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Friday, January 25, 2008

A garden you can eat

Balconies and windowsills can be perfect spots for a bit of herb gardening, especially if you are short of space. Never let the lack of a “real garden” deter you from harvesting fresh herbs for your cooking. With some planning and a little bit of imagination, you will be amazed at the different herbs you can grow in a limited space.

Although most herbs need plenty of light, too much of a good thing can be bad. If your balcony receives sunlight most parts of the day, you can block it out during the hottest times with a bamboo screen, for example. Even if the balcony is not exposed to direct sunlight, the concrete walls of the house will release heat throughout the day. This means it will still be too hot for some herbs to grow, says Nicole van den Steenhoven of Bukit Kiara Properties. She suggests creating a microclimate by selecting some hardy herbs that will work as a climate adjuster for the more sensitive species. Here, she has created a sample balcony and windowsill for a better idea on how you can start off your little herb garden. The term “herbs” has been used in a wider context to include other edible plants and spices.

The balcony
You will be surprised to know that there are a variety of herbs that can be grown in pots on your balcony. These include pandan, curry leaves, lemon grass, chili, aloe vera, basil and rosemary. To take some of the heat off the concrete, try placing larger plants on the outer edge and smaller and more sensitive ones under them so that they still receive enough sunlight, but indirectly.

Larger plants that are popular include the limau kasturi, curry leaves and lemon grass. A rather new plant that is gaining popularity is the Siam cherry and Vietnamese apple.

The former bears small fruits that can be plucked almost daily while the latter has apple-like fruits that are a big hit with children.

An important thing to note when planting on the balcony is the direction it faces. Balconies facing south are exposed to direct sunlight, hence some herbs need more care when grown here. Those native to the tropics, like lemon grass, aloe vera and curry leaves will grow well anywhere.

The windowsill
You can grow several types of herbs in your house as long as the area is not air-conditioned as most herbs and plants tend to dry out in cooler temperatures. The low temperature stops the plant from absorbing water and it will eventually wilt.

You can still do a spot of gardening if you have a little space on your windowsill. Choose herbs like the basil, dill and chives. Even the basket is fi lled with several types of herbs.

Your window should get some sunlight but not full. A north-facing window is ideal but that doesn’t mean other directions are not suitable for a windowsill herb patch. You just need to be more aware of how much sun comes through the window. Creating a simple mesh that will act as a shield can reduce the effects of the sunlight. The screen can be made of wood and fine mosquito mesh.

Don’t forget to leave the window open, especially when the sun is shining through to allow any hot air trapped inside to be released.

Herbs that will do well on a window shelf include basil, dill, coriander, chili and chives. A hanging basket is another option for those who do not have much shelf space to put the potted plants.

Pots and baskets
There are no hard and fast rules on suitable containers for your herbs. You can use traditional clay pots or decorative ceramic ones. If you’re looking at lighter pots, try plastic containers.

Whatever container you choose, always make sure that it has an outlet for water to drain as most herbs are sensitive to stagnant water at the root area. Use a collecting tray underneath to keep your windowsill clean and throw out excess water frequently. You can also use crystals for some plants like the pandan, keeping them fresh in a vase. The crystals will last for about two months.

Larger plants like the Siam cherry and curry leaves protect smaller plants from direct exposure to sunlight

When it comes to the size of a container, most western herbs like basil, dill, parsley and coriander need little space as they are annuals and last only a few months. A pot of about 150mm in diameter will do. For other herbs like curry leaves, pandan and lemon grass, pots need to be bigger, preferably 250mm in diameter. If you use a smaller pot, you will need to repot these plants more often.

Potting material
In principal, most herbs thrive in well-drained mixed soil. Nicole recommends using a light and well-drained potting mix, which you can achieve by mixing an imported potting mix available at hypermarkets or nurseries with vermiculite or perlite. These can also be substituted with Styrofoam pellets. The pellets are light and will improve drainage of the potting mixture. Do not reuse this potting mixture.

This article is an excerpt from haven — a bi-monthly interior design and gardening magazine published by The Edge.

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