Why it pays to grow herbs at home – even in winter
Herbs are easy to grow; all you need is a windowsill. And, unlike in supermarkets, you get to choose from 40 types: the tiny leaves of Ocimumbasilicum ‘Pluto’ pack a mighty punch; O. basilicum ‘Mrs Burns’ is by far the best lemon; and O. basilicum ‘Dark Opal’ is the best purple, with spicy, warm flavours.
Basil is my favourite indoor herb, but parsley and coriander can be treated in the same way. A packet of seed will cost around the same as a shop-bought plant and, sown judiciously, will last a year. You will have to buy compost and find a pot, but even with these costs you will save money over the year. I make no bones about being in love with the peat-free SylvaGrow compost. It also comes in manageable15-litre bags.
Your recycling bin will have any number of suitable growing containers in it, from takeaway trays to yoghurt pots: all you need to do is punch in some drainage holes. However, a windowsill propagator kit is well worth investing in.
At this time of year, annual herbs need to be grown as microgreens (baby leaves harvested when they are a few centimetres high), since the light levels are dipping drastically, so growth will be very slow. Using just a few inches of growth from seedlings may seem wasteful, but the flavour is impressive and growth is fast at this stage.
Sow the seeds liberally across the surface of your pot (you want them roughly 1cm apart), water in well and cover with the propagator lid or a clear plastic bag. Within a week, you will have the first signs of growth. I never cover basil seed with compost, but coriander and parsley will need a thin sprinkling. Once they are 1cm tall, start aerating the plants by removing the propagator lid and brushing the leaves gently with your hands to force them to grow stronger. Cut the leaves when they are 5cm or so high. You will get only a single cut, but it’s easy enough to sow successionally, so there’s always another pot ready.
You can reuse the compost – just add a new layer of fresh compost and resow. You will be able do this at least three times – that is, unless you get mould or compost gnats (if the soil is too damp), in which case ditch the batch and start again.
Basil hates to go to bed with wet feet, so always water it in the morning. Coriander often grows leggy in very poor light levels. Parsley is notoriously slow to wake up, so be patient with germination.