Our Urban Herbs

Between grilling ribs, making rare beef jus, tossing pizza dough, and duties as the resident barrista (really, he makes the best macchiatos!), our Culinary Research Assistant Grant Crilly recently discussed one of his other roles at the The Cooking Lab: gardener.

Tell me about the system you set up for growing herbs outside The Cooking Lab.

We plant all of our herbs in burlap coffee bean sacks. You can get them for free from just about any coffee bean roaster. Each bag lasts only for about a season, but they work well for both holding moisture in and for drainage purposes. We put them on pallets, so they don’t rot at the bottom. They’re just regular shipping pallets, but they create a nice circulation underneath the bags.

Tell me about the hoses you have set up for watering.

It’s an automatic drip system, which is set up to drip for 60 minutes every four hours for an 18-hour period throughout the night. You don’t want it to drip during the day because you’ll lose most of the water to evaporation and you can even burn some of the plants on a sunny day.

Do you use any fertilizer?

We use compost. It’s all from Cedar Grove. That’s the local waste management composting company. All of the compostable waste from our building goes to Cedar Grove actually, most of the compostable organic waste from the Seattle area goes to Cedar Grove. They then turn it into actual compost.

You don’t really do much in the way of trimming the plants back, do you?

No, we don’t trim like in a normal garden because we want the blossoms and flowers and everything. We use those. And the bees like them! We just do some general weeding.

The garden is between the Lab’s building and the parking lot, which isn’t a lot of space. Would you say you could do this on, say, an apartment balcony?

Yeah, you can do this anywhere. The nice thing about this system is that you can adjust the size. You can do one bag; you can do a hundred bags. And you can move them around. We used to have garden beds out there, but this system works better because if one plant is done for the season, you can take it out, scrap it, and get a new bag for a different plant to replace it.

Tell me about the cherry tomatoes.

This year has been a rough one for tomatoes in the Pacific Northwest. We grow two types of tomatoes out there: Sweet 100s and Sun Golds.

Some of these herbs I recognize, some I don’t. For instance, I see more than one kind of thyme and basil.

Yeah, there’s a few different types of thyme. There’s a French thyme, and then a lemon thyme. There’s a little bush thyme, but we don’t really use that. The thyme grows like crazy. There are a few different basils, too: a globe basil and a green basil and a purple basil. And then there’s a Pistou, which is a petite basil.

What are some of the more interesting or unusual herbs you grow?

We grow pineapple sage. If you grab it and mush it real quick, it smells like pineapple. Stevia is interesting: it is like pure sugar. It’s the only zero-calorie sugar. It’s super sugary. It’s like eating a whole thing of Bubblicious bubble gum. We grow salsify. We have cute little purple carrots.

You grow chamomile, right?

We used up our Roman chamomile during the last Lab dinner in Max’s sherry reduction for the spot prawns course. Chamomile also has a dry floral component like sherry; they match up really well. Max infuses it in the sauce at the last second. So what you see now, that’s pennyroyal: it looks kind of similar. We use it to flavor broths or serve with fish. It dries on the bud, but we use it fresh or dried. It’s good fresh, but we like to flavor things with the dried pennyroyal.

So, do you really grow enough of each herb to use?

No, we use them for garnishes and stuff like that. We’re not using them for substantial amounts of food. But as a garnish, they bring our dishes a nice freshness.

What are you going to be doing this time of year to prepare for the winter?

Rip everything out, pretty much. Just let it be dirt for a couple of months.

In the springtime, when you put the dirt in a new bag, will you actually dump it out or put the whole bag in a new bag?

You can’t really do that because the bags are so tender, they will start to decompose a little bit. So you have to dump everything out and put it back in there. But you’ll want to do that anyway because you want to rip the old plants out and loosen up the soil. And start over. Get new sacks. Plant new stuff.

Even though some of the herbs would come back?

Yeah, some would, like the mint. Most of the mint and chives are from last year. But it’s getting too out of hand. It’s getting crazy.

So it’s time to restart?