Herbs at your
By Zahrah Nasir
A wide range of culinary herbs can be grown in small areas in
pots and containers at home , writes Zahrah Nasir.
use of culinary herbs has really increased in Pakistan over
the last few years and continues to do so on an ever-growing
Many city dwellers, having easy access to a burgeoning number
of restaurants serving delicacies from around the world, have
had their taste buds tantalized by exposure to foods,
particularly those originating in the Mediterranean region,
which contain a wide range of aromatic herbs.
It is widely believed that all of these herbs were previously
unknown in this part of the world, though mountain dwellers in
Balochistan and vast areas of the NWFP know otherwise.
Take thyme for example, there are at least four indigenous
varieties which have been crossed with each other to create an
unknown number of sub-varieties. Then sage, with at least two
edible varieties found in the hills and mountains and oregano
of which at least seven species have been recorded.
These herbs are not only known here but have long been used,
mainly for medicinal purposes, and also are included in cooked
vegetable dishes and in raita. This usage may be rather
unexciting to those with an educated palate but, at least they
are known and used, and are a source of vitamins and minerals
to the meagre dietary range of people living in isolated areas
of the country.
Collecting herbs from the wild is not a procedure that I wish
to encourage here as indiscriminate harvesting of these
precious plants has a detrimental effect on already fragile
habitats, local people using a limited amount for the house is
one thing, commercial exploitation quite another.
However, readers will be happy to learn that, no matter where
you live, be it Karachi, Lahore or Rawalpindi - it is quite a
simple matter to grow a wide range of culinary herbs at home
and, as most of them are quite happy in plant pots or other
containers, you don't even need to have a garden at your
In fact, to be honest, you may be more successful creating a
herb garden in pots rather than in the ground, particularly in
'hot spots' where shade and water requirements can be
monitored more easily. Herb seeds are, finally and thankfully,
becoming more available in garden supply shops than previously
and hopefully the range of seeds will continue to increase
along with demand.
A word of warning here. Few of the herbs I am now going to
tell you about will tolerate direct summer sunshine and even
less will stand a salt-laden breeze. It is, therefore,
advisable to place your pots of herbs in a shady spot out of
any breeze, whatsoever. Please note though, I am not saying
that you can't grow herbs in a location such as Seaview in
Karachi - as I have done so myself with varied success, it is
a matter of giving it a try and finding what varieties grow
best with you.
Oregano and marjoram, both belong to the same family, are
probably highest on the list of herbs currently in demand as
they are used a lot in both Greek and Italian cooking. In
fact, a pizza is just not the same without a generous
sprinkling of fresh or dried oregano on the top.
Soil for these, and for the other herbs I am going to mention,
should be rich in natural humus, preferably from a compost
heap if you have access to such a thing and low in sand. Pots,
or whatever other container comes easily to hand, should have
drainage holes in the base and an additional few pieces of
broken pot or other material placed inside the pot/container
to help ensure that roots do not become waterlogged. Having
said this though, I must say that in Karachi, I found it
necessary to stand the pot in a bowl which almost always had a
little bit of water in it so that plants could drink it up as
Some herb seeds, oregano, marjoram, thyme and mint for
instance, are absolutely minute and you may find it easier to
sow them at a little distance if you mix them with a bit of
sand first or put them in a clean, dry, pepper-shaker and sow
As a general rule, the smaller the seed, the closer to the
surface of the soil it should be sown. Tiny seeds, if planted
too deep, rarely have the strength to find their way to the
surface on germinating and you are liable to have complete
failure if this happens. The easiest way is to scatter them on
the surface of your prepared pots, scatter a light covering of
fine soil over them, using a kitchen sieve to ensure the
fineness of the soil. Then lightly water the seeds into the
soil and keep it damp but not soaking wet.
At germination stage, or attempted germination stage, it is
not necessary to keep water in the bowl in which the pot is
standing - this is for growing or grown up plants. Arugula a
very popular and, for some reason, rather expensive salad
herb, it is yet another indigenous plant which grows wild in
huge areas of Balochistan, Sindh, NWFP and across Kashmir. It
is even cultivated in some places both as human and animal
For the purists amongst you, its botanical name is feruca
satvial and it is incredibly easy to grow. The seeds, which
resemble mustard seeds, are easy to plant with a little care.
Ideally three to four inches apart is enough and they should
be slightly pressed into the soil. Leaves are harvested by
cutting off with a sharp pair of scissors, when needed, and a
few plants should keep your supply up to the mark. Arugula is
an annual plant so it is best to leave two or three to flower
and provide seeds for future crops. In Karachi and other hot
places it can be grown all the year round from sowings at
Other herbs that are happy in pots include annual varieties of
oregano, chevrili, basili dill, coriander, majoram, parsley,
summer savory, purslane, arugula and lemon balm borage.
Perennial varieties include: green mint, peppermint and other
mints, gage, rosemary, lavender, catmint, camomile, chives,
garlic chives, aniseed, hyssop, lemon grass, myrrh, Greek
oregano; sorrel; Russian tarragon and perennial marjoram.
There are, of course, lots and lots of other herbs that you
can grow but the above ones should provide you with a good
backbone for your herb garden.
A quick word about borage here, it grows incredibly well in
Karachi, and self seeds all over the place but does need
abundant water once it is past the seedling stage. At times
you may go out to harvest a few leaves or flowers for salad
and find that your borage plants have completely flopped - but
don't despair give a good long drink and they jump back to
life at an amazing rate.