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Herbs at your doorstep  
By Zahrah Nasir

A wide range of culinary herbs can be grown in small areas in pots and containers at home , writes Zahrah Nasir.

Herbs at your doorstep The use of culinary herbs has really increased in Pakistan over the last few years and continues to do so on an ever-growing basis.

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 disposal.

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 necessary.

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 them there.

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 food.

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 monthly intervals.

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. 

Courtesy:The DAWN;

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