Help Yourself to Herbs
It used to be a hobby for grannies but now growing your own culinary enhancers is hot. David Phair finds out how.

By David Phair

MANY HOME COOKS in Hong Kong make do with dried herbs bought from the supermarket. For special occasions, they splash out on fresh ones that can cost up to $20 for a handful of stems. But when Ophelia Chan needs herbs for cooking or to make tea, she skips the shops and heads for her 200-sq-ft organic garden at Fanling in the New Territories.

Chan, a health and beauty consultant who runs Central shop Herbal Bliss (tel: 26762885), selling herbs and herbal teas, syrups and cosmetics, says there is no greater satisfaction than growing your own. Hers, she maintains, are flavourful and healthy, grown from Canadian seeds untainted by chemicals.

However, you don’t need a garden to grow your own herbs. In space-pressed Hong Kong, where the average resident lives in a cramped flat, anyone can try their hand at cultivating a selection of herbs. As one Lantau resident who lives near Cheung Sha beach says: "You can grow herbs in individual pots on the window sill. I’ve got them in the kitchen and out on the terrace. They’re great to look at, lovely to smell and transform the flavour of food." Those lucky enough to have balconies can grow them in the open air and protected from the elements.

Chan says growing herbs serves several purposes. "One is that it is very energising being outside in the sun and using your fingers in the soil. Two, there is the exercise aspect that comes from digging, stretching, weeding. And three, there is the functional aspect – you can use herbs for many purposes – to cook with, to create aromas to improve one’s psyche and so on."

In her experience, winter is usually the most rewarding time to grow them – beware of cold snaps though, as herbs don’t like them – although most require five hours of sunshine, with basil performing particularly well in the sun. One exception is mint, which prefers shade.

Contrary to expectations, Chan says summer in Hong Kong is not conducive to grow- ing herbs easily. They hate heat, humidity, typhoons and rain, so tending them requires a lot of patience and care. Magna Leith, in her book Herbs: How To Grow And Use Them, suggests starting with a few varieties – basil, tarragon and rosemary are among the most popular. She’ advises growing them from seed but if time is limited, buy small plants from a nursery.

Leith advises using a long box lined with plastic to keep the surroundings dry. Fill the box with good soil including about one-fifth moss and a similar proportion of gravel. Don’t forget to put larger stones at the bottom because the roots rot if they are left to stand in water. Water every week or so in summer depending on the aspect of the box and add liquid manure, reducing this to once every three weeks or so in winter.

"They’re great to look at, lovely to smell
  and transform the flavour of food"

Many people prefer to tend individual pots but herbs don’t grow as fast or as bushy in these. Experts agree that it’s better to place individual pots in a window box and cover them up to the rim with soil. This allows the roots to grow out through the holes in the bottom of the pots and for humidity and soil moisture to remuin more even, while the pots can still be removed easily and moved outside should you wish.

After light, says herb expert Conrad Richter, soil is the most important factor in producing healthy herbs. "With few exceptions, herbs require excellent drainage, especially during the winter months, when transpiration rates are lowest," he explains on his Web site, [www.richters.com]. "When roots are confined in a pot or planter, water and air cannot move easily. To improve drainage without sacrificing nutrients, add sharp sand... to a good sterilised compost-based mix."

He also points out that herbs, contrary to popular belief, do not grow better in poor soil. "Flavours are stronger when culinary herbs grow outdoors in gardens. But in the confines of a pot, supplementary feedings with liquid fertiliser or organic fish emulsion are necessary," he advises. "Feed herbs once a week when plants are actively growing, but not when dormant." In terms of watering, the general guideline is to water only when the soil is dry. Add water until it trickles out of the bottom of the pot.

As with other plants, herbs should be checked to ensure they are healthy. Herbs, like any plants, can fall victim to pests, such as bugs and flies. If you’re growing the herbs in smallish pots, it’s easy enough to give them a good rinse under running water to wash off any bugs. Organic pesticides should be used sparingly and as a last resort, and it goes without saying that you should wash the herbs thoroughly before consuming them.

Even experts say that growing herbs is a matter of trial and error. Over time, the amateur herb grower will learn the best ways for his or her growing area. For example, a common complaint about parsley is that the leaves turn yellow when it’s planted in pots. Herbal adviser Henriette Kress points out that parsley grows a long tap root and if planted in a shallow pot is unable to do so. Therefore you should plant it in a deep and narrow pot. Another complaint is that some herbs – particularly rosemary – drop their leaves when brought indoors. This is because they take a long time to acclimatise to new surroundings. It’s best to move the herb into partial shade first for a few weeks, then complete shade, watching for new growth. Once this is spotted you can bring the plant indoors.

Some experts believe hydroponic herbs, which are grown in a nutrient solution, have more flavour than those grown in soil. A test in the United States showed that flash frozen, hydroponically grown basil had 40 per cent more flavour than field-grown basil.

Among the favourites that Richter suggests for growing indoors are:

English mint (Mentha spicata) – mint has a tendency to spread quickly and this variety is more controlled. Excellent for cooking and tea. Easy to cultivate from cuttings.

Vietnamese coriander (Polygonum odoratum) – if you love the taste of coriander, this is the variety to grow, because unlike the normal variety, it grows after being cut.

Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare hirtum, pictured above) – this has the best flavour and little white flowers. It grows from seeds in only a couple of weeks and reaches 20cm-30cm in height.

’Grolau’ chives (Allium schoenoprasum) – flavourful and with dark green leaves that grow to 20cm-30cm.

’Fernleaf’ dill (Anethum graveolens) – this small variety of dill is perfect for growing indoors and can be done so from seed. It grows up to 35-40cm in height.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum minimum) – dense, compact form of basil that grows up to 25cm high.

Thyme (Plectranthus amboinicus or Coleus amboinicus) – this plant, which is also known as Spanish thyme or Cuban oregano, has broad, fleshy leaves. It grows only from cuttings and never goes dormant.

Chan buys her seeds from Richters in Goodwood, Ontario, Canada, which promises it never knowingly buys genetically engineered seeds or plants: richters.com.


Originally published in South China Morning Post Sunday Review, February 23, 2003.

 
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