6 Spices that you can grow
Why does everyone have a herb garden but not a spice garden?
I’m sure that if we were to take a walk around your garden, we’d find at least a few herbs growing: parsley, basil, rosemary, thyme – something. But I’m also fairly certain that we would have to look further to find a single spice growing. Why is that? I suppose we tend to use fewer spices, or smaller quantities, when we cook than we do herbs, but it can be great fun (and very tasty!) to have a few spices on hand in your garden.
Herbs and spices: what’s the difference? If we use the leaves of a plant it is considered a herb, while spices refer to the rest of it – roots, bark, seeds, berries.
Here are six spices that you can grow at home:
Spice 1: Mustard
Mustard is often grown as a leafy green, but if you leave the attractive and versatile plant to go to seed you can harvest the seeds and use them as a spice in your culinary creations. An added bonus is that pollinators love the flowers, so by letting the plants go to seed you’re also feeding our buzzy friends.
Growing: The best mustard varieties to grow for their seeds are the yellow, brown or black mustards. As they grow easily from seed, this is the best way to do it. Sow them in well-draining soil supplemented with a fair bit of compost, and water twice a week. The greens are trendy at the moment and should be picked fairly young or even as sprouts or microgreens.
Harvesting: Each pod should contain between 8 and 20 seeds, and you should harvest them when the pods begin to turn yellowy brown. Don’t leave them on the plant for too long or they will burst.
Using: Use the seeds in curries, pickles, salads dressings or even mayos. Alternatively, grind the seeds to use in ‘mustard’ (the sauce). The seeds don’t actually have a hot tang on their own. It is only when water is added that the enzymes are activated and the heat develops.
Spice 2: Coriander
A useful herb in terms of its leaves, coriander (dhania or cilantro) is often used fresh as a garnish on Indian dishes and is also used in Chinese and Mexican cuisine. Used fresh, this is a love-it-or-hate-it herb (the office opinion is equally divided), with critics saying it tastes soapy. As with mustard, it is the seeds that are used as a spice, and they have a significantly different taste to the leaves.
Growing: Coriander grows easily and also goes to seed quickly. Sow seed directly in well-drained soil and in a sunny spot with some midday shade. Transplanting can lead to the plant bolting. Don’t over-water, and use a deep container if you plant it in a pot, as the taproot is long.
Harvesting: The roots, stems and leaves can all be used fresh. In terms of spice, the green seeds are delicious if blended and used in curries. Otherwise harvest the dry seeds by cutting the dry flowerheads and hanging them upside down in a brown paper bag.
Using: Dry fry the dried seeds until the aroma is released and then add them to a curry sauce or paste. You can crush the dry-fried seeds or use them whole. Coriander is often used in conjunction with cumin. The seeds are also great in pickling.
Spice 3: Ginger
Delicious, versatile and a bit burny, ginger can be used in anything from curries to chocolate or tea, adding warmth and fragrance to whatever its included in. It’s the rhizome or tuber that is used as a spice, and those in the know extol the numerous health benefits, from having anti-inflammatory properties to treating nausea, aiding digestion and even fighting the common cold. It contains high levels of antioxidants, which are beneficial for a variety of reasons, and can even help with muscle stiffness, osteoarthritis, lower heart disease risks, cholesterol and blood sugar levels. It really is an incredible food, but we’d eat it even if it wasn’t because it is absolutely delicious.
Growing: A tropical plant, ginger grows to about 1m in height with fleshy stems and big, glossy leaves. To get the best out of it, grow ginger in deeply dug soil with lots of added compost. Ginger is a vigorous grower and feeder so needs a lot of feeding. Plant the rhizome in full sun and water heavily twice a week. Don’t just plant a bit of ginger you buy at Checkers though. Look online or at your local nursery for organic, untreated ginger rhizomes – you’re more likely to succeed.
Harvesting: Harvest the rhizomes in the middle of winter, around July. The leaves should have died down naturally, after which the tubers should be lifted with a fork. Keep some to use and return the remainder to the earth for next year. Allow the ginger to dry out in the sun for a couple of days and then store it. It can be grated and frozen, frozen whole (although frozen ginger is very hard!) or pickled, crystalised or stored in syrup. Also keep a little in the fridge to use soon after harvesting.
Using: The culinary uses of ginger are many and varied: stir-fries and curries should all have a little ginger in them, while ‘ginger beer’ are my two favourite words. Otherwise it can be used in cough syrup or hot toddies, or just sliced and steeped in water for a warming tea.
Note: There are some ginger varieties on the alien invasives list, but these are not edible.
Spice 4: Garlic
Garlic is a conundrum: you don’t dare not use it in your cooking, but if you use a bit too much you’re going to lose friends faster than an autumn tree loses its leaves in a gale. Why is it a spice? Because we generally use the bulb and not the leaves. While the supermarkets don’t give us much option when it comes to a garlic selection, there are a number of interesting varieties that have subtle differences in flavour or appearance. Other than as a flavouring in just about every culinary genre, garlic has a multitude of uses. It is touted as a natural antibiotic, lowers cholesterol and lowers blood pressure.
Growing: Don’t just plant a clove from the supermarket – it might grow but the chances of a good-quality plant are slim. By them online from a company like www.livingseeds.co.za. Ideally you want loamy soil that verges on sandy so that it drains well, and that has been enriched by a generous helping of compost. The bulbs should be planted in autumn (march or April) about 10cm deep, pointed end up, and covered soil. Tamp the soil down firmly and water well – they shouldn’t dry out while they’re getting established as they need to make it through winter.
Harvesting: As with ginger, wait until the flower and leaves have withered away and then lift the bulbs with a fork. They can be dried and stored, where they will keep for up to a year. Garlic is a very rewarding plant to grow yourself, even if it’s just so that you can hang the bulbs prominently in your kitchen as a conversation starter. “Yes, I grow my own garlic…”
Using: If we included every use of garlic this article would go on for pages. When cooking, make sure not to burn it or it will be bitter. Roasted it is sublime. In terms of medicinal uses, it does virtually everything from killing bacteria to boosting the immune system, treating parasite infestations and fungal infections.
Spice 5: Paprika
Oh, how we love paprika, especially smoked paprika. The earthy tones and subtle heat it adds to a dish can’t be overstated, and the plant itself looks so beautiful in the garden, festooned with red peppers and thriving in the heat of summer. Don’t be scared of the red chilies, as they are mild in heat and almost sweet.
Growing: Paprika, like all peppers, should be planted in early spring after the last frosts have passed. Sow in trays and plant the seedlings out when they are about 10cm tall. Soil should be prepared by adding plenty of compost and dug over well. Full sun is a requirement, as is regular, deep watering.
Harvesting: The fruit lets you know it’s ready to be picked by turning beautifully red. Simply pick them off the bush and use fresh or dried.
Using: The fruit can be dried and crushed into a powder with a little added salt, or it can be pickled in vinegar or used fresh. Another great way to store it (because you definitely won’t be able to keep with the plant’s production!) is to make an oil. Paprika contains a lot of vitamin C, making it beneficial in combatting colds through winter.
Spice 6: Turmeric
I once had a cup of tea from a tea parlour that was warm, earthy and delicious. The secret ingredient? Turmeric! The turmeric plant closely resembles that of ginger, right down to the rhizome that we use for cooking. It’s only when you cut open the rhizome and see that characteristic bright yellow inside that you know for sure which it is. The plant sprouts a beautiful pink and white flower quite close to the ground.
Growing: Propagation is via rhizomes, available from heirloom seed companies. The most important thing for turmeric is rich, moist soil that has had a lot of compost added to it. It enjoys semi-shade conditions and needs regular watering, particularly when the shoots pop out of the ground in late summer after being dormant for winter. Mulch with compost and give a heavy watering at this time and again towards the end of summer. Turmeric comes from the humid tropics of India and so won’t tolerate any frost at all.
Harvesting: Leave the plants to spread for at least a year, preferably two, before harvesting. Harvest the rhizomes at the end of autumn and before the dead of winter. As with ginger, keep some to use and return the remainder to the earth for next year. Dry the rhizomes in the sun for a couple of days and then grind it into a fine powder.
Using: Like ginger, turmeric has a wealth of uses, but is mostly known for giving curries their beautiful rich yellow colour, also adding to the aroma and depth of flavour. In India it is added to a multitude of dishes. Turmeric also combats the salmonella bacteria that causes food poisoning, while it is also an anti-inflammatory and stimulates the immune system. The strong colouring is used as a clothing dye, and some Buddhist monks still use it to colour their robes. Just remember that this pigment can also stain your teeth, skin or clothes, so brush your teeth after any food or drink strongly flavoured by turmeric and avoid getting too much on your hands.
Bonus Spice: Saffron
More expensive by weight than gold, saffron spice is actually the stigmas of the Crocus sativus or saffron crocus flower. It has to be harvested by hand, and you get only a minute harvest from each flower, hence its extortionate price tag, but it has a long list of culinary and medicinal uses. But you can grow it at home and bulbs are available from specialist suppliers and online.
Other Spice Options:
- Fennel seeds
Make Wholegrain mustard
Wholegrain mustard turns a few common ingredients into something special, something that no table should be without, especially when there’s gammon and bread lying around.
- 3 tablespoons brown mustard seeds
- 3 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds
- 1/3 cup white wine vinegar
- 1/3 cup dry white wine
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon diced onion
- ¼ teaspoon white pepper
- A pinch of allspice
Pop all the dry ingredients (mustard seeds, salt, white pepper, all spice) into a mixing bowl and mix. Add the diced onion and mix. Add the vinegar and mix. Add the white wine and mix. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Add the mix to a blender and blend until it has reached the thickness and coarseness you like. Store in the fridge and use within a couple of weeks.