Every spring I plant a number of Vietnamese herbs in my home garden. Purple and green leaf tia to (red perilla) and lemongrass-y kinh gioi (Vietnamese balm) are my favorites. I feed and nurture my perennial rau ram (Vietnamese coriander) so that it will flourish when the summer heat hits.
Tia to and kinh gioi often get buggy when I plant them together so over the years I've learned to space them far apart. Tia to goes into a whiskey barrel and kinh gioi is planted in the ground outside my front door. Every morning, I look at the kinh gioi plant to make sure that it's doing well. This morning, I had a feeling that our local gopher was going to attack the plant. Last year, the gopher ate the plant and I thought it was because it had been mistaken for a volunteer potato plant nearby, which the gopher ate too. I cleared the area this year of the potato but low and behold, there was a scrawny plant that popped up. "What is that thing next to the kinh gioi?" my hubby, Rory, asked yesterday. I saw the potato plant but didn't yank it. This afternoon, Rory awoke from his nap and something looked different outside the living room window. That darn gopher ate both the potato and kinh gioi! The lesson here? Yank the potato and/or plant the herb in a pot! All that's left now is some roughed up soil -- as the photo on the left shows. ARGGHH.
Guess I'll be heading back to the Thien Thanh grocery store in San Jose for another plant. If you're looking for Viet herbs to plant, head to a Vietnamese market and ask. You may even find vendors selling starters right outside the door!
To keep pests away from my Vietnamese herbs, I sprinkle Sluggo -- small white pellets made of natural stuff that won't harm your pets but will keep pesky snails at bay. For bugs that like to gnaw on the heady leaves, I regularly spray the plants with Safer, a safe (get the name?!) insecticidal soap. To nurture the plants, I feed them with Dr. Earth, a fabulous dry fertilizer. Of course, regular watering helps all of these plants.
Harvesting Vietnamese herbs
Pinch them back to get the plants nice and bushy. When harvesting, snip a good sprig so that the plant will bush out instead of get tall and leggy -- which won't yield many leaves. As the plants begin to flower, snip off the flowers to encourage the plants to put energy towards producing leaves, not flowers.
At the end of the season in fall, let the plants flower and go to seed. Collect the seeds and save them or sprinkle them into the soil for next year's crop.
Seed and Plant Sources
I usually go to a Viet market in San Jose called Thien Thanh (455 Keyes Street) and they sell starter plants by the front entrance. If you live near a Viet enclave check the markets in the late spring for plants. If you want to go mail order, try these sources:
- Ever Green Seeds specializes in Asian veggies. Their pepper seed selection makes you weep for joy.
- Since 1917, Kitazawa Seed Company in Oakland, CA, has specialized in Asian vegetable and herb seeds. Among many things, they carry seeds for hojiso -- a Japanese perilla similar to tia to.
- Richter's Herbs from Canada is awesome, but can be slow with delivery. Request a catalog or order online to get things like thorny cilantro (ngo gai) and Vietnamese balm (kinh gioi).
- Baker Heirloom Seeds from Missouri has seeds from all over the world, including Southeast Asia.
- Flora Exotica in Canada lists a wealth of Vietnamese and Asian herbs on their site and will send worldwide, they claim.
For details on Vietnamese herbs (e.g., botanical names, descriptions, photos, and storage tips) visit the Vietnamese Herb Primer page!