A well-tended herb garden looks good enough to, well, eat. And when kids grow herbs on a windowsill, they can easily snip off leaves and flowers for tasty additions to salads, soups and casseroles. Trim herbs often—it encourages them to produce for a long time.
You can purchase small plants, but it's more fun to start seeds in eggshells filled with potting soil. Nestle the shells in an egg carton, then place it on a sunny windowsill that gets six or more hours of sunshine each day. A south- or west-facing windowsill is ideal. Keep the soil moist. When the plants are approximately eight centimetres tall and have at least two sets of true leaves, remove the shells and transplant the seedlings to five-centimetre pots. Label the pot rims with permanent marker, then place them in a basket to create a charming little "garden." Moved to the table at mealtimes, they make a lovely centrepiece.
Water well when the soil feels dry to the touch, letting a little water run through the pots, but don't leave water in the saucers. Feed once a month with half-strength liquid fertilizer. If insects invade, spray the infected plants with water, or rinse them with a mild solution of soap and water. Never spray herbs you plan to eat with a chemical pesticide.
In summer, you can move the herb pots outdoors. Place them in an area that receives good light but is protected from intense heat or wind. You can also set the pots in a garden, planting them with soil up to the rim. One caution: pots dry out faster than the surrounding soil, so water frequently. In fall before the first frost, bring the potted herbs back indoors.
BASIL (OCIMUM BASILICUM)
Named for Basilisk, the fire-breathing dragon feared by ancient Rome, this annual member of the mint family has a rich and spicy flavour with a trace of pepper, mint and cloves. Sweet basil is the variety most commonly grown, but there are approximately 40 others. Plants grow to 38 centimetres tall and the flowers are bright white, pale pink or lavender.
Sow seeds in moist potting soil, sprinkling them lightly with fine soil to cover. Kept in a warm spot, basil germinates in five to 10 days. When the plants are 15 centimetres tall, pinch out the tops and cut off any flower spikes to encourage bushy growth.
Add crushed or minced leaves to soup, pasta and casseroles, or sprinkle whole leaves on salads. Basil sprigs and flowers make festive garnishes; the flavour of the flowers is milder but similar to the leaves.
CHIVES (ALLIUM SCHOENOPRASUM)
Perennial members of the Allium family, chives are closely related to onions, leeks and garlic. Lilies are distant cousins. Each hollow chive leaf ends in a sharp point. Cheery mauve blossoms look like pompoms made of tiny, tight-clustered flowers atop leafless stems.
Plant seeds 12 millimetres deep in potting soil. They germinate in seven to 10 days. Give chives plenty of sun and they reward you with pretty blooms and tasty leaves all summer. To keep plants looking healthy, use scissors to cut leaves near the soil rather than at their tips, then snip the leaves into short pieces to add to eggs, dips and salads.