September 26, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Grow your own

By |2018-03-21T18:54:23+01:00April 5th, 2013|"Suzanne's Taste"|
You can grow a little indoor garden that can produce basil and tomatoes to grace a nice mozzarella.

s there anywhere more joyful and just plain fun than a nursery in spring? I don’t mean the kind with babies in it — although that could certainly be a result of spring’s joy, come fall, but instead that grand nursery, for example, in Trastevere or heading out the via Appia, or even those tiny sweet shops that suddenly come into bloom around April and set out gardenias and little lemon trees along their sidewalks to tempt green-thumbers and even first-time gardeners. Add to that the bancarelle of flowers, herbs and seeds usually set up near a giornalaio or the open flower shops located on so many Rome street corners.

Not everyone has a garden. Not everyone has a balcony or small terrazzo for a few pots, but if you do (even a sunny window will work magic on a little pot) you can grow a little spring garden that can produce enough basil and tomatoes to grace a nice mozzarella. Or you can plant some favorite herbs that aren’t readily available when you need them, such as lemon thyme, Greek oregano or sweet Italian parsley. These items can be found at a price in markets including Campo de’ Fiori and Piazza Vittorio and also can be bought in most supermarkets, but having them at your fingertips, freshly cut from the pot, is a great bane for a cook.

I start with basil, to me the queen of all mints. I’ll then plant rosemary and parsley, and, if there’s room, add a fairly large pot for a prolific cherry tomato plant. Almost all nurseries or open markets have small pots of herbs, and you can choose your favorites. But one plastic (lightweight) hand’s-breadth-size pot sitting on a drainage plate in a sun-filled window will, take it from me, brighten your kitchen/living room/bedroom/laundry porch/psyche better than a floodlight. In fact, there are lights one can buy to place near houseplants to encourage their growth and strength, sort of like having strong light in fall and winter for those people who suffer from effects of Hesperian Depression, commonly know to some as SAD — seasonal affective disorder (I’ll stick to lower case since I hate acronym initials).

Buy a small bag of potting soil, a few plastic pots and, most important of all, drugs for your babies. I’m a self-proclaimed pusher of drugs for plants, organic drugs, that is. Like certain plants that were grown successfully in Berkeley in the 1960s and 1970s.

No bad artificial foods and no pesticides allowed, but growing organically means you won’t have any pests. How much soil you put in depends on the size of the pot you buy — if it’s the width of your palm, say, or a hand, slighter larger, fill the pots halfway with potting soil. Tap out the plant from its store-bought container carefully, keeping all the soil and roots intact. If it’s root-bound, or tightly packed into its little house, you’ve bought a poor plant that no one bothered to re-plant when it needed more room to grow. No matter. With your fingers, gently loosen the roots at the bottom of the plant (over the sink!) and spread them out a bit before planting. You are creating a little breathing space for the roots to take hold and grow well.

As a rule, it’s best to choose plants that look as if they are going to grow further — plants with healthy leaves, not too large for the pot, and with no signs of curling or browning or wilting.

If you happen to take Vitamin B, dissolve a pill or capsule in a water glass and sprinkle the mixture at the base of your herbs — this is a helpful tool against transplant shock (I wonder if they use something similar in medicine?).

Water well for a few days and then only every three to four days so your plants don’t drown. Do give them a teaspoon of fertilizer in a liter of water each week to ensure production.

Another marvelous way to grow plants in an apartment may be viewed in the video “Britta Riley, A Garden in My Apartment.” She has an amazing vertical garden with each plant watering the one below it. Such an apparatus will take quite an investment, but it’s fascinating for those who might want strawberries or more herbs added to their collection.

I love going to open markets when herbs are needed, but it’s hardly a hop, skip and jump to get there from my kitchen, and I’m a busy person. With my little family growing up in my kitchen window, I’ll have thyme on my hands.

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.