Ah January – the epilogue to Christmas and New Year. It can be a foreboding five weeks without the distraction of family or presents, so it’s a good idea to invent our own distractions and, to make sure they’re guilt free, that they be productive too!
We’ve all been in the supermarket and seen the potted herbs stacked up next to the bagged and wondered: How hard can it be?
A winter herb garden can cater to any size or space, from a fully-fledged greenhouse to a window sill and anything in between.
This article outlines five varieties that you can grow indoors and some of the varied uses they can serve at home.
A staple in English and other styles of cooking, and a member of the Mint family, Rosemary is the ideal herb with which to begin your garden and, if well cared for, one whose generosity will continue for years to come. Rosemary prefers a mix of sand and potting compost to ensure that the required drainage. As it doesn’t like to stand in water, water only whenever the soil feels dry. Trim for use regularly but don’t cut into old wood.
Apart from culinary uses, Rosemary and Nettle infusion makes a wonderful scalp treatment for dandruff or hair loss. Rosemary can also be infused with Coconut or Olive Oil as a rubbing treatment for aching bones and joints, therefore making it an all-round winter comforter.
One of my favourite soft-stemmed herbs, you’d do well to use both the stems and leaves in your cooking, particularly in conjunction with white meats like chicken or fish, and also as a dressing in salads to add a refreshing element to both flavour and texture. It has a preference for neutral potting soil and sparse watering (about twice a week) and should be trimmed only to a minimum of two inches to allow for re-growth.
Similarly to Rosemary, Parsley Oil has been used for centuries as part of a regimen of organic medicinal practises, but particularly as a scalp treatment.
Perhaps the most popular herb on this list and not least for their abundant simplicity- I remember sitting next to our Chive pot as a small boy, quite content to munch the oniony thread for an entire afternoon. Chives are about as diverse and useful a food stuff as you’d care to imagine: ready to use as soon as they’re harvested, good raw or cooked, no wasted stems and no need to peel, unlike their cousins Shallots and Garlic. Like Parsley, Chives prefer a neutral potting mix and a water cycle of about twice weekly. They are extremely prodigious plants and can withstanding cutting from two inches and above, and will continue well throughout the year.
If their culinary benefits weren’t attraction enough, Chives also come with a host of practical and aesthetic advantages that the average herb cannot boast. They also repel aphids and, as an added bonus, you can freeze them in ice cubes to add further flavour and visual flair to your cocktail parties.
In my experience, English chefs seem to owe a lot to the Italian staples that are now among our national favourites, such as Spaghetti Bolognaise, Lasagne and Pizza. It is a common gag that the chefs in heaven are Italian and so we simply had to include this Neapolitan staple on our list. Second perhaps only to Basil in its fame and popularity among Italian cuisine, Oregano is a very easy plant to maintain throughout the winter. With regular trimmings to two sets of leaves, the plant will assume a compact, nutrient-dense, bushy shape, however, it is essential that you pot in an equal mix of sharp, sandy soil and only water when the soil feels dry- Oregano is very susceptible to root rot.
As well as its rich gastronomic heritage, Oregano also yields a number of health and medical benefits. Oregano is classed as an immune system stimulant – likely due to its high amounts of Omega-3s and anti-oxidants, making it ideal for beating those pesky flu bugs. It is also antibacterial, antiseptic, antiviral and antiparasitic!
Within the food industry, Thyme is perhaps most widespread in Caribbean cuisine, as one of the primary ingredients of the region’s famous Jerk Seasoning. Its earthy flavour profile makes it a fantastic addition to most stews and subtler meats like duck, goose and game. Like others on this list it prefers a mixture of sharp sand and potting compost in equal parts and, in terms of watering, you should wait until the top inch of soil has dried out completely before watering generously.
Thyme has been used primarily in medical circles as a treatment for both oral hygiene and for digestive ailments; its oil can be used to maintain healthy gums through pulling, while as an external relief it can treat laryngitis.
Once again, as with all herbs, the importance of adequate sunlight cannot be overstated, if you are without a brightly lit window sill to spare then it is essential that you procure artificial grow lights to maintain the health of your herbs.
You can grow herbs from seed if you’re patient, but if you prefer to buy them ready to eat, you should consider buying from a nursery, rather than from the supermarket as they tend to be in the correct growing medium, rather than a general compost which might not sustain them long term. Alternatively, you could buy them from the supermarket and re-pot them yourself. Or, if you have a friend or neighbour with herbs already, consider growing from cuttings: Cut a 5-inch stem, strip off the bottom few inches of leaves, place stem in water to root, plant into pots once roots develop, and water frequently until established. Then water as needed. We would also recommend the use of homemade compost or liquid seaweed as a means to encourage faster growth in your herbs; these should be applied in late winter as the days begin to lengthen.
In the summer you can take them outside, but don’t forget to water them!
By Joshua Ellison