This month is Eco Month with IKEA!
As we consider the topic of sustainable living, I thought this would be a great time for me to share a bit about our urban farming efforts.
If you’ve been following this blog, you might know a little about our efforts to grow our own vegetables. Like most Singaporeans, I live in an apartment with no garden to call my own. We do however have a small balcony, and about two years ago, I unexpectedly found myself in possession of some cherry tomato plants. That was the start of my gardening adventures. Together with my trusty helper, we managed, after some effort, to get our cherry tomatoes fruiting.
Cherry Tomatoes — on the vine and after harvesting!
It was certainly very satisfying getting our own crop! To read more about our tomato-growing experience, click here to check out the confessions of an unlikely tomato farmer.
Our tomato plants continued fruiting for a few months before the plants died. Thereafter we dug them out and continued experimenting with growing different vegetables. Our next most successful harvest came with our red pepper plants, though our little fruits were tiny and nowhere near the size of the original peppers from which we took the seeds!
After the peppers and a failed attempt at growing chilli, I decided to reassess my options early this year. I knew what I wanted:
- Sustainable, low-maintenance plants
- Plants that would look good (and therefore serve a semi-decorative function) and not overrun my balcony
- Useful plants — ie. preferably something we could consume
- Plants that would thrive without full sunlight for most of the day since my balcony is north facing and only receives partial sun
I decided to grow a Herb Garden.
My rosemary, mint and oregano sitting pretty in my SKURAR flower box from IKEA!
Fresh and dry herbs frequently feature in my cooking. I buy packets of herbs from the supermarket each time and they cost a pretty penny! It also often feel like a waste when I just use a small amount, and maybe it’s bad planning on my part but the rest then rots in the fridge unless I quickly use them up. I figure it makes more sense to grow my own herbs then cut whatever I need when I need it.
I must confess this is not the first time I’ve tried to grow herbs. I’ve tried growing basil a couple of times before but on both occasions, my plants died a slow sorry death. So I was wary of starting this project. However, I’ve since picked up some tips from more experienced gardeners and with the help of my more experienced helper, I am pleased to report that my plants are thriving — thus far at least!
Right now I’m growing pots of Rosemary, Oregano, Mint, Parsley and yes, Basil again.
I’m still learning as I go along but here are some tips, culled from my own experience as well as advice shared by others for growing your own herbs in apartments, especially here in the tropics:
1. Seeds or Seedlings? The first question you’ll ask yourself when you decide to start growing herbs is whether you should start your herbs from seeds or buy seedlings to start. I would say that if you’re newbie at this, getting seedlings is a better bet. Someone else has already done the hard work, all you have to do is re-pot if necessary and maintain it! What sealed the deal for me was the fact that the seeds were nearly the same price as the grown plants.
2. Where can you buy herbs from? A variety of herbs are available at nurseries and also at supermarkets. I bought my rosemary and mint from Spa Flora along Thomson Road, and my oregano, parsley and basil from Cold Storage. I’ve recently discovered you can also buy mint plants from IKEA and they only cost $6.90 for a good-sized pot!
3. Which herbs to grow? When choosing herbs, I was guided primarily by what I require for my meals. I think it’s important to get herbs that you will use! I then did some research to check if my choice of herbs would tolerate our climate. Apart from that, I also factored in the sunlight situation on my balcony. Of the herbs in my little collection, rosemary, basil and oregano need the most sunlight. In fact, my oregano plant became lopsided very quickly, growing aggressively in the direction of the sunlight! I try to increase the amount of sunlight they receive by placing these plants in the brighter corner of my balcony and by elevating them in the SKURAR flower box that I got from IKEA. I love these flower boxes. Not only do they look pretty, they are space-saving as well! I picked mint and parsley for the remainder of my collection because they are known to grow well in partial sunlight.
4. How much water do they need? Different plants have different needs. I found my rosemary and oregano are the most low maintenance in this regard. They only need to be watered when the soil is dry to touch and therefore do not need watering too frequently, just once a day or once every two days. Do ensure that they are planted in pots with good drainage. My mint and basil on the other hand need to be watered at least twice a day or they would start to wilt! Fortunately when you water them, they perk back up again.
5. Prune and harvest your herbs regularly. The biggest mistake I made with my basil the first time round was to neglect pruning it regularly. I just left it to grow and it grew taller and taller and more straggly and eventually had fewer and fewer leaves. I learnt that I needed to cut back the plant regularly to encourage it to grow. With basil and mint, trim the plant down from the top. It might feel counterproductive to cut off the young, newly growing leaves on top but cutting back encourages the plant to branch out. I was taught to look for tiny leaves growing from the stem and cut just above them. When choosing leaves to harvest, also pick from the top. With rosemary, trim the plant back by removing the top 5-6cm of each sprig. With parsley, cut from outside in.
See the itty bitty little leaves growing at the sides of the stem?
It is very satisfying seeing my plants thrive. Though of course, the best part for me is enjoying them! I’ve been positively gleeful using my oregano in my Chicken Milanese, my basil in my Baked Pasta, and just today, my own parsley in my Beef Goulash. Now that I have mint readily at hand, I’ve also have the perfect solution to our current searing weather: Iced Honey Lemon Mint Tea!
First can I just say — freshly harvested mint smells amazing! This really isn’t so much of a tea as an infusion. No caffeine here, I promise! Just mint leaves steeped in hot water with 2-3 tablespoons of honey and some slices of lemon. Top up with lots of ice and it’s done! This was really delicious and a great way to beat the heat. Even the kids liked it! (Click here for the full recipe.)
I’ve never had particularly green fingers and being an apartment dweller for more than half my life, I never expected to be able to grow my own herbs and vegetables and eat them! But I guess if you don’t try, you’ll never know. As I said before, I’m certainly still learning as I go along! For now, I’m just glad to do grow the herbs that I need, do my small part to reduce waste, and hopefully contribute to a greener environment.
Let’s drink to that!
*This post is the fourth in a series of posts sponsored by IKEA. All ideas and opinions are my own.