Plant Thai food
Photo - photolibrary.com
We love to plan our vegetable beds around dinner, so we grow a pizza-patch, a ratatouille garden, and our current favourite, a Thai takeaway.
This is a hot-spot of the herbs, spices, vegetables and fruits that go into favourites such as tom yum soup and Thai beef salad. Here we offer tips for a scaled-down version that is, in the tradition of Thai takeaway puns, Thairiffic!
Some Thai ingredients are easy to come by, chilli and garlic, for instance. But others, like galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime, are harder to hunt down. Yet they are easy to grow and it’s just a delight to harvest your own ingredients for your favourite Thai dishes. Spring is planting time for a Thai garden.
Thai herbs, spices, fruit and vegetables are at home in a tropical and subtropical climate, so in a temperate or cool climate find a spot in the garden with a warm, frost-free microclimate. A north-westerly location is good, especially if it offers reflected heat from a wall, and a position under eaves diminishes frost impact. Before planting add organic compost and manures to improve the nutrient content of the soil and mound up the soil for maximum drainage.
Galangal, ginger and tumeric
Galangal (kah) is used in curry pastes and in soups such as tom yum and tom kha gai, and is also sliced up for use in salads. Ginger (king) is used in many different dishes. It's spicier than galangal though young ginger (king on) has a more subtle flavour than mature ginger. Tumeric has a vibrant orange colour and earthy flavour and is used in curries.
These root spices can be grown from pieces called setts (small rhizomes). You can buy them from Green Harvest, or simply use pieces of root you have bought from the greengrocer. Select fresh, plump pieces with one or two well-developed ‘eyes’ or growth buds. The buds look like little horns at the end of a piece or finger. Soak the rhizomes in water overnight to speed up growth.
Choose a light planting position without direct sun, protected from wind. In temperate zones the best planting time is late winter/early spring and in the true tropics plant late in the dry season/early wet season. I planted stumpy pieces of tuber 10cm beneath the soil and watered daily to emulate tropical monsoon weather, and they sprouted eight weeks later.
Plants will grow to 60cm and towards the end of summer will start to die back. Reduce watering at this stage, (you can even let the ground dry out) as this encourages the development of rhizomes. Once all the leaves have died down ginger and galangal are ready for harvest. Break up the rhizomes, select a few with good growing buds to replant straight away, and cook with the rest, or freeze for later. Turmeric can be harvested 9 to 10 months after planting: the lower leaves turning yellow or stems drying and falling over are indications of maturity. It is possible for the home gardener to just dig carefully at the side of a clump and remove rhizomes as needed rather than harvesting the whole clump, though as with all herbaceous perennials, turmeric clumps need to be broken up and fresh pieces planted every three or four years.
Lemongrass (ta khrai) is used in soups, salads and curries. I bought two different varieties from Green Harvest: the common ‘East Indian’ which has smaller stems; and the far superior ‘West Indian’ which has grown into a super-sized 1.5m plant with succulent lower stems. Lemongrass is adapted to hot wet summers and dry warm winters, is drought-tolerant and will grow on a wide range of soils but prefers rich, moist loams. It dislikes wet feet. If it is damaged by frost in cooler areas, the tops should not be cut until all danger of frost has passed. This helps to protect the centre of the plant from further cold damage.
Mint and coriander
These two shade-loving herbs grow well under plants such as ginger and galangal and kaffir l
ime. Common mint will spread rapidly but Vietnamese mint will grow into a medium-sized bush. Coriander grows best through winter and spring, and will usually reseed in the same spot year after year.
Thai basil and chilli
These two love the sunshine. Thai basil (bai horapha) has an aniseed flavour, and is added at the end of cooking to curries, stir-fries and noodle soups. It does not freeze or dry well, so small amounts should be picked as needed. Regular picking will encourage new growth. Sow chilli in spring in temperate and subtropical areas; sow all year in the tropics. Sow the seed 6 mm deep into seedling pots in spring, use liquid fertiliser once germinated and transplant when all danger of frost has passed and the soil is warm. Space plants 40-50 cm apart in full sun, in rich soil and stake. Plants generally reach about 60cm in height. Keep well fertilised and watered. Avoid high-nitrogen fertilisers as these will promote leaf growth at the expense of fruit.