I love fresh herbs, but buying them drives me up the wall. The number of times I’ve left the store with a new batch of basil, only to strip off the packaging and find it half wilted—infuriating! Add to that the guilt of throwing out perfectly leafy specimens because I couldn’t use them up fast enough before they turned to mush (or grew mold), and you’ve got a great recipe for kitchen misery.
So I started growing my own herbs. There’s nothing quite like handpicking leaves for a pizza, soup, or iced beverage. With just a balcony or sunny window, the season’s ample sunshine will give your seedlings a good start in supplying with fresh herbs throughout the year.
As the weather warms, you can enjoy cocktails and water infusions with these five herbs easily grown at home, whether in your backyard, out on your balcony, or right on your kitchen counter.
Mint is a popular choice for new growers, as it grows quickly and prolifically. In fact, it’s so bountiful that gardeners usually recommend growing it in pots, so it doesn’t take over an entire garden bed. Most garden centers will carry seedlings, but the easiest and cheapest way to grow mint is from a live cutting. Indoors, place your mint where it can get lots of bright indirect sunlight, though it will tolerate shade. Use a well-draining potting mix and water generously, but allow the top inch of soil to dry out between waterings (you can test this with your finger or a chopstick). Nutritionally, mint presents a great list of benefits, and has long been used in treating pain, upset stomach, skin irritation, and the dreaded bad breath.
Add 6 mint leaves to a highball glass with 3/4 ounce of simple syrup and gently muddle them to release the essential oils and compounds—it doesn't take more than a couple of solid hits, no need to grind them. Squeeze in half a lime and fill your glass to two-thirds with crushed ice. Add a shot of rum (white or dark depending on your preference), top up with soda water, and stir. Garnish with a sprig of mint and a slice of lime. Make it a mocktail: Skip the rum and adjust the soda water to taste.
Water Infusion: Ginger, Mint, & Lemon
Steep sliced or shredded ginger in a little hot water. Leave to cool before pouring into your jar or pitcher. Add mint leaves and gently crush them with a muddler. Add a few slices of lemon and fill to half with crushed ice. Top up with cold water, cover, and leave in fridge to steep for at least 2 hours.
Known as the “King of Herbs”, basil has a long and widespread history across Europe and Asia, with flavors and aromas that range from anise-like to sweet and lemony. Basil is a summer herb, loving lots of sunshine and heat, so ensure your pot lives in a sunny spot. Plant in a rich and well-draining potting mix, and keep the soil moist but not soggy. If you're a coffee drinker, you can lightly sprinkle grounds into the soil every few weeks for a homemade nitrogen-rich fertilizer. During the hotter months, you’ll need to pinch off new flower buds to maintain sweetness in the leaves.
Cocktail: Summer Mary
Squeeze half a lemon into a glass with a dash of Tabasco sauce plus 5-7 drops of Worcestershire sauce. Take a handful of basil leaves and clap them a few times between your palms to release their scent. Add to the mix and muddle. Fill a tall glass to half with ice, add a shot of vodka and 4 tablespoons of tomato purée. Top up with soda water and stir. Garnish with a slice of lemon and an olive. Make it a mocktail: Just leave out the vodka.
Water Infusion: Lemon, Basil, & Cucumber
Layer the bottom of a pitcher with sliced lemon, sliced cucumber and muddled basil leaves. Add crushed ice to half-full, then top up with cold water. Cover and leave in fridge to steep for at least 2 hours.
Thyme is an excellent source of vitamin C, and a good source of vitamin A, fiber, riboflavin, iron, copper, and manganese. With the quantities normally consumed in a cocktail, however, we get more value out of its herby flavor and heady fragrance. As thyme is a Mediterranean herb, it’s accustomed to a dry climate, so plant it in sandy soil in a clay pot and water very generously, allowing the pot to dry out before watering again. Set your thyme in a spot that gets bright indirect sunlight, and simply snip off small amounts as you need them.
Cocktail: Lime & Thyme Vodka Soda
Mix a teaspoon of sugar with juice from half a lime, and stir until the sugar dissolves. Add a few sprigs of thyme and muddle. Add a shot of vodka and shake to mix (if you don’t have a cocktail shaker, a lidded jar will do). Strain over a short glass filled three-quarters with ice, and top with soda water. Garnish with fresh sprigs of thyme. Make it a mocktail: Skip the vodka and replace the fizzy water with nonalcoholic ginger beer.
Water Infusion: Iced Lemon Thyme Green Tea
Combine one part thyme with three parts loose leaf green tea. Steep for 1 minute, then allow to cool. Add lemon juice to taste (typically a small wedge of lemon per glass is enough) and serve with ice.
04. Coriander / Cilantro
Coriander leaves (cilantro) taste best when freshly harvested—unless you’re predisposed to disliking it (some claim it tastes like soap), in which case, you'll skip this altogether. This herb is relatively easy for new gardeners to grow. Pick a bright spot with indirect or patchy sunlight. Morning light is the best for cilantro, as too much heat and sunshine shortens its life cycle. You can grow cilantro from seeds quite easily, but as the leaves need time to mature, you’ll find a better head start if you purchase sprouted seedlings instead. Plant in well-draining potting mix and water enough to keep the soil moist without being soaked. If your plant pot sits in a tray, empty it out after watering so the roots don’t sit in a pool of liquid.
Cocktail: Spicy Lime Cilantro Gin & Tonic
Muddle a small wad of torn cilantro leaves in the juice of half a lime. Add a dash of Tabasco sauce plus a half shot of gin and shake to mix (without ice, as you're making a sort of cordial). Strain over ice in a short glass and top up with tonic water. Garnish with a wedge of lime. Make it a mocktail: Use juniper bitters instead of gin to achieve the same flavor. Start with a single dash and taste as you go.
Water Infusion: Blood Orange & Cilantro
Layer the bottom of a pitcher with blood orange slices and torn cilantro leaves. Muddle lightly and add crushed ice to half-full. Top with cold water and leave in fridge to steep for at least 2 hours. Serve with a twist of lime.
Lavender is a hardy plant that loves the sun and can tolerate a little dryness. Unfortunately, this makes it tricky to grow indoors unless your spot for it gets a lot of light. Choose a well-drained potting mix and a pot with holes in the bottom, so the roots don’t become waterlogged. Place it in a sunny spot and rotate every few days to get balanced sun exposure on all sides of the plant. Water regularly, but allow the top of the soil to dry out between waterings. Your lavender should bloom in the summer if it’s getting enough light. If not, consider giving it a little time outside.
Cocktail: Lavender-Infused Vodka Lemonade
Not a quick cocktail if you’re starting from scratch, but a big batch of lavender-infused vodka will ensure you have enough supply on hand for weeks. Steep muddled lavender leaves and flowers in vodka for up to a week, then strain the liquid into a bottle—freshly infused lavender vodka! Add one shot to a glass of iced lemonade and enjoy. Make it a mocktail: Use store-bought or homemade lavender syrup instead of vodka.
Water Infusion: Berry & Lavender
Toss mixed berries and lavender into iced water and leave in fridge to steep. Enjoy cold or with crushed ice.
Growing your own herbs is a fun and rewarding hobby that ensures your ingredients are grown under the conditions you find acceptable, free from pesticides you don’t want ending up in your body. It’s hard to say whether food actually tastes better if you grow it yourself, but it certainly offers a deeper appreciation for the love and care involved. #worthit