In winter, there’s nothing more pleasing than a sunny windowsill full of herbs. North facing windows are particularly good suntraps, especially if you have a broad windowsill that can hold pots or a window box.
Quick-sprouting herbs like chives, garden cress, mustard and rocket will provide tasty and nutritious leaves throughout winter to add to sandwiches, salads and stir-fries.
Find the right position.
Herb seeds need a temperature of about 22°C to 24°C to germinate. The ideal spot is one that gets sun for about five or six hours a day, preferably from the morning onwards so that the soil heats up.
If your windowsill gets even more sun just make sure that the soil does not dry out because seeds need to be in consistently damp soil, but not soggy, to germinate.
A shelf, table or any other flat surface in front of a sunny window will do if the windowsill is too narrow for pots.
Depending on the space, use small 10cm pots or seed trays.
Fill the pots or trays with a good commercial potting soil, the finer the better. If your potting soil is a bit coarse, you can sieve it. Water the pots and let them drain so that the soil is damp.
Drainage indoors is always an issue. Put drainage trays, saucers or even small tinfoil containers under the pots to catch the water, but they must be emptied once the water has drained through otherwise the soil stays too wet and cold and the roots will rot.
Alternatively, stand the pots on folded paper towel or ordinary towels to absorb the water.
Sow the seeds quite thickly if you want to harvest them as baby leaves. Sow more seeds every two or three weeks for a consistent supply. Check on the seed packets for sowing depth.
Most herbs take between seven to 14 days to germinate and during that time the soil should be kept moist.
Two weeks after germinating water them with a liquid fertiliser, like Margaret Roberts Supercharger at half the strength. Feed them again after a month.
Don’t over water. Once a week should be enough. Keep the soil feeling slightly damp, but not sodden or bone dry.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) is a grassy, clump forming perennial herb with deep-green onion flavoured leaves (but not as strong) that quickly re-grows after being cut back to ground level.
Snip the leaves into sour cream, added to egg dishes, or as a garnish for fish, chicken, meat and vegetables.
Garden cress (Lepidium sativum) has a peppery, tangy flavour and aroma. It’s a natural and healthy way of supplying the family with vitamins A. B, C, K, and Manganese.
As a mid-winter crop, it can be sprouted on water-soaked paper towels and grown on in containers, hanging baskets or troughs in a sunny, sheltered area.
It is ready for harvesting within 14 days, when the leaves are 5cm long. Sow successive crops every two weeks.
If used as a microgreen garnish, cut off the tops with sharp scissors and sprinkle over salads, vegetables, egg dishes, fish and chicken, as well as pizzas and pastas.
Mustard greens have bright green ruffled leaves that are peppery, and slightly bitter when eaten raw, but mellow with cooking. The tangy young leaves and flowers are used in salads, while the older leaves can be stir-fried or cooked like cabbage.
It is a quick crop that will have the first leaves ready for picking within three weeks Pick the outer leaves, like spinach or as a cut and come again vegetable .
Rocket is probably the easiest herb to grow from seed and its peppery leaves offer just the right kind of tang for salads, as a topping for pizza, on open sandwiches and tossed through pasta.
Like basil, it makes a rather tasty pesto for flavouring pasta, soups and baked or roasted vegetables. Older, spicier leaves can be added to stir fries, egg dishes, soups and stews. Kirchhoffs has two types of rocket available in seed packets: wild rocket (Diplotaxis tenuifolia) and garden rocket (Eruca sativa).
- Wild rocket has narrow, deeply lobed aromatic leaves and a stronger flavour than normal rocket. It is favoured by chefs as a micro green or baby leaf.
- Garden rocket can grow up to 60cm, with larger, softer green leaves and like wild rocket it can be sown thickly and treated as a cut and come again salad leaf.
Rocket leaves are best used as soon as possible after picking but they can be kept in the refrigerator for a day or two if the leaves are rinsed in cool water, dried on paper towels and stored in a zip lock bag.
TEXT: Alice Coetzee