So you think you can’t plant

(Note: If you’d like to know what plants are included in each photo, please hover your cursor over them.)

Our gardening endeavors started with 6″ high pots on a 5″ window ledge, in a 6′-0″ X 5′-0″ kitchen. That kitchen was also where this blog was born. Friends wondered loud and long how we cooked in that little space, let alone blogged about the food. It was our very first kitchen together; cramped and quirky though it was, we loved it. Any cooking and blogging in there came with the prerequisite of some planning and involved some bickering. Okay, a lot of bickering, and also very many ‘I’m sorry I was mean’ brownies. All in all, nightly dinner took more work than the plants did in a month. They were content in their little heaps of soil with just a little sun and water. We looked at that ledge over the sink and marveled at how the herbs grew, seemingly with little help from us. Sometimes, if we were feeling apocalyptic, we considered the mess they would make if the earth decided to shake things up as it so often does in these parts. That thought did give us pause, but we got past that. What is the nebulous possibility of pottery and soil in your garbage disposal compared to the promise of chillies on your window-sill right now? Plus in the event of the apocalypse, the mess of a potted plant would not qualify as a mess at all.

When I hear people say they wish they could grow something but just don’t have the room, it always makes me want to spring up and shout “You can. You can!”. I wish I could tell them about our pots-on-a-ledge. Truth is, there are several plants out there that will require very little in terms of upkeep and yet will reward you prodigiously for your scant attention. I relish the idea of being able to grow at least some of what we eat, or employ to brighten up our home. We will probably never be able to grow enough to support our little family completely, but that was never the goal. The idea was to plant what we could, observe how it evolved, and welcome the harvest, be it ever so humble.

Growing your own is when you understand that the magic of picking a vine-ripened strawberry and popping it into your mouth is not just about its piquant flavour, it is also in the ruby red visual and the memory of its delicate white flowers. Waiting for the strawberry to ripen just right is something that takes a couple of tries but you soon learn the distinction between a good strawberry and a great one. When you grow it, these tiny decisions you can make for yourself, instead of letting market policies or storage freezers decide for you. Growing them is when you comprehend that not only are perennial herbs like thyme and rosemary always around, they are ridiculously easy to grow and for what you have been paying for them for years, you could have bought out nursery stocks. For our part, our garden has made it possible for us not needing to buy herbs for the last three years. All except cilantro, not because it is difficult, but because we use far more of it than we could grow.

The photos in this post are those of the plants in our backyard and were taken around the second week of March. Spring had just about arrived and was unlacing her boots to settle in but already the yard was quietly humming. Walking into the yard every day in spring is a wonderful experience. The plants that survived the cold grey gloom are no longer dormant. Plants you thought were beyond hope suddenly prove that there was sleeping life in those woody stems, now ready to burst out.

In our four years of container gardening, we’ve learned a smattering of things. Such as, for example, some plants will require you to leave them strictly alone once you’re done planting them, while others will blossom only with the keenest of care. That the tiniest sapling is much stronger than it appears and that no matter what you’ve heard, some strains of rose plants can be tougher to kill than weeds. That no matter how much we wish for it, our yard just isn’t the right place for tomatoes. That my father-in-law may have been a high powered executive in his working years but has acquired as deep an understanding of plants as if he was a professional gardener, purely because loved plants and tended several on a concrete roof in a big city most of his life. It is because of this you learn you shouldn’t giggle when he quite seriously tells you to play your plants some music because they like it. They do. (My herbs prefer Green Day and Soundgarden and the roses love Beethoven. Seriously.) That a black thumb is only a green thumb going through winter. It could come alive at any time, with a little encouragement.
With the hope that many of you will be moved to plant something this spring, here are some of our experiences which we share in the small hope that it may be of use. Some of this we learned from those wiser than us. Others we learned the harder way, through watching it unfold.

1) How a plant grows completely depends on where you are and what its needs are for light, heat and water. This sounds simple enough, but it is often a difficult one to navigate. Less than five miles from where are, we have friends with thriving tomato plants. Our favourite plant supplier gave us an easy tomato plant, ideal for cooler climates. Having tried for three years with that and other varietals, we had to conclude that even in its brightest, sunniest corner, all a tomato plant would do in our yard is grow vigorously and cough up some flowers. There would never be a tomato there. Living closer to the cold and foggy Pacific than our friends will do that. So no matter what is supposed to grow where you live, light, shade, wind, or other conditions may not let it. Sometimes you just need to go the distance to figure this out. The experience with the tomato saved us considerable disappointment from chillies. I was all set to host every variety of chilli known to man.

2) Start small, with a few easy plants. If you have no prior experience with plants, do not go overboard and get ambitious even if you have a ton of space. This is how most people come to believe they can’t grow anything, because volume is overwhelming and it increases your chances of failure. This is an important thing to consider before you start.
3) Small starter plants are a safer bet than seeds. They do cost a bit more, but they are more reliable because the toughest part of growing a plant has already been done for you. If you are a novice gardener, opt for these. Most cost between two and five dollars, which is a small investment for a few herbs. Seeds can either grow easily or just not germinate at all. Also, the time it takes for some of them to peek out of the soil has driven some of my friends to drink. Water, that is, for themselves and their seeds, which can sometimes make matters only worse.

4) Herbs are always a great place to start your own garden. Thyme, rosemary and marjoram are fabulous. So is mint. Watch out for cilantro, dill and parsley. While they are quite easy to grow, they bolt given half a chance. Bolting is when a plant reaches a certain temperature or a certain level of stress and starts flowering to produce seed to propagate. At this stage, they stop producing the leaves, which you want and throw all their energy into going to seed. In the case of plants like sweet basil, this can also affect the flavour of the leaves. So these are slightly trickier things to grow. By all means, do grow them, but know that they will need some watching. Also, herbs like oregano and mint will take over your garden quite rapidly, so unless your intention is to never grow anything else in your own or your neighbours’ yards, never put these in the ground and keep them contained.

5) A longtime local gardener is your best friend. If this is your neighbour, you’re totally in luck. I am not so fortunate, so I have acquainted myself with the local growers over the years. We talk to the farmers and sellers at the farmers’ market or turn to the botanical gardens in Golden Gate Park. They always give us great valuable advice there. If you have a botanical garden or conservatory near you, it is a great place to wander by. They have free lessons that can teach you everything you need to know about gardening. They also offer great local plants at superb rates.

6) Distrust the plant seller/grower who cannot tell you about the plant you are looking to buy from them. Once, I asked a geranium grower (and those were the only plants she sold) if the varieties I was holding from her selection had culinary use, like rose geranium did. She told me she couldn’t tell me because “we live in a litigious society”. It was the oddest reaction I had ever received to a simple question. I could have found out the answer with a little bit of online reading, but that’s not how it is supposed to work. I have worked with plant sellers who are not only able to answer such a question for me, they go the extra mile and tell me what recipes are stellar with the crop. When someone is selling you something, they had better know a little something about it and be prepared to share that information.
7) There will be some trial and error involved. This one is somewhat related to point number one on this list. No matter how good your plant seller / store gardener is, unless he has seen where you will be planting, he can only tell you his estimate of how a plant will work in your yard. This is especially true if you live, as we do, in an area with tons of micro-climates. You may learn that a certain plant is a lot more attention hungry than you’d like. We discovered this about roses, which take a fair amount of commitment, especially if you lack sunshine and heat. But sometimes there can be surprises. I was cautioned that celery is notorious to grow, but for the last two years we have had a celery plant that has required little attention and does best when watered and left alone. Plants that were supposed to be annuals became perennials depending on severity of the winter. You just have to wait and see.

8) Grow the things that you would enjoy eating I like the idea of growing turnips but I know it won’t work. It takes all my willpower to consume the ones we get in our CSA box. So this would be a bad idea for me, a stubborn adult. Children, however, might be more easily persuaded to try a vegetable they had a hand in growing. My sister has managed to get my nephew to try and like most vegetables she had in her garden by insisting he help her tend to them. Harvesting them made him eager to try them. That said…

9) Grow something. Anything. There are infinite arguments to be made in favour of this. You only need pick any one.

Now, since you’re ready to get started, I’m sharing with you a round up of the culinary plants in our garden and briefly how our experience has been with them.

- Rosemary – super easy, doesn’t require too much water or fertilization. Ours has been on rampage for a couple of years and shows no signs of slowing down.

- Thyme – rosemary’s cooler growing companion. It gets a bit scraggy in the winter but still is a good provider through that season. A no-muss-no-fuss plant with the prettiest spring flowers. We have a bunch of varieties.

- Sage – A healthy plant will do well here through the seasons, but this plant can be afflicted by some unusual things. An older plant of mine gave us quite a turn when we looked at it one morning and it looked like someone had thrown soapy lather all over it. This was the doing of something called a spittlebug. Look it up. Nasty little critter.

- Mint - As bossy as this plant is, taking over everything around it, it will do quite well in a pot. I use excess harvests (and there will be periods of those) as air freshners. Just cut them and stick them in water in a room and the sweet minty fragrance will fill the air. Cut mint will root in water and will continue to grow. Apple mint, orange mint, chocolate mint, there are lots of lovely varieties. We also found a lovely variety called California or Yerba Buena mint which is native to the Bay area. It used to grow everywhere around here. When early exploring botanists chanced upon it, the plant was christened Yerba Buena or ‘good herb’ as when they walked on it, it released the loveliest fragrance. San Francisco was previously named Yerba Buena after this herb.

- Basil - A definite annual in our yard. We have to watch that it doesn’t bolt when the temperature rises around may. It’s around for a very short time. We try to make the most of it then. I found a lovely variety called African Blue Basil that is a perennial in this area and reminds me tremendously of a tulsi plant (which is a variety of basil), only it is much more scrappy. It has the prettiest long violet flowers and dark green, purple tinged leaves. In a pinch, its leaves will make a hearty pesto as the flavour of the leaves is unaffected by the blooms. Not as nuanced or sweet as Italian basil, but a certain treat in the middle of November.

- Parsley and CilantroIn my yard, parsley is a perennial. Go figure. I cook it into everything in late spring. Cilantro on the other hand comes and goes before I can blink. We use too much of it so this is one herb I found we needed to buy even as we were growing it. I like to cook with curly-leaf parsley so this year I have put some of that in as well. We’ll see how it fares.

- Dill – Flourishes for a brief season. If you grow enough, you can chop it into a palak paneer for a wonderfully different herby dish. I bake with it, cook with it, munch on it in the yard. Love the stuff.
- Oregano and Marjoram - I’m in love with marjoram. I love the slightly less aggressive oregano-type flavour it brings to things, but mostly I love how pretty this plant is. Fresh oregano is a fantastic treat in your favourite pasta or chopped fresh over pizza.

- Chervil, tarragon, chives, garlic chives – Short lived herbs that I wouldn’t suggest you start out with but are certainly worth considering if you like the flavour. Fresh tarragon and chervil are a treat and chives have the prettiest tasty flowers you can ever find, fresh with hints of onion or garlic.

- Bay Leaf – A really slow growing plant but it is just not affected by winter. The leaves stay just as green through the winter here which does not affect it at all. I love the flavour of the fresh leaf in dishes.

- Kadipatta - A friend of mine got me one all the way from Malaysia as a gift before I realized they were available here. Sadly, that little plant didn’t survive the winter. I bought another one to replace it last year which, I was certain, would meet the same fate in the winter, but to my surprise, it has teetered but held on. Now it is in the process of sprouting new leaves. Given how much of this we use in our cooking I’m quite happy it’s doing well.

- Celery – Let me state for the record that this is the vegetable I am happiest to be growing. I was tired of buying those big bunches when I needed only a little bit for a dish. We never remembered to snack on them to finish the lot and it inevitably got spoiled. This way I always have just as much as I need. Added super bonus, celery leaves for celery salt!

- Spring onions – These were to be one of our trial plantings. We didn’t have hopes for their future in a small pot. But year after year. They have surprised us by continuing to grow. I haven’t pulled out a whole onion to use yet. Instead I keep chopping as much of the green stalks as I need. They just keep growing back out. They also have the coolest dandelion-esque flowers.

- Arugula – This slender-leafed plant grows easily and profusely. You can add these leaves to salads, soups, practically anything you fancy could benefit from a green peppery bite.

- Dwarf Lime - These thrive in the Bay area yet once again, we are the odd people out in whose yard something does not grow. My local gardener has asked me that the second year may be a charm since the plant is healthy. Let’s see what happens this year.

- Strawberry – Another super easy plant to grow. Ours refuses to die and keeps coming back each year. We’ve had dozens of berries out of a plant in a rectangular small pot. Imagine if we had more space, we’d never need to buy any more of these to feed our crazy appetite for them. There is nothing, nothing as pretty and delicious as a ripe strawberry.

- Leeks, Lingonberry, Meyer Lemon – These we’ve added this year. Can’t wait to see how they do. I know nothing of lingonberries besides the fact that they star in my second favourite syrup at Ikea (first is elderberry syrup in case you’re wondering), so I’m excited to see what they are like. Citrus-wise,  we’re hoping to have more luck with the Meyer lemon as it is a local citrus.A couple of years back, when the number of plants started to grow, I began to keep a planting journal for each year. I created my own based off examples on the internet and with the little bit of information that is relelvant to me. I’m adding it here if you’d like to see it. This is a very basic example of what a garden journal can be. It also has a complete list of all the plants in my garden.

Cheeky Chilli Garden Journal | 2013

So tell me, will you grow a couple of plants this year or are you lucky enough to have a planted garden? What do you dream of growing in your backyard?

6 comments

  1. Valerie via FB

    Love it!! Always wanted to grow my own herbs..I’ll be coming back to this post when it’s time :)

  2. Shvetha

    What a beautiful post! I’m jealous, but also very inspired! I live in Singapore, with the top of the shoe cabinet is my allowance for garden experimentation. I’ve grown spring onions, arbi (I made patrode with the leaves), potatoes (which grew, but yielded peanut-sized spuds!), and lemongrass. I’ve tried numerous times to grow coriander, mint, and basil (which usually died after being with us for a month); there’s a tiny coriander sapling growing as I write, ’cause I ain’t gonna give up on it! I’m never going to look at the lack of a green thumb the same way again, although I can’t claim winter as the excuse!

    Love your blog, and will definitely be a regular reader. Cheers!

    • Sharmila

      Hello Shvetha, thanks so much for stopping by and leaving this perfectly wonderful comment.
      Truth is, I’m envious of your Singapore heat and humidity. What a great environment for a whole host of plants. On the other hand, I’m fairly certain it is the reason your basil and cilantro don’t last too long. The conditions must be perfect for them to bolt. The season for them isn’t too long here either but I still grow them too.
      Props to you for growing potatoes in what space you have. And arbi, i have to find a way to try growing that. Have you tried tomatoes (my nemesis)? I think they would work for you quite well. I’d go with cherry tomatoes since you have a tight space. Chillies as well.
      I’d love to see photos of your shoe box top, if you have any. With your limited space yet unbounded enthusiasm, it is you who inspires me.

  3. Archana

    I’ve tried growing things every spring/summer here in the northeast but everything goes belly up (to borrow from the many goldfish that did) and I stopped trying. But then, after I grew a little baby, I turned a corner and realized I need to tend to those little saplings. I read this post when it came out (commenting only now) but it was definitely the inspiration for me to try my hand at my herb garden again this season. I have 4 different pots of cilantro, mint, sage, thyme, rosemary and peppers that are still alive. Of course, I don’t know what I’ll do with all those herbs, but it’s a problem I’m happy to tackle :)

    • Sharmila

      Hey Archana, it’s tough to tend to other things when you have a little person clamouring for all your attention (and rightly so). I’m so glad to hear though, that this post inspired you to try again. The mint, rosemary and thyme should be fairly easy, not requiring much more than regular watering. The peppers and cilantro may need a tad more attention.
      I envy you the peppers. As I’ve mentioned in this post, we just can’t grow any here.
      As for using them up, sometimes when I couldn’t be bothered with recipes but still have herbs I need to use, I snip them up and throw them in everyday dishes where they absolutely do not belong, like thyme in batata poha, for instance. Tastes great, though not quite like the poha of my childhood, and the herbs didn’t go to waste. This works well in most dishes :)