Category Archives: Indoor herbs

But I don’t have a garden!

Many city people tell me that they would love to grow herbs but they don’t have any space. I say that there is space in everyone’s home – even traveling homes – for living herbs. I also think that learning how to care for a plant is a skill that helps people to care for themselves, that can’t be a bad thing. I can’t recall where I heard or read it but “If you can keep a plant alive, you can keep your self alive” rings true to me. I think it was someone who’d been rather ill. Anyway, back to growing herbs in small spaces…

So where to squeeze in those precious plants? Here are some ideas, in no particular order:

1. House plants
I used to have a flat full of house plants and then we got a cat and I worried about him munching on poisonous plants so most of them disappeared. I mostly focus on plants outside my house but a home is much more pleasant when shared with plants so I always manage spider plants (great for the cat), Aloe vera and a pot of Basil or Parsley on a windowsill. All are so easy to grow and Aloe Vera is a herb which I think no home should be without. If you really really can’t get a plant into your minute studio apartment (which I can’t really believe!) how about placing some in the stairwell?

I recently bought a couple of books about growing tropicals and edibles indoors and have been inspired to try and retry a few interesting houseplants. So Ginger, Banana, Tea, Cofee, Orange, Pineapple and Lemongrass are currently germinating or growing in my home and several more exotics are planned. Don’t throw it grow it, by Deborah Peterson and Millicent Selsam is a really great resource book for unusual and edible houseplants. I’m really looking forward to a planned workshop with City Plot sometime soon, by Suzanne Oommen who knows plenty about caring for tropical edibles.

2. Balconies
I’m very lucky to have a big roof terrace which I pack full of herbs but I also grow quite a few herbs on my kitchen balcony; Horseradish, Parsley, Vervaine, Wormwood, Mint…

But mine is not a patch on my friend Elodie’s. Here are a couple of photos from her balcony in West Amsterdam. She and her husband cram as many plants as possible into the space they have and it looks really great. Not all of the plants are edible or herbal but a large number are.

Elodie, perhaps you could comment on this with a list of the plants you manage to grow on your south facing balcony? Her plants grow up the walls, trailing over the fence and there’s just about space to walk through to a cosy snug at the far end. Its very beautiful and quite an urban oasis. She has it fenced up to the ceiling to protect her cats from falling.

3. Outside in a Geveltuin (Pavement garden)
In Amsterdam you can ask the local council for a Geveltuin. If your immediate neighbours approve the plan you could soon be the happy carer of a tiny strip of sandy land, right beneath your apartment. Some districts even go so far as to give you a set of herbs or flowers to plant immediately. No such luck here in Oost Watergraafsmeer but my geveltuin was up and running just a couple of weeks from my initial visit to the Staadsdeelhuis, to find out how to apply. I continue to be very pleased with it. As mentioned before I have it planted with drought tolerant mediterranean herbs and they thrive there.

If a dugout pavement garden is not an option perhaps a small collection of herb pots outside your door would work?

4. Outside in public ground
If you don’t mind sneaking around a little, attracting suspicious looks or possibly loosing all your plants to others, why not plant your herbs in carefully chosen public spaces? This is a great option for those straggly looking supermarket bought herb pots, such as Parsley, which after time don’t look good enough for your kitchen windowledge but could manage a further year or more of growth, given a fresh source of fertile soil. If the plants fail outside at least they will fertilize the soil, rather than being incinerated along with your garbage.

If you like the approach you could get busy with some Nasturtiums, climbing through public hedges or planting herbs in tree pits close to your home or workplace. The options are endless.

5. River of Herbs
If you are feeling public spirited and also want to encourage insect pollinators, why not add to the River of Herbs and plant a little, or large, Urban Herb Meadow and label it as such. More information as this develops but the Meadows are for everyone to benefit from. The herbs planted should be safe and be insect pollinated. If you’re uncertain of how to know that, go for pretty flowering culinary herbs and you won’t go far wrong.

So these are my thoughts on growing herbs when you live on a small place. Would you like to add to them?

5/8/12 Update: Here’s the list of herbs which Eldoie grows on her balcony at the moment: 
Cilentro/ Coriander
En tabaksplant from greece Nixtum Lululum
And lots of Peturnias
And yes we still fit on the matras all 4 of us are going to enjoy our Saturday in the sun !

365 Frankendael day 12

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale, Symphytum uplandicum) is just coming into flower here in Amsterdam. It’s easy to identify now due to it’s broad, furry, fast growing leaves, it’s dropping purple or white flowers and it’s standout appearance as it towers over many neighbouring wild plants.

If you keep any plants, outside or in, I urge you to learn how to make the easiest liquid feed from nourishing Comfrey. If you don’t know about it’s deep and rapid healing effects on the body, I urge you to learn about them too and to keep some form of this plant in your herbal first aid kit.

Most of the Comfrey found wild and is gardens, descends from garden escapes of purple flowering, Russian Comfrey (S. uplandicum). It works just as well externally and as plant feed and its leaves don’t contain the toxins found in the roots and all parts of cream flowering, Wild Comfrey (S. officinale). The toxins are harmful when ingested. Because it’s hard to tell the two plants apart when they are not in flower, I suggest you always air on the side of caution and don’t use it internally. Today I photographed a white flowered Comfrey, the colour suggests it is Wild Comfrey but most plants in the park are purple flowering and the two are very interbred, so this may be a white flowering mutation of S. uplandicum. Either way, it is beautiful, useful and I will only use it externally or for my plants.

Comfrey can be applied directly as a poultice (for sprains for instance) made into a heat infused or a cold infused herbal oil which can be used for massage or blended with beeswax to make a healing salve. Worth mentioning, is that sometimes Comfrey may speed healing faster than you’d like, such as when infection is present in a wound. Ensure wounds are clean and healthy looking, not infected, when you begin using this herb. This will help to ensure the wound heals cleanly, a well as quickly. Comfrey also has a reputation as the herb to prevent or remove scars, both internally and externally by please remember my warning about internal use.

To make a superb and cheap liquid plant feed, simply immerse a couple of Comfrey leaves in water, in a bucket or similar. Leave it to ferment for a few weeks. You should see that the water becomes a dark and rich brew. Store this “Comfrey tea”in a suitable container and dilute well before feeding to your plants. A plastic bottle cap full, in a home watering can of water, should suffice. Use regularly, throughout the growing period, for pleasing results.

Here’s a link to an online Permaculture Magazine video article, about why we should all have a Comfrey plant on our patch. Be prepared, the video is ten minutes long and contain lots of info for people with vegetable gardens – If only! I don’t have space for one at home but I know where plenty grow! I hope you’ll have a look around and find some near your home also.

Comfrey is an essential herb to become well acquainted with, your plants will thank you and so will your body, when it needs to heal quickly.

Kombucha – fermented tea drink

Kombucha is something I’m being asked a lot about at the moment.  Here are some of my thoughts and experiences of it and also some links which you may find useful.  Please do let me know what you think of the drink, good or bad.  I’m including it in the Urban Herbology blog because tea (Camelia sinensis) is indeed a herb and Kombucha is another way to process and consume it…

My Kombucha
I make Kombucha in my airing cupboard.  I drink a small amount of Kombucha from a cute Marrocan tea glass most mornings, as I prepare breakfast for my family.  I like my Kombucha on the acidic side and I let some batches ferment so long that a strong vinegar is produced.  I then use the vinegar in cooking or to infuse fresh herbs, in place of apple cider vinegar.  I let my two year old drink a little diluted Kombucha now and then.  I feel it kick starts my system, particularly my digestive system, much as a glass of water with an ample squeeze of lemon juice does.  I don’t drink it close to eating starches as starch digestion occurs optimally in an alkaline environment. I give my Kombucha babies (or mothers or SCOBYs or what ever you like to call them) away periodically so that others can start their own brew. SCOBY stands for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast.

I don’t think that Kombucha is a panacea for all ills, an elixir of life that will prevent all manner of disorders.  I also don’t think one should drink too much of the stuff, an absence of scientific research doesn’t mean there is anything amiss with Kombucha but I don’t feel that a single food stuff should be consumed copiously.  But I do like it and will continue to brew it, to use it and to share the babies as and when there is interest.

So what is Kombucha?
It’s the drink made when a jelly like bacteria/yeast symbiosis ferments sweet tea.
If you like, you can read more about the specific microbes which have been isolated from kombucha cultures via the links below.

How to make Kombucha?
You will need…
1 large glass or plastic container (2 litre Italian, rubber seal pickling jar from Blokker is perfect)
Kombucha mother/baby/scoby/tea mushroom/ tea monster (or a part of one)
Some good quality loose tea*
Some sugar**
Water, filtered preferably
Rubber band (to fit top of jar)
Very clean teatowel or muslin

*Any tea can be used, black, green, oorlong etc but not what we would call “herb teas” (e.g. rooibos, mint or chamomile).  I use green tea flower bombs, provided periodically by freinds who live in China. I’ve never been a regular tea drinker so green tea gives me the least classic tea taste and I like the result.

**I use organic white or “halfwit” sugar.  I have not experimented with other types of sugar because the guidance I have read from many sources states overwhelmingly that brown/ golden/dark etc sugar gives very inconsistant results.  So I keep a bag of white in stock specifically for my Kombucha.

You’ll find different recipes around and there are whole books on the subject but here’s the way I make it…

1. Boil 1 to 1.5 litre filtered water
2. Fill a large tea pot with the water and add 2 (Numi brand style) tea flowers/bombs.
3. Leave to brew until the water is warm enough to dissolve sugar but cool enough to have a good strong tea inside, and be easy to handle.
4. Pour the tea through a strainer into the large glass jar.
5. Stir about 16 tablespoons of sugar into the strained tea.  It needs to dissolve.  If it doesn’t then heat the water a little or add some freshly boiled water.
6. Leave to cool to body temperature.  I close the lid properly for this part.
7. When cooled, so you don’t cook your live culture, slip in your mother/scoby/baby/tea mushroom/monster and the Kombucha vinegar that it arrived with. It doesn’t matter if the SCOBY floats or sinks, so long as it is in the sweet, tepid tea, it will have what it needs to grow.
8. Place a clean tea towel or similar over the top so the ferment can breathe and secure that with a clean rubber band.  Do not close the jar properly as Kombucha is made aerobically, not anaerobically.
9. Take to a clean, dark and moderately warm environment (my boiler room/airing cupboard works a treat) and leave it for 7 days to 3 weeks.
10.  Check your jar periodically for signs of unwelcome mould growth.
11. The longer you leave it to ferment, the more acidic the Kombucha will become.  So taste the liquid now and then, especially when you are getting familiar with the process.  Find out what you like and make a note of the time required to produce that (although things change).
12. When you are ready to harvest the ferment, get a couple of super clean glass jars ready. Reserve your scoby in about a cup of the ferment  – to start your next batch  – and pour the rest into your bottle for refrigeration and use.  I like to store in used tomato passata bottles – they take up less fridge door space.
13.  The reserved liquid and scoby can be refrigerated for quite some time, the more acidic the liquid, the longer it will keep.
14. After the first ferment or two you will probably see a baby scoby being formed beneath the mother.  It will in time peel off.  This is your symbiotic colonie multiplying so much that it is seeking out a new home.  You can store these babies in acidic/vinegar kombucha for yourself, compost them or give them to an interested friend – with 1/2 cup of Kombucha vinegar.

So that’s how I make it.  If you don’t feel good or confident about the taste then don’t drink it or offer it to others.

Now why do people want to drink it?

Claims about Kombucha
Please be aware that most claims about Kombucha are annecdotal. I’m not aware of any good scientific research about it’s effects or any side effects.  It seems that any problems have resulted from contamination at some stage in production.

The following list, summarises many of the claims to be found on the internet.  You will see many are very attractive and some far fetched.  The list is taken directly from a website called
*Probiotics – healthy bacteria
*Alkalize the body – balances internal pH
*Detoxify the liver – happy liver = happy mood
*Increase metabolism – rev your internal engine
*Improve digestion – keep your system moving
*Rebuild connective tissue – helps with arthritis, gout, asthma, rheumatism
*Cancer prevention
*Alleviate constipation
*Boost energy – helps with chronic fatigue
*Reduce blood pressure
*Relieve headaches & migraines
*Reduce kidney stones
*High in antioxidants – destroy free-radicals that cause cancer
*High in polyphenols
*Improve eyesight
*Heal excema – can be applied topically to soften the skin
*Prevent artheriosclerosis
*Speed healing of ulcers – kills h.pylori on contact
*Help clear up candida & yeast infections
*Aid healthy cell regeneration
*Reduce gray hair
*Lower glucose levels – prevents spiking from eating

Getting a Kombucha culture
One of the links below has a worldwide list of Kombucha brewers who are often happy to pass on their excess scobies. My kombucha builds up spare SCOBY very regularly – It is an amazing creature!

Join my Kombucha list 
if you would like one and you live in Amsterdam. I’ll send you an email when I have one spare. I’ll swap SCOBY for a small organic herb plant, organic seeds or a little organic chocolate. Don’t worry, I won’t spam you! I just can’t manage the emails otherwise.

Kombucha Links–  informative  and referenced quotes about Kombucha, by natural health / natural lifestyle authors. – exchange list, some charge a small fee, others not, some will post the scoby to you, some ask you to collect it in person. – I love this website!  The man who runs it (Sandor Ellix Katz), has made learning and teaching about traditional fermentation his life’s work.  He has also published a really wonderful book called Wild Fermentation and has another coming out in the summer (Update: It’s called The Art of Fermentation and is fabulous!). Everything from kefir to fermented rice to kombucha to sour dough containg left over cooked oats… he’s a fermentation activist!

Thyme (NL:Tijm)

Evergreen hardy perennial Thyme (Thymus spp.) originates from the Mediterranean, has a great number of medicinal and culinary uses and is easily grown in containers, making it ideal for the Urban Herbologist.  It is a strong herb containing volatile oils and should be avoided by pregnant women and used sparingly by others.

Growing Thyme in Containers
There are a vast number of Thyme varieties, each having a slightly different scent, appearance and flower colour. Thymus vulgaris is the Common Garden Thyme. All Thyme varieties have relatively shallow woody roots and form a soil covering carpet.  A healthy plant can be easily “split” to give you many new plants for free.  Being a Mediterranean herb, it does well in poor soil and should be allowed to dry out between waterings.  Thyme will quite rapidly use up the nutrients in soil, so do re-pot every year or so to encourage healthy growth. The leaves of Thyme  develop a more intense flavour and scent when grown in strong sunlight although dark leaved varieties can thrive in fairly shady locations.

This year I am experimenting with Lemon Thyme (Thymus citriodorus) grown in a container, around the base of a Lemon Verbena.  I bought one small pot of organic Lemon Thyme from my local garden centre and split the plant into four before re-potting.  Lemon Verbena is quite a tender deciduous shrub so drops its leaves in winter and needs to come inside to survive. Thyme is winter hardy but has the same watering requirements as Verbena so they should do well together.  I’m also hoping that Thyme’s shallow roots won’t out-compete the Verbena, when spring arrives.

Historical uses
Since ancient times Thyme has been prized for its antibacterial and anti-fungal properties.  It was used widely in combination with other herbs for; embalming, temple incense, nosegays to ward off disease, room purification and even to induce visions of fairies.  The Romans used it to add an aromatic flavour to cheese but generally ancient people used it medicinally.

Culinary uses
These days Thyme is best known as a culinary herb, it has a strong, pleasant flavour and reportedly has good antioxidant properties. Many stews, salads and sauces are enhanced by adding a little Thyme. Chicken and fish dishes are particularly well suited to it. Because of its strength I far prefer Thyme as a culinary herb, adding it to food more regularly when the cold and flu season is upon us.  If you like the taste of lambs liver, try cooking it with a simple sauce made from softened onion, garlic, chopped tomato and thyme.

Thyme remedies
Some people find Thyme tea a useful hangover remedy but it is more widely used as a throat gargle or mouthwash to help with sore throats or gum infections.  Thyme has expectorant properties so Thyme syrup or honey may be useful as a cough remedy.  However due to the strong volatile oils in this herb, it shouldn’t be used regularly as a tea, syrup or in any other concentrated form.

Thyme tea
To make tea from Thyme simply add a few fresh or dry sprigs to a 2 cup teapot (maximum 1/2 teaspoon of dried chopped Thyme, or 1 teaspoon fresh chopped Thyme), fill with boiling water and leave to steep – but only for a short time.  Check the taste and appearance after just five minutes, that should be enough to release some oils and impart a good flavour.   If you cannot seed oil droplets on the surface of the tea then you may like to leave it to steep a little longer, perhaps another five minutes but be cautious with this herb.  It is strong and the volatile oils are unsafe in concentration or when used regularly.

Legal Disclaimer: The content of this website is not intended to replace conventional western medical treatment. Any suggestions made and all herbs listed are not intended to diagnose, treat,cure or prevent any disease, condition or symptom. Personal directions and use should be provided by a medical herbalist or other qualified healthcare practitioner with a specific formula for you. All material on this website is provided for general information purposes only and should not be considered medical advice or consultation. Always check with your personal physician when you have a question pertaining to your health and healthcare.

Ginger roots!

There is life in my airing cupboard…  The ginger rhizome I wrote about on Monday has sprouted lots of strong roots, after just 4 days!  Each bud has started to look shoot-like, become slightly pink and sent out between 6 and 10 healthy roots.  I am delighted with this first attempt at growing one of my favourite exotic herbs.

The pot is now in a bright but cooler room so I hope that it will continue to do well.  The soil has been moistened a little more and I shall leave the plastic bag on for a couple of days, to ease the transition from the toasty warm airing cupboard.  I have high hopes of honey, ginger and lemon using my ginger plant, ths winter.  Perhaps that’s a little ambitious!