Monthly Archives: November 2017

Grow Basil, Make Pesto, and More

Do you know how many types of basil there are?

I don’t.

In Vietnam, we often eat all sorts of herbs together either fresh or with noodle soup. I could tell the taste of different herbs apart but I didn’t know all the names. I had no clue if there was more than one type of basil.

The first shop I worked in was a Thai mini supermarket in Newcastle, England. Every Tuesday and Thursday, there would be fresh herbs coming in, and the owner always stressed how important it was to display them nicely and openly. At first, I didn’t understand the reason for all the fuss. They were just herbs. Man, I was wrong. Tuesdays and Thursdays were always busy because guests came in especially for those fragrant leaves. The Thai basil, both holy and sweet, were popular.

If you go to a typical supermarket in England, you will only find Greek basil. They have a lighter green colour. Their leaves are round with a milder taste. Those are the ones that I end up growing. I use them for everything that calls for basil from a Thai sauce to Italian pesto. I know it’s not by the book but I am a go-with-the-flow kind of chef. Actually, I wanted to grow Thai basil this year, but the website I got my seeds from was always out of stock for this Asian special.

I did diversify my collection. Our balcony was filled with pots of purple basil. Their colour stands out, and they also make fine pesto.


Can you spot the humble basil plants?

Care for basil

Caterpillars love basil!

Many mornings I woke up to find a plant stripped off all green leaves, standing naked with one single stem. Those were the extreme cases. More often, a caterpillar would sneak out at night, make a hole in a few leaves and disappear before the day comes. If you don’t pay attention when watering, you might not notice the enemy until it’s too late. So rule number 1 is to watch out. Rule number 2 is to get a torch. My Dad told me this trick, and it worked. You come out when it’s dark, and check the plants with your light. The chance is that you will find a fat green caterpillar gnawing away your precious leaves. Look out for the odd shape amount the leaves as their colours are very similar.

Growing conditions

Basil likes well-drained soil and being in sunny spot. Water a plant when the soil dry to the touch. Aim for the base and try not to wet the leaves.


The more regular you clip off the leaves, the bushier a plant can become. Bushy plants look healthier and seem less fragile with the wind. As I live in North Holland, strong wind is the norm and I always have to think about my plants in the wind.

The good thing about harvesting basil is that you can pick a few leaves or a couple of hands full depending on your needs. It won’t affect the growth of your plants.


Basil is quick to germinate and slow to flower. You can keep harvesting leaves for months before there are any flowers. I find growing basil is much more reliable in this sense than growing coriander. When there are flowers, you can keep cutting them off, and the leaves will continue to grow. The flowers are edible and pretty.


Use of basil

When you have a few leaves, toss them in a salad with tomato and mozzarella. If you harvest a bunch, make pesto. All you need to make tasty pesto is basil leaves, pine nuts, garlic, parmesan cheese and olive oil. It’s simple and delicious. You can also freeze pesto for lazy days. If you want to make pesto with Thai basil, throw in some lemongrass. Make sure you have a powerful food processor as lemongrass is tough.


Dinner on the balcony with home-made pesto



The Joy (and Benefits) of Growing Bee-Friendly Flowers

I always thought of freshly cut flowers as a luxury, something expensive yet does not last. My husband used to buy bouquets for the house, but since I never made much of a fuss over them and eventually said my thoughts out loud, he stopped.

When I first grew plants on my balcony, it was all about practicality. I went for herbs and fruits for our consumption. I did have some tulips, narcissus, and lavenders but they were gifts. I enjoyed having them, and I did take care of them, but growing flowers only became my conscious choice until this year.

2015-04-12 14.52.27 HDR

In the spring, Ian and I started a beekeeping course. We learned to keep bees in a biodynamic way so that we could assist them in their honey making and surviving as strong colonies rather than interfering with their activities to get the most honey. As it would take us a year to learn and god knows how much more time to get our place and keep bees ourselves, I looked for another immediate way to help the bees. The answer was as simple as it should be: growing more bee-friendly flowers.

Before the course, I didn’t know that not all flowers were bee friendly. Some industrial bred flowers have complicated petal systems that prevent the bees from getting the pollen. Also, if farmers use pesticide on their flowers, the chemical gets to the bees and could harm them. However, with a quick search, you can easily find lists of bee-friendly flowers for where you live. Our teacher also gave us some seeds so that I could start straight away.

So I set out in early spring, and here are the highlights of my first year as a flower grower who wants to help the bees.

cosmos 3



Cosmos is the winner of this year for me. It comes in many vibrant colours, and it lasts for a long time. On my balcony, cosmos was the first to flower at the beginning of June, and the last to go away in mid-November.

cosmos in autumn

Cosmos in mid-November

The plant is easy to grow and resistant to ill-treatment, such as overwatering or extremely dry. Over the summer, I took several trips abroad, a week here and there. At first, I set up a watering system for all the plants, but it was a lot of work. Eventually, only the tomatoes and herbs were hooked up, but the cosmos survived just as well. So if there is one thing for sure, it’s that I will grow more cosmos in the coming spring.

sunflower with a bee

A sunflower and a bee


Sunflower is awe-inspiring. A sunflower plant in a pot can grow taller than 1m60. The flowers are of vibrant yellow and brown colours. It’s also super fun to watch bees waddle among the disk flowers

Sunflower is picky, though. It doesn’t grow well being repotted. Because of the size of the mature plant, you will need a 40cm+ diameter pot from the start. When it grows over 50cm or during the height of the summer, you need to water it twice a day. Also, most plants, despite their giant size, often have only one flower head. A lot of work for one flower head, I would say. This year, I had six containers, but perhaps I will reduce it by half next year to make my life a bit easier.

going wild mix

Can you spot the bee?

Going wild for the bees

I have a few pots with random flowers that I didn’t know the names. These seeds were either given to us by our beekeeping teacher or from mixes I got from the local store, specifically for bees and butterflies. Many of them I have never seen before, but the bees, butterflies, knew about them and sought them out on our balcony all the time. We even had a damselfly visiting once.

They are flowers that grow naturally in the wild, strong enough to stand harsh conditions with no care. You might need to water now and then, but that is about it.

And you will be welcome each morning with beautiful surprises like this one:


Or this one:


When I decided to grow more flowers, it was just for the bees. I didn’t know that I would enjoy seeing more colours in my garden so much. Also, the joy of seeing bees on our balcony was priceless.

When the bees visit you, it isn’t just for socialising. They collect pollen and pollinate flowers at the same time. Thanks to them, you get seeds, like sunflower seeds, and fruits. Also, the smell of some flowers can scare harmful insects away. Marigold, for example, is beautiful, bee-friendly and its fragrance keeps away the insects that harm your tomatoes. So, everyone is happy.


Marigold – Tomato Cohabitation



How to Care for Cherry Tomatoes from Your Balcony

When I was a teenager growing up in Vietnam, I watched this Korean soap opera. I can’t remember the name or much of the plot now, but it’s probably a tragic love story. It almost always was with Korean soaps of the 90s. They are still very popular in Vietnam, but I have lost touch with home television, so I don’t know if the topic has widened.

Anyway, Korean producers have the knack of romanticising small little thing, and in that series, it was a tomato plant. For years, I really wanted to grow tomatoes.

As I became older and moved away, I kind of forgot about the idea until one day. I was given a little box at the supermarket counter. In the Netherlands, when spring comes, supermarkets like AH give out boxes with seeds in some compost. You might not know this but the Netherlands is really into growing food. This little tiny country is feeding the world.


I humbly try to feed the two of us with my balcony garden 😀

When I took the tomato box home that day, I thought of a fun idea. I brought it to work the next morning and started a tomato pot on my desk. It’s a shame to admit that I neglected it. No, I didn’t come into work at the weekend to water the tomatoes. Even on work days, I didn’t always spare much attention to the plants. Somehow, the pot kept going for a couple of months.

That summer, I left the office. The plants went home with me and were repotted into container three times the size. As the branches grew out, I used a broken chair to support the skinny arms.




To my amazement, I had some cherry tomatoes later that year. There weren’t many fruits, but considering the lack of care, I was more than happy to see any at all. I have grown more cherry tomatoes with better results ever since.

Care for Cherry Tomatoes

Sowing time

Do it early in spring if you live somewhere that doesn’t get much sunlight, like the North. This year, I sowed my first seeds in early April, and I had the first fruits in early August. Some of my fruits didn’t become ripe by late September, and with much less sunlight, they never did. Next year, I plan to start in March, maybe sowing indoor first to give them a head start.

If you live in the sunny south, it’s a different story. My Dad even sows seeds in August and still have fruits before the dark days come.


The more sunlight the plants have, the sweeter the fruits are. That means putting tomato plants in the spot with the most sunlight for the longest time in the day. That also mean trimming off leaves that cover young fruits.


Give tomatoes plenty of water. It makes sense as the fruits are full of water, right? If you see nasty cracks on the beautiful shiny round surface, it indicates that you didn’t water your plants enough.


Support your plants when they grow and especially when it’s fruiting. There are many ways of designing your supporting system, depending on the space you have. If your balcony doesn’t have a lot of sunlight, a fan-training trellis is a good option. It sounds intimidating, but it basically means splaying all the branches evenly out against the wall so the sun can easily reach and ripen the fruits.

I didn’t do this but here’s a photo I found on Pinterest:

tomato Pinterest.jpg

This year, I opted for a dwarf tomatoes and didn’t have to prop them up, which made life quite a bit easier. It’s hard to see how tall these plants were but they were about 30cm and hardly needed any support despite being super laden with fruits.


Use of Cherry Tomatoes

Tomatoes are fruits, not vegetables. So I like to eat the little ones like fruits, raw and fresh. One of my favourite salads is made with cherry tomatoes, cucumber and red onion in lime and fish sauce. If not eaten raw, I save my precious home-grown for this salad only.

Tomatoes are versatile, though. You can do many things with them from pickling whole or sun-dried to making a sauce.

And a trivial thing

Pomodoro is Italian for tomato. It’s also the name of time management method that I use every day, twelve months a year, unlike the fresh tomatoes which are only available in my garden for a couple of months in the summer.


Growing Coriander in Pots: The Fun and the Rewards

I started growing coriander because of my food waste aversion. As I cook a lot of Vietnamese and Thai dishes, the leaves of a coriander plant (or cilantro in American), is often needed but not in a substantial quality. The fragile foliage doesn’t keep well in the fridge, though. After three or four days, coriander leaves might not have gone black and mushy but are likely to lose their signature smell.

One day a few years ago, after throwing away so many half-used, supermarket-packed coriander bunches, I decided it was enough.

The first transition was to buy coriander pots from the supermarket. They did last a bit longer but hardly over a week. Ian told me that those containers were designed to give shoppers the maximum leaves in the smallest areas. They look like they offer good value for your money, but that’s all. You often can’t keep grow those plants. It’s a good job I married a country boy, right?

My problem was left half-solved.

One day, on the spur of the moment, I bought a big plastic pot and some soil from my local florist and repotted a supermarket pot. Somehow, the plants flourished. Perhaps it’s my beginner’s luck as later when I started to read all the gardening guides, they often say corianders don’t take repotting well and usually bolt to flowering.

I put the repotted pot out on our balcony, watered it and untangled the fragile branches after each windy day. They grew taller, thicker and so fragrant that I decided coriander was my new black.

I went back to the florist, got some more soil and cheap plastic pots. The seeds I bought from the supermarket, nothing’s fancy. That’s how it all started.

My corianders aren’t always strong and healthy. Many died before reaching 20 cm high. Some didn’t exactly give me as many leaves as I hope for, but all in all, growing coriander gives me so much joy and allows me to be more spontaneous with cooking and more generous with garnishing my stir-fries, noodles, salads and so on.


Care for Pot Corianders

Most plants need sunlight and water, but the specific details depend on where you live and how much space you have. I’m growing coriander in the temperate area of Northern Europe. It means a sunny and fairly warm summer, a wet and cold autumn but little snow over the winter. I put my coriander plants in medium-sized, plastic pots so that I can move them indoors when the weather is too cold, wet and windy, which is not uncommon in this seaside town.


Coriander likes the sun, but it can bolt and start flowering if it’s too hot. Some shade in the afternoon is good if you want bigger foliage.


Most coriander seed packages would tell you to space the seeds out every 12-15 cm. I don’t do that really. I feel like the coriander plants are too small and fragile and they would be lonely being so far from each other. I usually spare 5-8 cm in between each seed.


This term sounds dreadful, but all it means is that you should cut off the top of a plant when the leaves grow smaller and flower buds appear. People do this to prevent seeding and prolong the leave harvesting period.

In my experience, when a plant starts to show the sign of wanting to flower, it’s not much you can do to stop it. My plants do this randomly as well, not depending on how old they are or the conditions they are in.


I found it’s more efficient sowing the seeds every couple of weeks instead of deadheading. If some plants start to flower too early, I just let them and harvest the seeds instead. For the leaves, I always seem to have a backup by growing new pots regularly.


I treat untangling coriander leaves like therapy. It clears my mind. I have a feeling that it helps my plants but never really did an experiment to prove it or read anything claiming the benefits of untangling.

The Use of Coriander


I use coriander leaves for salads, noodle soups, salsa and guacamole.


The seeds can be used to grow the next batch of coriander or in Indian curries. I do the former, and my husband does the latter.


The use of coriander roots is a recent discovery to me. Lately, as my eating has become a bit picky, I tried to cook the most known dish in Vietnamese cuisine: Pho.

Most Vietnamese eat pho in a market stall or in a restaurant. My family never cooked it at home, and I didn’t know anyone who did when I lived there. Since I am away from home, the options are a lot more limited, but the idea of not cooking pho at home is so ingrained that I only set out to try to prepare pho myself in the 8th years I lived abroad. And the discovery: coriander roots make the Pho taste. Man, I have eaten and loved the dish my whole life, and now I know 😀

Pho is another reason for me to love coriander.

Winter Coriander

I haven’t tested this practice yet, but I read about it from my favourite garden blog Vertical Veg. Mark wrote that coriander doesn’t bolt in the winter and would come out with a much stronger flavour in spring. You need to sow the seeds before mid-September and don’t do any cutting until spring. Don’t be tempted by the fragrant leaves. Keep them out of the wind and cover up if there are snow and frost.


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Here is one of my winter coriander pots, which I keep indoors to admire on a daily basis. The rest is currently outside suffering constant November rain. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

Before I go, I just have to share the tango between coriander and mushroom. This is not why I grow coriander but I treasure the spectacle all the same: