Mint - Simple kitchen garden ideas to curry favour with dinner guests

Top chefs will tell you the secret to a great meal is to use the freshest ingredients available. And you can't get fresher, or more available, than your own garden.

With our increasing love for exotic foods, having a ready supply of Asian herbs and other ingredients growing in your garden is a great way to impress the guests at your next dinner party.

And your perfect 'garden' in this case needs to be nothing more than an empty half wine barrel. Available at Awapuni Nurseries or most vineyards, these barrels can be used to grow everything you need for a great Asian curry.

Find a sunny spot for it near the kitchen door, says Awapuni's gardening guru, Tod Palenski, and get planting.

"A great way to start is to plant a grafted Kaffir lime tree in the middle of the barrel," Tod says. "Their dark, glossy leaves are used in lots of Thai dishes and you can use the fruit in place of ordinary limes or lemons in any recipe."

Using a grafted plant ensures the tree grows stronger, but Tod advises to take care when planting to avoid damaging the roots. Before you plant, drill holes in the bottom of the wine barrel so the soil can drain.

He recommends filling the barrel with a good quality potting mix. This will give the tree a great start and provide a good base to under-plant the lime tree with herbs.

"Planting herbs around the base creates a great contrasting foliage and ensures you always have fresh ingredients on hand," he says. "Awapuni Pop'n'Grow herbs are perfect for this because each seedling has its own individual root system. This allows the plants to be easily separated and gives them a greater chance of establishing."

Tod says because the half barrel is a decent size, you can fit in a few different herbs. He recommends coriander as it's easy to grow and is great in all Asian dishes.

"Coriander grows well in full sun in winter and autumn, but you may need to move it before summer to stop it from flowering too early. It also likes a well-drained soil to make sure it doesn't get too wet."

Tod says mint is particularly vigorous, so containing it in a pot or barrel will keep it under control.

"Basil also makes a great addition to the kitchen garden because it's easy to grow, but wait until the weather warms up before planting it."

Most herbs like full sun or partial shade, so move your barrel around to get the best position throughout the year.

If you're keen to expand your range, Tod recommends planting complementary vegetables in the barrel as well.

"Like the Kaffir lime, chillies will grow well in a dry, sunny spot, but wait until late spring to plant them," he says.

"Keep an eye out for Pop'n'Grow Pak Choi as well, it's easy to grow and works well in stir fries and salads. And, if you still have room, give garlic, lemongrass, shallots, spring onions and ginger a try."

Tod says covering any bare soil in the barrel with small stones, pumice or shells will stop your plants from drying out. Garlic, lemongrass, shallots, and grafted lime trees are available at all good gardening stores.

In no time at all you'll have a fresh supply of herbs and vegetables, in an easy-care 'garden', with which to make authentic, delicious Asian dishes.

And having grown your limes and herbs, here's how to use them in an easy-to-prepare Thai chicken salad that will impress your friends.

Just cook chicken pieces in coconut milk, fish sauce and palm sugar, then make a dressing using sweet chilli sauce and kaffir lime juice. Shred the chicken, and toss with salad leaves, water chestnuts, onions, ginger, chilli and a handful each of chopped mint and coriander leaves. Stir in the dressing and serve garnished with chopped peanuts and extra herbs.

It's also really easy to make your own curry paste. Just throw garlic, ginger, green chillies, Kaffir lime leaves, coriander and lemongrasss into a food processor with cashew nuts, brown sugar, ground tumeric, Kaffir lime juice and fish sauce. You can use the paste to make curry or laksa or as a marinade.

Sound good? Well throw away those ancient packets of dried herbs gathering dust in your cupboards and start afresh with a wine barrel and some gardening inspiration.

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