Home-grown herb garden

Green glory...

Green glory...   | Photo Credit: Photo: Vasundhara Chauhan


There’s nothing to beat the freshness of herbs plucked fresh; all you need is a balcony or a sit-out to plan a garden.

Since the only purpose of using herbs is for their flavour, using stale, refrigerated ones defeats the purpose.

Is it necessary to grow our own vegetables? I didn’t think so — and, to a large extent, still don’t. Because by the time you prepare the soil, plant seeds, replant seedlings, protect from birds and pests, and, finally harvest your cauliflower or carrots, they’re about Rs. 2 a kilo in the market. And they look good — milky white cauliflowers, dense and perfect, and straight red carrots. The ones you’ve grown aren’t. And you actually get about three cauliflowers and four carrots in the whole season. Of course, if you have a vast garden and equally vast expertise, don’t mind me. I’m a balcony gardener, who got converted to growing something other than mere foliage very late in life. There were two reasons: the difficulty and the lack of space. Both still remain, but there’s been so much bad press given to commercially grown leafy vegetables that it became almost imperative to avoid buying them. That and the incontestable freshness of home-grown herbs. Since the only purpose of using herbs is for their flavour, using stale, refrigerated ones defeats the purpose. The space constraint is of no account, because just a few pots or wooden troughs are enough to grow herbs for the table. So a balcony or sit out can accommodate — instead of just the usual ficus, croton or, heaven forbid, money plant — a herb garden.

The easy one

The easiest one to grow is of course curry patta. Just plant it and wait. Murraya koenigii, native to India, has many names: karuveppilai (black neem leaf) in Tamil and Malayalam, karu/kari, black, and ilai, leaves and veppilai meaning neem leaf. In Kannada, kari bevu and karivepaku in Telugu, again translating to the same meaning. Other names include kari patta (Hindi), noroxingha (Assamese), Bhursunga Patra (Oriya), Kadhi Patta (Marathi), Mithho Limdo (Gujarati) and Karapincha (Sinhalese). Which just goes to show how widespread it is here. We use it because we like the flavour it imparts to food, but the curry patta is also said to have several medicinal qualities: anti-diabetic, anti-oxidant, anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, hepato-protective, anti-hypercholesterolemic.

Another easy one to grow is lemon grass, Cymbopogon. But with a proviso: it doesn’t do well without the sun. The downside of giving it lots of sun is that it becomes so prolific that not only you but the neighbours get fed up of cooking Thai and flavouring every drink with lemon grass infusions. But, used occasionally, its citrus flavour is really refreshing and the stems can also be dried and powdered.

Chives ( Allium schoenoprasum) are the smallest species of the onion family. They’re always referred to in the plural, because they grow in clumps, not as individual plants. They have an onion or garlic-like flavour, only more subtle. In the west they’re snipped and added to fish, potatoes and soups. The lower Himalayas grow something similar, called zeemu or jambu, and these are used fresh or dried, usually in potatoes. Grown in a pot, they look quite ornamental, especially when in flower. But I once made the mistake of arranging the startling white flowers and deep green leaves in a pretty blue vase in the living room. The smell was horrible: eating them is one thing, displaying them in your living room is like slicing onions and arranging them in a bowl on your coffee table. Because the act of cutting them is what releases the flavour.

Refreshing flavour

Of late basil has become popular in India. And the moment you cook with it you understand why: the flavour is both sweet and sharp, completely refreshing. The word basil comes from the Greek âáóéëåýò basileus, meaning “king”, and is believed to have grown above the spot where St. Constantine and Helen discovered the Holy Cross. Or it could be because basil was used in making royal potions, both medicinal and cosmetic. It grows directly from seeds, but I find that after a few cuttings it starts smelling like tulsi, which is not unpleasant, but not exactly what I want in my Thai green curry or fusilli with basil pesto sauce. It must be happening on account of cross-pollination with devout neighbours’ Holy Basil, so every few months I plant sweet basil afresh. I purée it only for pesto sauce or when flavouring a variation of mayonnaise. Otherwise, I keep the leaves whole in salad or tear them coarsely before adding to a sauce or pasta or fish or prawns.

Coriander is such a common herb that, in the North, it’s hardly worthwhile growing it at home. But it’s also said to harbour nasty little creatures and their eggs. That, combined with the fact that its price becomes astronomical in summer, makes it attractive to grow in a pot. The first time I planted coriander seeds, nothing happened. No germination, no tender little sprouts. Then I was told to crack open the hard coating with a gentle wielding of the rolling pin before planting them, and, hey presto: tiny green dhania plants appeared. Coriander belongs to the Apiaceae family. The name coriander derives from French coriandre. John Chadwick, the linguist, notes the Mycenaean Greek form of the word, koriadnon “has a pattern curiously similar to the name of Minos’ daughter Ariadne, and it is plain how this might be corrupted later to koriannon or koriandron.” Here (and, increasingly, in Britain!) we call it dhania, kothimbir, kothimir, kothambari and kothamalli. By any name, it smells sweet. And when grown at home, even sweeter.

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