Food prepared with the infusion of herbs not only improves the flavour of the food, but also as a bonus provides myriad health benefits. In today’s dog-eat-dog world and fast paced life, natural nutrition is oft ignored by many, especially in the big cities. But then, there is a way out. One can very easily create a cozy little kitchen garden either at home, or backyard if you have one, in just a few days with just a little bit of effort and inclination. It’s even better to grow a “healing garden” of herbs that will help protect against disease. This healing garden can be grown either on your kitchen window-sill, balcony or a garden on the ground if you have one. So sit up and get to it ... start a healthy partnership with Mother Nature and lay the foundation for a natural health apothecary in your own house.
SWEET BASIL (Ocimum basilicum)
Basil is originally native to India and other tropical regions of Asia, having been in cultivation there for more than 5,000 years. In India, Basil is also used for its medicinal properties in Ayurveda, a popular system of indigenous medicine, and Siddha, the traditional Tamil system of medicine. Sweet Basil is the more common culinary variety of Indian Tulsi.
How to Grow: If you cannot get it from a neighbour, you could get some basil saplings from the green-grocer or the local market. Pluck three or four top leaves from each stem and plant them in an earthenware pot filled with well drained regular soil laced with some compost. Allow a space of around 2 feet deep and 1 foot wide for the plants to grow, and keep the pot in a place where the plants can get plenty of sunlight. The herb will be ready for use in about 10 days. Just pluck some leaves and add them to your cooking, or you could crush or chop-up the leaves or just add them whole to a vegetable stir-fry or any dish that you are preparing. You can grow your own basil from basil seeds as well, but it is probably best to start off with basil saplings in the beginning.
Nutrition: Fresh basil contains good amounts of folic acid. It is also a good source of vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol), riboflavin and niacin, and a very good source of Dietary Fibre, vitamins A, C, K, and B6, and minerals such as potassium, iron, calcium, zinc and manganese. Dried basil is a good source of potassium, iron and calcium. The strong taste of basil promotes production of saliva, increases appetite and helps in digestion. Basil has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. Basil adds a zing to mild vegetables like aubergine (egg plant), brussel sprouts, potatoes, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower and spinach.
TULSI (Ocimum sanctum)
Tulsi, also known as Indian Basil or Holy Basil, is a close relative of sweet basil. It has been revered in India for over 5,000 years as a healing balm for body, mind and spirit.
How to Grow: Tulsi is easy to grow. Sow some tulsi seeds in a small pot, just under the surface of the soil and press them in firmly. The seeds have to be watered until germination, which occurs within 1 to 2 weeks. Tulsi grows best in the full sun, nourished by rich soil and plenty of water. The seeds have to be placed 1 to 2 feet apart.
Nutrition: Modern research offers impressive evidence that Tulsi is instrumental in reducing stress, relieving inflammation, eliminating toxins, preventing gastric ulcers, improving digestion and providing a rich supply of antioxidants and other nutrients. Its consumption in combination with other herbs, or in a certain way of a particular quantum each day has also been known to keep blood-sugar and blood pressure under control.
MINT (Mentha arvensis/piperita)
Mint (Pudina) is liked both for its refreshing flavour and its medicinal qualities. It adds an extra dimension to both sweet and savoury dishes.
How to Grow: Mint is a very simple herb to grow at home. It grows rapidly during spring season. Pluck the runners (stalks) of mint and simply plant them in a small pot containing well drained soil. Although it can grow in all types of soils, it prefers slightly acidic soils and moderately rich moist soil. Don’t over-water these plants. In a few days time you can start using your home grown mint.
Nutrition: The menthol in mint is known to soothe the lining of the digestive tract. Peppermint is an excellent breath freshener and a good remedy for gingivitis. An infusion of fresh mint leaves and honey in a cup of hot water helps to settle the stomach after a heavy meal. It also helps in keeping acidity away. A word of caution though – mint tea does not suit infants, and may cause a choking reaction in them. Herbal tea made with mint, ginger and honey can be a most refreshing beverage. Mint is a great source of calcium, iron, antioxidants and vitamin A.
WHEAT GRASS (Triticum aestivum)
Wheat grass is the tender green shoot of wheat. It is regarded as a living food and is certainly the freshest food. Its juice has amazing properties and has often been described as “nectar of rejuvenation” or “plasma of youth” or even the “blood of life”.
How to Grow: To grow wheat grass at home, in a clean container, soak an adequate amount of unpolished wheat grains in water overnight. Spread the soaked wheat grains on some shallow trays filled with about one and a half inch of pre-moistened soil or compost. Ensure that the soil is free from fertilizers or chemicals. Also ensure that the grains are not touching each another. Place the tray in a well ventilated place under indirect sunlight. Water twice a day using a spray bottle, and leave the wheat to germinate and grow till the shoots are about 8~9 inches tall. In 8 to 12 days the wheat grass will be ready for harvest. The harvested wheat grass can then be directly chewed, or blended to get juice. The downside of growing wheat grass indoors is that since every wheat seed won’t sprout, the un-germinated seeds can develop moulds which then spread to nearby sprouts. This may ruin the taste of the wheat grass juice, and in some cases it may even cause allergic reactions in some.
Nutrition: Wheat grass is a potent storehouse of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and chlorophyll. It is one of the richest natural sources of vitamin A and vitamin C. It is an excellent source of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, zinc and other minerals too. Wheat grass acts as an energizer, helps to detoxify, acts as a natural skin ointment, regulates blood-sugar levels, and controls hair fall.
GARDEN CRESS (Lepidium sativum)
Garden cress, commonly known as halim in Hindi, are tiny seeds that are deep brown in colour, which swell up on soaking. In India, making kheer and laddoos out of garden cress seed is quite common. Abroad, Garden cress is added to soups, sandwiches and salads for its tangy flavour. It is also eaten as sprouts, and the fresh or dried seed pods are often used as a peppery seasoning. In England, cut cress shoots are commonly used in sandwiches with boiled eggs, mayonnaise and salt.
How to Grow: To grow garden cress, arrange a loose layer of soil in a pot. Sprinkle the garden cress seeds on top and moisten the soil with water. Sprinkle a little water every day and keep away from direct sunlight. Harvest in 2 to 3 weeks time, when the leaves are about 2 inches long. Use the older leaves and leave the young ones to grow.
Nutrition: The seeds are high in iron and protein. The leaves are an excellent source of vitamins A and C and folate. Both the leaves and stems can be eaten raw in salads or sandwiches, and are sometimes called cress sprouts.
FENUGREEK (Trigonella foenum-graecum)
The small fenugreek, commonly eaten in almost every part of India, has a proven record of being a natural remedy for a variety of ailments. Two types of fenugreek leaves are commonly cultivated and consumed in India – one is the commonly used variety called Marwari methi (Trigonella foenum-graecum ) with white roots and small green leaves, and the other is known as Kasuri methi.
How to Grow: Fenugreek is simple to grow and one does not need a big kitchen garden. Arrange a loose layer of soil and manure. Sprinkle methi seeds on top and moisten the soil with water. Soaking the seeds in warm water for half a day is recommended as it accelerates germination. Methi grows best in a warm temperature with just a little sunlight filtering in. One would be able to harvest little bunches of tender methi in four to five days. Gently uproot the little plant and dust off the excess soil. Wash under water and they are ready to use.
Nutrition: Fenugreek is distinctively flavoured and highly nutritious. It can spice up any vegetable or dal, or for that matter the methi leaves could be had like a vegetable itself. It is an excellent source of iron, calcium, beta carotene, and vitamin C. Since it is effective in stabilizing blood-sugar levels, it helps control diabetes. It is also helpful in treating indigestion and flatulence.
Aloe Vera is truly a miracle plant that has been used over the centuries for its amazing medicinal properties.
How to Grow: Simply buy a stem and plant it in a pot containing mud. To obtain aloe vera in its purest form, first cut off the leaf then remove the thorns from the edges. On peeling the green sheath of the leaf, you can see a transparent gel. Scoop it out and refrigerate. Aloe vera juice should be consumed as it is.
Nutrition: It contains various nutrients in significant quantities. It is a storehouse of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, amino acids. It contains minerals such as calcium, iron, phosphorous, manganese, potassium, zinc. Aloe Vera is rich in vitamin A, B, C and E too.