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Fresh from the Earth

There’s nothing like freshly picked herbs to liven up your cooking. Here’s our how-to guide to starting your own herb garden at home.

 

Easiest To Grow

What Rosemary, oregano, basil, mint, spring onion and curry, laksa and pandan leaves

Where “In an apartment, they need to be placed near the balcony or corridor ledge where sunlight is most plentiful,” says Dr. Wilson Wong, assistant director of horticulture at Singapore Botanic Gardens. He explains that most herbs are sun-loving plants and flourish when exposed to at least four hours of direct sunlight every day. However, he adds that sage and lavender do not grow well in our wet and humid weather.

How Eng Ting Ting, recommends getting potted herbs from nurseries or supermarkets as it can be quite difficult to grow herbs from seeds. As plants from nurseries tend to be treated with insecticides, wait two weeks before using them for cooking, she advises. For herbs from supermarkets, replant them in larger pots and place them in an indoor area for at least a week to acclimate them – as they are accustomed to lower temperatures in the supermarket – before moving them to a sunnier area.

 

Growing Tips: Essential how-tos to get your herbs flourishing

 

1.  TRANSPLANTING

“Transplanting herbs to a bigger pot (at least 15cm wide and deep) and planting them in a good soil mix will ensure that they continue to thrive,” says Cynthea Lam. The roots may be overcrowded in the original pot, which means there’s no space to grow and they may not be getting enough nutrients.

The soil that comes with the original pot may also be unsuitable. Mediterranean herbs like rosemary require well-draining soil, says Dr. Wong. “Grow them in a mix made from two parts coarse sand or fine, expanded clay pellets, one part mature compost and one part burnt earth,” he suggests.

Asian herbs like basil and pandan are best grown in soil that is well draining but moisture retentive. “You can grow these herbs in a mix made from one part mature compost and one part burnt earth,” he adds.

 

2.  WATERING

The best times to water your herbs are at dawn or at night, says Cynthea, as the plant will start making food once it receives sunlight. Most herbs, including basil and mint, should be kept moist, so water them twice a day and more often when the days are hotter and drier, advises Ting Ting. However, herbs like rosemary require less water as they are accustomed to a dry and sunny climate.

It’s also important to check the moisture level of the soil periodically to make sure it is not waterlogged as that can lead to root rot, which may kill your plant, advises Cynthea. A common cause of waterlogging is compacted soil, where the soil is too clayey and dense for water to drain properly; in such cases, you will have to replant them in a different soil mix.

Also make sure your pots have enough drainage holes for water to run through, says Cynthea. To check if your plant has enough moisture, stick a disposable chopstick into the soil; soil particles should stick to it and it should feel damp, explains Dr. Wong.

 

3.  FERTILISING

Place the fertiliser on the surface of the soil, says Cynthea, as it should seep through the soil when you water the plant. Use an organic fertiliser like compost once a week. If you’re using a chemical fertiliser, fertilise your plant once every two weeks.

 

4.  PINCHING

For young plants to flourish into lush, leafy plants, you need to pinch them. Pinching – use either your nails or a pair of sharp shears – removes the top part of the stem and encourages the plants to keep producing new stems and leaves, says Cynthea. For spring onions and pandan leaves, cut away the outer leaves – this replicates the natural process of animals grazing on the top of plants, which sends a signal to the plants to grow.

As the plants grow, any flowers – an indication that the plants are going into reproduction mode – should also be pinched off to keep them growing as well as toprevent the leaves from turning bitter. The pinched-off flowers can be used to flavour teas or honey. Once the herbs are fully grown, harvest them frequently to keep the plants growing. “The more you cut, the better they will grow,” says Ting Ting.

 

5.  PESKY PESTS

“Herbs attract pests like aphids and mealy bugs,” Ting Ting warns. Before you bring home a plant, check under the leaves for pests or signs of disease. At home, check your herbs regularly and get rid of pests quickly to prevent them from spreading to other plants.

She recommends spraying a homemade pesticide – like a spray made with two tablespoons of baby shampoo to 3.7 litres of water – on the affected areas. For more ideas, visit http://homeguides.sfgate.com/homemadeorganic-pesticidevegetables-45069.html.

 

Our Experts:

Dr. Wilson Wong, assistant director of horticulture at Singapore Botanic Gardens

Eng Ting Ting, co-owner of Pocket Greens, an urban farm

Cynthea Lam, urban farmer at Super Farmers

 

By Andrea Kee, Simply Her, May 2015 

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