Growing herbs in the tropics

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GETSY TIGLAO

GETSY TIGLAO

IF you love cooking Mediterranean dishes, it would be ideal for you to create an herb garden. Just a sprig, or a torn leaf or two, of these herbal flourishes are enough to elevate any Italian pasta, French stew, or Greek meze into new culinary heights.

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Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, as the song goes, are just few of the Mediterranean herbs that you can grow here in tropical Philippines. These herbs need lots of sunlight and good soil, and the only adjustment to be made is in the amount of water they get to absorb.

 an easy to make caprese salad

an easy to make caprese salad

If you have extra land you can even create a potager, a vegetable or kitchen garden. The French and Italians have been designing such beautiful and utilitarian gardens since the Renaissance period, usually employing symmetrical or geometric shapes to map out the plots.

The idea is to combine ornamental plants (usually, edible flowers like rose and nasturtium) with vegetables and herbs to create pockets of utilitarian beauty. The jardin potager should be located near the kitchen so that the cook can just amble out and pick the fresh produce that is needed for the day’s dishes.

But even if you don’t have that extra space, you can easily grow herbs in pots and other containers. Pick the sunniest part of your house, and make sure that the pots have good drainage holes. The advantage of growing in pots is that you can easily move them if you change your mind about their location, and of course, you definitely have to find them a sheltered place when the heavy rains come.

 Parsley and oregano growing together

Parsley and oregano growing together

Aside from full sunlight, Mediterranean herbs require rich, dark, and friable soil. Feel it with your hands, it should crumble through. If it’s hard or clayey, you will need to prepare the soil before planting by tilling and mixing in a lot of organic compost. Soil filled with natural fertility is the key to having strong and healthy plants.

The easiest to grow from seed based on my experience are parsley, basil, mint, coriander, and sage. At the gardening aisle of the top hardware stores, you can buy the seeds as well as some plasticized planting trays. Fill up the tray with a seedling or growing mix rather than untreated soil from your backyard. This will give your seeds a head start by providing them with “clean” and nutrient-filled growing material.

After about a few weeks, you will begin to see some sprouts. Let them grow out a bit, until you see what are called the “true leaves.” Once they are about two inches tall you can transfer them to their permanent place, in a pot or outside in your garden.

An easier and faster way of creating an herb garden is to buy grown plantings from garden centers, especially from growers in Silang and Tagaytay. Just transfer them gently from their containers, making sure not to mess with the roots.

Most herbs are annuals and you do have to plant them again after they start to flower and mature. When it starts heating up, the herbs will bolt quickly. I just snip off the flowers if I want them to last longer, or harvest often so they would grow new leaves.

Rosemary and lavender are the most challenging to care for in a tropical setting.

While the other herbs can tolerate good watering as long as the drainage is good, these two herbs just want enough water to get by. They are also heavy feeders of plant nutrients so I just make sure to plant them in their own pots for specialized care.

Mint is also a challenge in that it is an invasive plant. It just grows so fast and its snaky roots will overwhelm the rest of your plants. This one is best for pots. If you must have it as part of an herb garden, you must first place it in a pot and plant the entire container so that its roots are contained.

Thyme, oregano, and tarragon are also quite hardy and can be sown outside together with the ornamentals. Tarragon, in particular, is perfect for the jardin potager since it produces lovely yellow flowers. Its leaves will make for a nice tea, too, with just the right hint of anise and licorice.

A few leaves of parsley, basil, or mint will add zing to any fresh salad. Here’s a very simple recipe for a Caprese salad that requires only three main ingredients. Enjoy this as a light lunch or supper along with glass of white wine.

Ingredients:
2 large salad tomatoes
A handful of basil leaves, ideally freshly picked from your own garden
1 pack large size Buffallo mozzarella (I use the Galbani brand)
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and pepper, to taste

Method:
Slice the tomatoes into thick rounds, and do the same for the mozzarella. Lay them out one after the other on a plate, starting with a slice of tomato, followed by a mozzarella, a basil leaf or two, and repeating until you run out of ingredients. Sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and serve at once.

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