I do definitely think it is a different variety which they sell at least in Switzerland – it is not as pungent as the coriander found imported and sold at my Asian grocer.

So far, my balcony garden is doing well … the weather has gotten warmer in recent weeks and all of the plants are just thriving. Fingers crossed they will do well until autumn comes around.

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Caroline 23 June 2012 at 8:42 pm

No, grow them! Just cut off a bit from every bunch when around 5 inches and then try when a little taller and see what the taste levels are like. The asian coriander also has a thinner stalk, smaller leaves and the leaves feel soft, whereas teh European ones feel almost like parsley!

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eat, little bird 3 July 2012 at 4:01 pm

I think the new leaves and stalks are slightly more aromatic than the “older” ones. The only thing when snipping off coriander (and parsley) mid-stalk is that new shoots start to form from the cut, making for a very bushy and tangly plant. I feel my coriander needs a comb at the moment!

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Cyndie 3 January 2013 at 1:38 pm

I wish my herbs looked as healthy as yours! I don’t have a balcony and trying to grow mint, parsley and basil on a window sill is more challenging than I thought. My basil plant always ends up like “dry sticks”. Does it happen to you too? Also the mint leaves stay very small and the smallest ones eventually dry. I’ll be planting thyme and rosemary on the weekend, I hope I’ll have more luck! Beautiful photos by the way, very inspiring!

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eat, little bird 4 January 2013 at 10:13 pm

Growing herbs indoors is definitely challenging but it is certainly achievable with the right conditions. I think that if you have good lighting and water little but often, you’re off to s good start. I’ve been able to grow basil and Thai basil indoors and they keep rather well, although it took a bit of trial and effort to discover the right amount of watering needed. So hopefully over time you will find what herbs work indoors for you. Good luck and let me know how it all goes!

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