Thursday, March 12, 2009

Windowsill Gardening

If you're starting seeds indoors in New England, now's the time! Renee started hers last weekend and I'm looking forward to an update. I don't "do" indoor-started seeds. Somehow those extra steps of planting in little trays, watering, and then re-planting outside seem enormous to me, not to mention all of the dirt I know I'd trail all over the house and the many times I know I'd forget to water. But that doesn't mean my windowsills stay bare. On the contrary, I'm in the midst of starting up a permanent herb and sprout garden.

Sprouts are so easy and cheap to grow and so good for you, it's almost ridiculous. All sorts of companies offer sprouting machines, but really all you need are a few things you surely already have in the back of a drawer somewhere. The Canadian Department of Agriculture even offer straightforward simple do-it-yourself instructions right on their webpage (after a few paragraphs on why sprouts and the obligatory safety warnings).

My windowsills are too thin to actually use, so I'm making a sort of back row on the counters just below the windowsills. And where there's no counter, I'm scavenging my basement and anywhere else I can think of for thin tables and benches to place just under the window.

I've thrown away the chia pets and the herb garden kits because the pots are so totally ineffective - they have either too few or too many places for water to escape and end up drying the herbs and drowning the counter. But over the years I've saved the plastic pots from various plants that are now in the garden. These are perfectly designed to actually grow things. I kind of like my house to resemble a nursery, but if you have different design tastes, fit the plastic pots inside larger cache-pots or bowls. A nice ceramic or glass piece without a hole in the bottom protects your sills or counters, and holds a little extra water that can then be absorbed back in to the pot. Just be careful not to over-water and then drown the herbs.

With 4-6 hours a day of pretty direct through-the-window sun, I've had success with

-thyme
-basil
-rosemary

Though all of these can be started from seed, the thyme and rosemary are a bit finicky and take a while to develop, so I buy seedlings. Basil seeds on the other hand sprout well and grow quickly. Basil also comes in a wonderful variety of truly gorgeous colors and textures.

-cilantro
-parsley
These two need a relatively wide surface, and after they're harvested they're gone, so it's best to have two pots of each going, planted about two weeks apart. After you fully harvest one, you can harvest from the other while you start over in the first.

-sage and oregano are perennials even here in New England, so those I grow in pots on the back porch. All winter long, the sage leaves tremble in the arctic winds and I can push aside a pile of snow to find a sprig of fresh organo.

One issue with windowsill gardens are mites - tiny little white bugs that look almost like flecks of dust. But the cure for them is also good for the plants in general: wash them. For a mild case, just water will work. For a more severe case, you'll need soap and water. Just put the pots in the sink, then spray with a spray bottle or if they're hardy with the sprayer from your faucet.

A windowsill garden doesn't replace an outdoor herb garden, but it's a fantastic supplement. In the summer, you get more, and in the winter you get some. Outdoors, cilantro and parsley go to seed. I let them reseed themselves outside, but I also gather the seeds to use inside.

I admit I'm going about this process a bit backwards: I've remembered to get my indoor herb garden going because my friend Liz just made a fantastic lasagna variation using lots of fresh basil and I wanted desperately for that basil to have come from my own pots. So, in about a month when the leaves are coming in, I'll make Liz's basil lasagna again. I sort of watched her make it, so this is a combination of her and my versions.

Liz's Basil Lasagna

One box lasagna noodles
about 2 cups ricotta cheese
2 eggs
2 cups blanched chopped spinach (1 box frozen spinach)
1/2 cup chopped basil leaves
1-2 cups mushrooms, sliced and sauteed with salt and pepper
1-2 packages fresh mozarella cheese, grated or thinly sliced
1 cup romano or parmesan cheese, grated
2-3 cups bechamel sauce

for the bechamel sauce (also known as a roux)
Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a heavy pan or pot
Add 4 tablespoons flour, stirring constantly with a wire whisk
Very slowly and stirring constantly, add in 2-3 cups milk (or some combination of milk and cream). The trick is to keep the mixture thick and un-clumpy. To do this, you need to either pout the liquid in a very thin steady stream while you stir, or else add it in about 1/4 cup increments, stirring well between each. If you try to speed this up, your sauce will not thicken right.
Cook, stirring constantly, for 5-10 minutes. It will get slightly thicker.

Mix together the ricotta, spinach, basil, eggs, and 1/2 cup of the grated romano or parmesan.

Spread a thin layer of bechamel sauce on the bottom of a lasagna pan. Then a layer of noodles (unless you're using fast-cooking noodles, you'll have heated water and cooked them up beforehand). Then a layer of ricotta mixture. Then a layer of mushrooms. Then a layer of mozarella. Then a layer of noodles. Then a layer of bechamel sauce.Then a layer of ricotta mixture. Then a layer of mushrooms. Then a layer of mozarella. Then a layer of noodles. Then a layer of bechamel sauce. And finally on top the rest of the grated romano or parmesan.