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When faced with weeks of lockdown in winter last year, I decided to cheer myself up by growing edible crops on the windowsills. For me, it’s the hope and vitality of watching something green burst into life that appeals, to see plants grow and change no matter what’s happening outside.
Now, I’ll come clean upfront, a sill in winter does not an ideal vegetable and fruit patch make. To the point where I often question if windowsill edibles are a pipe dream we garden writers try to convince ourselves – as much as you – are worthwhile, given the meagre portions they produce. But this year I’ve been growing salad crops indoors, plus microgreens and herbs, that convince me they do have a place in our gardening hearts.
First, a reality check. Windowsill edibles are split into two camps: the good and the gimmicks. The good crops are mostly fast-growing salad crops and herbs, while the gimmicks won’t produce any meaningful quantities but may conjure a token prize (for example, a lemon or other citrus fruit), to impress your mates.
But whether you’re growing useful crops or novelties, you will need a window with bright direct sunlight to power plant growth. Which means a south-facing window that isn’t overshadowed by trees or other buildings. If you don’t have this, you will need an LED grow light (see organiccatalogue.com). If you do have a sunny window, let’s crack on…
Three exotic herbs to grow indoors
Technically, most herbs are exotic to British shores, but lemongrass, ginger and Vietnamese coriander are three I’m particularly excited about. I like their look as attractive, leafy houseplants, as well as a tasty tropical trio. Water all three plants from spring until late summer, and fertilise fortnightly. Give them a holiday for the summer by moving them outside if you can. Familiar herbs, such as basil, chives and coriander, can be grown in the same conditions.
(On the subject of edible houseplants, the purple leaves of Oxalis triangularis can be added to salads and Begonia rex flowers taste slightly sweet to me.)
This is a clump-forming evergreen grass (Cymbopogon citratus), the tough base of each culm (the above-ground, growing part) is sold in shops as a flavouring for Thai and Asian cooking and can easily be rooted by sitting it in 3cm of water for a few weeks. Once rooted, bury the bottom half of the culm in a 20cm pot of peat-free compost on your sunny sill, and over time it will produce leaves and more culms.
Although the culm’s base is the bit we buy, the fresh grassy leaves are also edible. I find these better for flavouring rice and lemon grass tea, making lemon grass a good investment.
A tender relative to the persicaria in our gardens, this herb (Persicaria odorata) has a flavour like coriander with a particularly spicy kick, useful for stir-fries. Again, this is easily rooted in water to be planted into a 20cm pot where it will form a dense bush as you pick the growing tips to eat.
While lemongrass and Vietnamese coriander are useful to have around, ginger (Zingiber officinale) is more of a gimmick. You’re unlikely to be able to grow enough in the UK to meet all your ginger needs, but it’s easy and fun to try.
Buy a root from a shop; it must be organic because most sold in shops are sprayed with chemicals that prevent growth. Ginger plants grow, like irises, from a running rhizome (underground stem), and that’s the bit we buy and eat. As it grows, the rhizome will creep horizontally through the soil and lush green leaves emerge along it.
Because of this, it’s best to grow ginger in a wide pot, perhaps even a window box indoors. Using peat-free compost, lay it flat and bury it about 5mm below the surface. By the end of the following summer, the plant will have grown enough to harvest: dig up the whole rhizome, wash off the compost and trim away the leaves and thin roots. Cut off a 7cm segment and replant to grow for next year while storing the rest in the fridge to eat.
Indoor salad leaves to grow from seed
I have a love of salad greens, there’s such a variety available to grow for gardeners compared with what’s on offer in the shops – it’s exciting.
Thankfully, almost all salad crops are edible from the moment they germinate, making them perfect for the indoor gardener. Lettuce, rocket, mizuna, mibuna, pak choi and mustard leaves can be sown into seed trays of peat-free compost on windowsills all year round.
Sow the seeds (from chilternseeds.co.uk and marshallsgarden.com) in a grid, spacing them 5cm apart and cover very lightly with about 1mm of compost. This spacing is closer than normal, but indoor salad crops live fast and are eaten young, so packing them in makes sense. When plants have at least five leaves, I begin picking the oldest leaf or two from each, which should provide a side salad for two people. In a week or two, more leaves grow and you can harvest again, repeating up to five times or so.
Start a new tray every fortnight for a constant supply.
Microgreens to try
Particularly flavoursome salad crops can be harvested as soon as they have produced their first two to four leaves, hence the term “microgreens”. It is only worth doing this with seedlings that have strong flavours, such as cress, radish, mustard, kale and pea shoots. Special packs are available for this purpose from almost all of the big seed companies.
Because they are harvested soon after germinating, sow very densely on the surface of compost. Add to salads, sandwiches and as garnishes to eggs Benedict or Florentine for an extra layer of flavour and nutrition.
Indoor citrus fruit
As we approach Christmas, adverts for lemon and lime trees start to appear. You may think them only a gimmick, and I would too, had I not seen them grow in my old workplace.
The Citrus Centre (citruscentre.co.uk) recommends lemon ‘Four Seasons’, lime ‘Tahiti’ and calamondin orange (tastes of lemon). These all grow and crop next to sunny windows (but away from radiators) as long as they spend summer outside in full sun.
Most citrus plants die from overwatering, so allow them to dry out completely, then soak the compost and fertilise every time.
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