Category Archives: Live. Explore. Learn.

Easy-Peasy Spring Onion

Spring Onion is my discovery this growing season. Even though, it’s not at all difficult to buy spring onions in Dutch supermarkets, growing them has some plus points.

I don’t remember how I came up with the idea of planting this common ingredient of Vietnamese cuisine. It seemed like one day I watched a tutorial video on YouTube and BAM.

I followed the guide and put the white stalk with roots into a glass of water. The water needed changing every other day, and that’s what I did. They grew longer root and taller on the top. When Ian saw my glass, he suggested that I should put the spring onions in the soil as it surely would be better for the plant. He was right.

Soon enough, small pots of spring onion dotted around our garden. Instead of buying a bunch every week, I now only get supermarket spring onions if a recipe asks specifically for its white parts. My spring onion might not be as mighty, and in oversize as the one I get from Albert Heijn, the biggest supermarket chain here, but it tastes a lot better being freshly cut from my little balcony garden.


How to grow Spring Onion

You can start from seeds, but I haven’t tried that yet. It’s dead easy to grow spring onion from the stem, though.

Cut off about 8 cm of the white part, with roots, and put a few into a glass jar. Change the water once every two days, and you will soon see new growth. If you don’t have any outdoor space or don’t want to get involved with the messy soil, just keep them in the water and cut off the green parts when they come out.

Alternatively, you can put the stems directly into the soil. There’s no need to use a big pot or space the stems out. I often use a 10-cm container for four stems. They grow perfectly fine. I just cut off the new green now and then and keep each pot going for a few months. They can also take negligence. I don’t have to worry about water them all the time or set up a watering system when I am away for a week or so.

As I said before, it’s rather simple.

Using Spring Onion

We Vietnamese put spring onion into most dishes. Pho has spring onions. Same goes for most noodle soups. Stir fries either start with frying the white part of spring onion or finish with finely-chopped green pieces.

Bonus: Thanks to its strong smell, spring onion plant can be used to scare off some bugs and insects. If you have a few containers, space them out all over your garden.



Growing Chillis Up North: Success and Failure

What is your most favourite type of chilli?

Mine is pickled jalapeños. It’s something I only discovered eight years ago when I moved to England. Back in Vietnam, I knew one type of chillies. We called it sky-pointing because of the direction the fruits grow (aka upwards). In England, it’s called bird’s eye chilli and known for being hot.


Bird’s Eye Chilli or Ớt chỉ thiên

Personally, I can’t tell if bird eye is spicier than jalapeño or not. They are just different. However, there is a Scoville scale which measures the spicy heat of chilli peppers. It varies from zero (the level of bell peppers) to somewhere near two million five hundred (for the likes of Komodo Dragon Chilli Pepper and Naga Viper Pepper). According to this scale, bird’s eye chilli could be 100 times hotter than jalapeños. I found that shocking. Perhaps my taste bud is well off.

When I start growing plants, my partner-in-crime bought me a seed pack for 10 types of chilli, from mild Hungarian wax pepper to hot Habanero chilli. It was quite an adventure to grow all those chillis in containers on our tiny balcony at the time. And the tasting feast was indeed an experience.


My very own mini jalapeños

This year, I set out to grow chillis again but limited to bird’s eye, jalapeños and the not-at-all spicy chilli pepper often found in Dutch supermarkets. We have more space with sunnier spots, but somehow the output was abysmal. When the disappointment and depression were over, I sat down and contemplated the whys and hows. Here’s something to share about growing chillis in a colder climate.


Where to get the seeds

You need to start right with quality seeds. I think this was the reason why my first-year crop was a lot better than the second one. In my first attempt, Ian bought the seeds for me as a gift. He must have got it from some highly-recommended garden centre. This year, I just picked seeds out of chillis I bought in the supermarket.

I am not saying that it’s impossible to grow your own from those seeds. Many others succeeded in doing so. However, if you use the seeds from your last year’s chillis or yesterday’s chillis from the market, and your plants have cross-pollinated, you might get a different variety to what you intend.



Doing the germination right and you will get stronger plants faster. You can germinate the seeds using a propagator or some damp kitchen towels placed in a dark, airy cupboard.

Once you see a sprout, transfer it to a pot with care. If you start this step early in spring when it’s still cold, keep the container inside, like on a sunny windowsill until there’s no risk of frost. You can also grow chillis entirely indoors. You just need a place where the sun can reach for many hours during the day.

If you don’t want to germinate the seeds for some reasons, you can sow them directly into a pot. Keep them indoors to start with and don’t cover the seeds with a thick layer of soil. The chance is that they will still come up, but it takes a lot longer. This year, it took me three weeks to a month for a seed to sprout because I was too lazy with the germination.

General care

Providing you give your plants a healthy start, what you need to do next is to water regularly, and at the bottom, not the leaves. Chillis can take repotting so move them to a bigger pot if you spot roots sticking out the water-draining holes. As always, transfer your plants with care.

Make sure your chilli plants have plenty of light. When you see flowers, you can help the plants with some extra feeding. If you keep chillis inside or if you never see bees on your balcony, shaking the flowers or hand pollinating might be needed.

Green Flies

Green flies are the enemy of chilli growers. I hate them because I have no idea how to avoid them. They start small, a few eggs on a couple of leaves, then one day, they explode in number. I once went on holiday and came back to see my sturdiest bird’s eye chilli plant covered in flies, from the bottom leaves to the top flowers. I took me an hour to wipe them all off. The plant didn’t give any fruits despite having a lot of flowers.

As I said, I don’t know how to avoid green flies. However, if you keep an eye on your plant at all times, you can prevent their total evasion. Every day when you water the chilli, check underneath the leaves. That’s where you will find their eggs if there are any. As soon as you see one, take the plant away from the rest and clean its leaves with soapy water. It should scare the green flies away. I also read about putting the infected plant inside a greenhouse with some ladybugs but I don’t have a greenhouse, and I hardly find ladybugs on my balcony. But you do have them both, give it a try.

In addition to green flies, this year, I had to face an unknown enemy. I suspected it’s caterpillar, but I never caught any at her act. However, something loved eating the leaves of my chilli pepper. I got ten plants, and nine of them got stripped naked from the bottom to the top. I ended up with have one chilli out of a plant which only had two leaves. Imagine the frustration!


Using chillis

The use of chillis is straightforward. People like my mother eat them raw with everything. You can use them, both green or ripe, to add a fiery feel to your dish. When I had a good season, I pickled my chillis so that they lasted longer while looking nice. You can also make your own hot sauce and carry it around like these famous chefs.


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