Round Robin: Growing Basil from Seed and More

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Basil Revolution

Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia–Several years ago, a friend casually mentioned that she was growing ten kinds of basil. I was appalled–not at her, but at myself because I was growing only one kind and having a tough time at that. Somehow, word of the basil revolution had failed to reach me on this backland farm.

The problem is that basil is a tropical plant that needs uninterrupted warmth at all growth stages. I live in a cold, damp northern climate where summer temperatures don’t reach the high 70s or 80s until late July or August. Some summers, it never warms up. That’s great for perennials that bloom longer in cool weather, but little basil seedlings do nothing. They may even visibly shrink into the ground.

Then I made a discovery so obvious that it had eluded me for more than twenty seasons: grow basil in the ­greenhouse.

We built our lean-to greenhouse our second season here with single-paned, secondhand storm windows and scrap barn boards. It may be leaky–which is good in hot weather–but it serves its purpose well, even providing temporary quarters for day-old chicks in the spring. This is where my early seedlings, started inside under grow lights, harden off. Now, after the chicks depart, it’s where I start basil.

I plant the basil seeds directly into old sap-collecting buckets, tubs, and preserving pots filled with a mixture of compost-enriched potting soil, extra perlite for drainage, and vermiculite for holding moisture. This way, I avoid setback from transplanting. People are surprised when I tell them I don’t sow basil seeds until late June, but when raised in the near-tropical conditions of the greenhouse, basil grows far more quickly than it ever did outside.

Having solved the growing problems, I’m trying hard to catch up with the basil revolution. This year, ‘Cinnamon’ joins my indoor basil garden of ‘Green Ruffles’, ‘Purple Ruffles’, ‘Dark Opal’, ‘Red Rubin’, lettuce-leaf, and the best all-purpose, large-leaved sweet basil, ‘Sweet Genovese’. Outdoors I have the fast-growing ‘Spicy Globe’, a stiff little bush with a nutmeg flavor that’s nice in scrambled eggs. By June 1, I sow this basil, sweet marjoram, and salad burnet in a large truck tire that has been turned inside out so that it has a graceful urn shape. Placed beyond the front porch by the kitchen door, this tire herb garden is convenient when I need salad sprigs.

Keeping the basils in a greenhouse all summer has its drawbacks–their beautiful, contrasting foliage can’t be seen in the garden, for one–but there are compensations. Last year, when visitors came in early July to see my herb garden and instead saw an informal planting of Old World flowering herbs beneath the apple tree, I could tell they were a little disappointed. “I didn’t know they were herbs,” they said when I pointed out dame’s rocket, sweet cic­ely, comfrey, and bistort. They cheered up a bit when they saw the truck tire of salad herbs, and as we moved on to the small gardens, they saw the scattered plantings of oreganos, sages, chives, lov­age, costmary, dill, lemon balm, and mints, which they readily identified as “real” herbs.

Finally, I invited my guests into the greenhouse and picked each of them a nosegay of basil including leaves that were sweet, spicy, ruffled, puffed, crisped, smooth, and shades of green and purple. The largest, a lettuce-leaf basil, measured 6 1/2 inches long and 4 1/2 inches wide, a truly stupendous leaf around which all the others were tightly gathered. My visitors’ chorus of “oohs” and “aahs” made me realize then that this experience, above all, would be their lingering memory of my herb garden.

–Jo Ann Gardner

Herbs to Scale

Newberg, Oregon –This month, I succumbed to desire. No, I didn’t buy another herb plant; I bought a garden-scale model railroad. My children will love it, or at least that’s the excuse I gave my wife.

A customer who has a train running through her garden has repeatedly told me I should have one, too. She’s always looking for herbs that will fit the railroad’s scale. Many are quite accommodating, especially the creeping thymes that give the impression of rolling verdant fields. She particularly likes moss thyme (Thymus praecox subsp. arcticus ‘Albus’) because of its rich evergreen color reminiscent of Ireland. Another excellent choice is T. ‘Minus’, which has the smallest leaves of any variety and forms a tight, dark evergreen mat.

I have to remind my enthusiastic children that there is much to do before I can set up the train permanently. I’m going to eliminate everything in my formal herb garden but the original evergreen dwarf boxwood hedge. Soon I’ll have every gardener’s dream–an empty stretch of dirt to work with. This time, I won’t plant any spreaders: no mints or common yarrows, and definitely no costmary. I’ve decided to rebuild and raise the original two center beds to about 2 feet tall. This will make the entire perimeter a bench for the children and will save my knees when I weed and play with the train. This bed also will provide excellent drainage for the more temperamental herbs, including the showier oreganos such as ‘Kent Beauty’ and ‘Barbara Tingey’ and the superbly variegated creeping thyme ‘Highland Cream’, which I often have trouble overwintering.

I’ll select other herbs to be in scale with the train. I don’t want upright rosemary dominating the landscaping like Godzilla, so I’ll leave it and other familiar forms and cultivars of rosemary, lavender, and sage out of the design. Instead, I’ll use prostrate and dwarf varieties such as ‘Alpine Alba’, a white-flowered lavender that gets only 6 inches high, or ‘Little Ness’ santolina, an evergreen with a tight, 5-inch mound of foliage that has yet to flower in the four years I’ve grown it. Because I love the fragrance of clove pinks, I may try the tidy Dianthus ‘Blue Hills’ for its dense, bright blue foliage and plentiful single fuchsia flowers. I’m also eager to try the new Canadian prostrate rosemary ‘Bonnie Jean’, whose dark blue flowers almost completely hide the foliage in spring.

I have no idea when this project will get done, but I envision someday sitting with my wife on the bench, enjoying the apple fragrance of bruised chamomile foliage in the summer air and drinking iced sun tea with sprigs of mint as we contentedly watch our children playing together happily with the garden railway. (Maybe that’s a dream–at least the part about the children playing together happily!)

–Andy Van Hevelingen

Flora and Fauna

Atlanta, Georgia–This time of year, it’s easy to agree with Henry James, who wrote: “Summer afternoon–summer afternoon; to me those words have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”

Summer mornings aren’t so bad either. Soon after sunrise, I hurry out to deadhead the sweet basil before it gets thick with bees. The plants are 3 feet tall now, so I don’t need to bend over very far, and flower removal is a fragrant and enjoyable task. The cool of the morning is also a good time to mix up a pitcher of lemon balm and white wine to steep for lemon balm coolers later in the day.

A pair of American bitterns have taken over Glimmer Pond. They remind me of a dance that I saw a Thai dance group enact earlier this year: a “he-bird” and a “she-bird” dressed in radiant silks, long golden fingernail covers, and elaborate gold-spired headdresses evoked the gawky steps and graceful flight of these long-legged waterbirds. “Our” pair tears up the watercress, eats the most dazzling goldfish, and dive-bombs the dog. We eventually forgave them their impudence because they are wonderful to watch: they seem to be all elbows as they wade through the water.

Our dog’s name is Pepper. Looking back, I realize how bleak and empty my life was before she came to live with us. I wanted to name her Rosemary, but the most herbal name my sons would agree to was Pepper, appropriate as she is a blue-ticked German short-haired pointer (white with a heavy sprinkling of black dots that does indeed look like spilled pepper).

Pepper is an herbal dog. She eats oregano and rolls in pennyroyal–if she’s not rolling in something unmentionable. She buries her finest bone at the base of the armillary sphere in the center of the Shakespeare garden. She chases the bunnies away from the parsley and pansies and the mallards away from the water chestnuts. I groom her with soft branches of rosemary, and I’m crazy about her.

The other day at his herb nursery, The Flowery Branch, my friend Dean Pailler showed me his crop of variegated rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ­’Silver Spires’). One look inspired an immediate need to possess the lovely thing. In 1665, John Rea wrote: “The Gilded and Silvered Rosemaries are in the Sommer months in greatest beauty, and the more they are exposed to the Sunne, the better they will be marked.”

Variegated rosemaries haven’t been available for generations; this one appeared in England in the 1980s as a branch sport on an all-green rosemary. The striking variegation and white edging are consistent throughout the shrub.

–Geraldine Laufer

Summer Memories

Lansing, New York–This is a marvelous time of year. The rock plants on their raised stone beds are making neat little blossom-studded hummocks or tidy clumps. The creeping campanulas are starred with flat gray-blue flowers or dangling garlands of ­violet-blue bells, while the silver yarrows send up small, square-petaled, chalk white daisies.

As I contemplate these delights and the colors in the long perennial ­border from a bench, I’m reminded of the days, back in the 1980s, when I was running a perennial and herb business. I never had time then to sit on a bench; in March, I started propagating perennials, annuals, and herbs in flats that I laid over heating coils under grow lights.

At that time, Americans were just discovering herbs. Plants weren’t yet available in supermarkets and garden centers, so from seed I grew several kinds of basil, Italian parsley, cilantro, summer savory, and chervil, which I potted and sold here and at a farmer’s market. I also grew perennial herbs such as thymes, mints, tarragon, winter savory, sages, costmary, lovage, comfrey, tansy, lavender, lemon balm, and Greek oregano in a nursery bed and dug them on request.

I grew tender perennials from cuttings taken from mother plants that I’d wintered indoors. The lemon verbena looked so ratty after having spent the winter in a cold bay window that it was hard to believe it would ever flourish again, but by April, little green knobs appeared on the bare brown stems, and when I took the cuttings a bit later, they always rooted.

Rosemary rooted easily from cuttings at almost any time of year. I would stick the cuttings into flats filled with peat and sand, and when new leaves appeared, I forked up and potted the cuttings with their new long, stout roots. Myrtle was a bit trickier but generally cooperative; the cuttings became little shrubs, especially pretty when the dark leaves were decorated with creamy white puffball blossoms.

I had a huge bay tree in the parlor from which I took cuttings in February or March, sticking them into a large, deep wooden flat and covering each cutting with a jar. The largest ones I covered with the glass domes used to cover household electric meters. It took some weeks for them to root, but I was patient, and I never lost a cutting.

Primitive and small-scale as these measures may seem, they suited my largely one-woman operation. Even if I could have afforded them, I wouldn’t have wanted to blight the landscape with big plastic greenhouses or noisy machines. I need to have a more personal relationship with my plants.

–Elisabeth Sheldon